November 6, 2002

Teach-in Focuses on Finance Reform

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Around 75 students gathered in Uris Auditorium for yesterday’s Teach-In held by Democracy Matters. The event, entitled “Is our Democracy Accountable to the People?,” dealt mainly with the issue of campaign finance reform. It featured short talks by four panelists followed by questions from the audience.

The four panelists included Dr. Joan Mandle, executive director of Democracy Matters; Prof. Richard Baer, natural resources; Prof. Walter Mebane, government; and Prof. Theodore Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions. Each spoke for roughly seven minutes.

Lowi began the discussion by asking exactly who “the people” were. He mentioned three forces of accountability: “mass power,” “group power,” and “power by numbers.” These represent popular opinion, special interest groups and actual electorates. The problem of accountability arises from conflicts between these groups.

“We want [the politicians] accountable, and we think they ought to be accountable to people who help get them elected, but that conflicts with their accountability to their district,” Lowi said. His position was that the main problems were campaign contributions from sources outside of the represented area, districts that were too diverse to be easily represented as a group, and party politics.

“The issue of power is really the question that’s being gotten at when you discuss issues of accountability,” Mandle said.

She discussed the issue of campaign financing in terms of current events, including the New York State gubernatorial race — which appears to be the second most expensive non-presidential race ever — as well as the possible war on Iraq. She cited that senators who voted in favor of action in Iraq had, on average, received 12 times as much in contributions from the oil industry as those who opposed it.

She also discussed how campaign spending policies make it harder for women to be elected, as it is traditionally harder for them to raise funding.

“I think that we don’t have what we would call a functioning democracy,” she said. She defined democracy as a government where “each citizen has an equal opportunity to influence the laws and policies that elected officials adopt.”

Prof. Baer challenged the focus on campaign finance reform. His concern lay more with “the enormous lack of diversity of ideas [at universities] when it comes to social and political issues.” As example, he mentioned the fact that there is only one declared conservative in Cornell’s government department.

Advocating the voucher system for education, and a return to more discussion of “normative” Christian and Jewish beliefs in schools, he said “we don’t just need campaign finance reform. We need to challenge the way in which certain ideologies have come to dominate in America.”

Mebane, who is also the faculty advisor to Democracy Matters, discussed the Florida controversy from Election 2000, and the decline in voter turnout. Contrary to popular belief, “it’s not that people are running away from the political system,” Mebane said. Instead, the lower percentage of voter turnout has been influenced by an increase in the numbers of non-citizens and felons who are no longer eligible to vote.

Other issues were brought up by the audience during the question period. These included school funding, campaign spending caps and media bias in covering politics. Mandle offered one solution to the issue of campaign finance reform through publicly financed campaigns. In these campaigns, a candidate agrees not to raise any private funds, and in return is given money from public funds to run his or her campaign.

This approach is already being used in Maine and Arizona. As Mandle put it, “If somebody has to own politicians, it should be the people.”

Audience response to the teach-in was positive; those present seemed truly interested and occasionally broke into applause at the speakers comments. “I thought it was really interesting,” said Laura Finkelstein ’03. “There were a lot of different attitudes which was nice. I liked that the conservative perspective was included.”

Others were not as happy with the program. “I think the issue of self-financed millionaires was largely ignored … it’s detrimental to society and should be addressed,” said Jonah Green ’06.

Zachary Hollander ’04, campus director of Democracy Matters, enjoyed the active debate interaction during the question and answer period. He was also pleased by the turnout received.

“We obviously can’t expect a thousand people, but I’m really happy about the response we got,” he said.

Campus Coordinator Barin Nahvi ’03 also commented on the program’s success. “I was really pleased that we had a conservative voice in with the traditional liberal viewpoint,” Nahvi said.

Democracy Matters is a non-partisan student organization dedicated to “educating others about present infringements upon democracy … as well as possible alternatives.” Their future plans include a coordinated effort with the Alliance for Better Campaigns to support the “Free Air Time” campaign, as well as talking to government classes at local high schools.

Archived article by Courtney Potts