In conjunction with several other student activist groups at Geneseo, Democracy Matters raised important issues about the future of democracy in New York during its rally on Friday March 28. Due to limitations in goals and methods, however, events like the rally fail to provide a meaningful way forward for Geneseo students to ensure a truly inclusionary democratic political system.
The rally was held as “a hopeful attempt to reach out to students, faculty and the population in Geneseo about public election inequality,” in the words of Democracy Matters Treasurer junior David Liggera.
Liggera described this inequality as being a result of corporations, lobbyists and individual elites to which politicians are beholden for funds. Because of the need for campaign funds, politicians are forced to conform to the wants of the elite instead of their constituents’ needs.
I certainly agree that lobbying and corruption are rampant in New York’s state – and even local – politics.
But an appeal to the very same politicians that receive substantial contributions – in effect an appeal to their corporate, lobby and plutocrat donors – to ensure democratic elections is like kindly asking the fox to stop guarding the henhouse.
Moreover, the rally was critically in need of substance. For every speaker, there was a poet from the Geneseo Poet Society and a performance group. The poets and the speakers got five minutes each while the groups got 15. This means that for each five-minute meaningful speech, there were 20 minutes of entertainment.
While many of the acts were enjoyable – I especially liked Overly Sexual American Girls – I’m not sure how much they contibuted to the rally. It was, after all, a rally to promote democracy, not an open-mic event.
According to the Facebook event, the participants’ goal in the rally was “to get our “voice[s] heard by [our] representatives,” with the aim of getting a public financing law incorporated into the budget.
Such a law would use public money to give candidates financial support they would normally see from corporations. This would be given to candidates that pass minimal requirements for viability, itself a massive hurdle for third parties. They would also receive funds in proportion to the small donations they receive from individuals.
The budget that the state legislature passed on Tuesday April 1 incorporated only a “test pilot” program of public campaign financing and only for the comptroller election.
Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group pointed out that Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t include the gubernatorial race in the reform, while Cuomo has already raised $33 million for his re-election campaign.
Again, kindly asking the fox to stop guarding the henhouse.
This law doesn’t even approach limited electoral reform, which would have to include checks on corporate spending, spending caps and donation caps.
Even if comprehensive finance reform is passed, those with money always ensure their voice is heard loud and clear in politics. In an increasingly stratified society where a handful of business owners can amass obscene wealth, money will always find its way into politics.
Students at Geneseo need to express their support for democracy without appealing to corrupt politicians on either side of the aisle. Instead, they need to tackle the real issue: systemic economic inequality.
Lawmakers in Albany recently agreed on a budget proposal that partially funds Fair Elections in New York State. I feel that this decision brings to light two major questions: understanding why the decision matters and what we can hope to learn from it.
Let me begin to try to answer these questions as a daughter and a friend, rather than as a social justice activist. I deeply believe in the right for all people to be heard. I am the sort of person who will go out of her way – dropping academic and social commitments – to listen to people who are having a difficult day.
It truly fills my heart to listen to people who are lonely, to exchange stories with those who are struggling to find their paths in life and to express solidarity with those who struggle to find purpose and meaning in their relationships. I do this because at the end of the day, I know that my interactions with others reflect much more about who I am as a person than any – and I mean any – academic pursuit.
So what does my sensitive nature have to do with Fair Elections? Why get political about my feelings when I could just as well sit and comfort my friends behind closed doors? Well, it’s because I know that my friends are not the only ones who need someone to listen to them. I repeat: my compatriots at Geneseo are not the only ones who feel unheard or that they lack agency. The 19 million residents of New York State need someone to care about their issues and concerns.
That is why a more equitable election system – one that encourages its candidates not to amass money, but instead amass a series of constituent concerns – is the only way to ensure that our state government harbors and facilitates open discussions about the issues that plague its supporters.
Let’s face it: healthy debate and discussion regarding issues like education, poverty, the environment and military spending simply do not occur when the only ones who can afford to campaign for office are those receiving massive donations.
We need people to run for office who are deeply committed to representing their constituents – whether they agree with them personally or not. We need a fairer election system to allow for honest, hard-working, and not necessarily well-off political candidates to run for office so that our state government may more accurately reflect our diversity of opinions. We need a political system that is not obsessed with the accumulation or loss of wealth for politicians. We need a system that speaks “people,” not “money.”
Fair Elections are not the only – nor are they the ultimate – solution to this “big-money-in-politics” problem. They are just one part in the government’s slow process of stopping, turning around, and looking at us – their constituents – in the face. Fair Elections are only one small step toward extending a listening ear to the people of New York State.
Finally, let us agree that the government cannot sit and listen all day long to its people; at some point it has to go out and make decisions for itself. But if the government – much like myself – was made for one purpose, it is to act as an honest, willing and compassionate body in our community. In order to do that, we all must be willing to stop and listen a little bit more every day.