Colgate University Prof. Adam Weinberg, sociology, co-founder of the national Democracy Matters organization, addressed students in a full Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium yesterday about the importance of campaign finance reform.
According to its mission statement, Democracy Matters is a national “non-partisan organization concerned about … the corrupting influence of private money in American government.”
By introducing Cornell students to the issue, Weinberg’s visit also served as a means to stimulate interest in the Cornell’s newly formed chapter of Democracy Matters, the president of the University chapter said.
In his speech, Weinberg presented a five-fold argument about why private wealth weakens democracy. He first argued that “politicians depend on the wealthy funders instead of the constituents,” citing the recent New York senate race as an example.
He stated that with private funding, “the ability to run isn’t based on ideas; it’s based on wealth.”
He denounced the fact that ordinary citizens are “locked out of the system” because they cannot afford a campaign.
Next, he discussed the issue of politicians spending too much time — he estimated as much as 50 percent — raising money instead of understanding the issues.
Another argument dealt with the decline of voter faith. Weinberg stated that roughly only 18 percent of college students vote, a 15 percent decrease from the 1970s. He explained that many students fail to vote “because they think that candidates are bought and sold.”
In his final argument, Weinberg said that corporations’ contributions essentially eliminate competition in elections because their support will decide which issues are raised.
He concedes that some tax breaks for corporate contributions are necessary, but in the end, the returns they receive for their investments translate into weakened democracy.
In addition to outlining the problem, Weinberg detailed possible solutions. He emphasized the importance of public financing and relayed that in places where such policies have been implemented, “more people ran, more people voted, and more people were aware of the issues.”
Also, the races themselves “had greater diversity and were contested.”
He then described the success of the “Clean Money, Clean Elections” system in both Maine and Arizona in which more members of the communities contributed smaller amounts of money to the campaign which had an “equalizing” effect.
Weinberg concluded his discussion by stressing the importance of student involvement in the cause. He views students as the “linchpins” in establishing change.
“This is an issue that is probably the defining issue in regards to deepening democracy … the Cornell group is one of the most visible and impressive groups for this cause,” he said.
Michael Schwalbe ’02, president and campus coordinator of the Cornell chapter of Democracy Matters, added that one of the group’s goals is to help “students to learn how their issues relate to the issue of Democracy Matters.”
Interested members of the Cornell community can look forward to four different projects throughout the year — one aimed at high school, one at raising awareness on campus, one aimed to campaign for municipal level reform in Ithaca, and one targeted at the state level.
Archived article by Shalini Saxena