March 12, 2004

Colgate Dean Advocates Reform

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About 30 students gathered last night to hear Democracy Matters co-founder Adam Weinberg speak on topics ranging from campaign finance reform to civic activism amongst college students. Weinberg, the current dean of the College at Colgate University, was invited by the Cornell chapter of Democracy Matters, of which he is also the national secretary.

“I want to puzzle around the general issue of what we mean by democracy in the United States. I want to talk a lot about why many people believe that democracy is in such a state of disarray. I want to talk about what the bright spots of democracy are in the USA,” said Weinberg in his introduction.

Weinberg said that as elections became increasingly based on the amount of money candidates can raise rather than personal interaction with their constituents, candidates know less and less about the issues being presented.

“Politicians in the United States have come to believe, over the last thirty years, that whoever has the most amount of money is going to win,” he said. “And guess what? More often then not, they’re right.”

Weinberg said that the vast majority of winners in senatorial and house races were the candidates with the most money. He felt that this current system was set against a truly democratic system.

“Ordinary people have been locked out of the political process in the United States,” he said. “In this country, it’s really your access to wealth that precedes and predetermines whether you can run for political office.”

Weinberg said that the need for money has forced politicians to focus on the wealthiest donors in order to have a successful campaign. As an example, he discussed environmental concerns.

“The vast majority of Americans say they want more environmental protection … and yet, over time, we are doing worse and worse [about protecting the environment],” Weinberg said.

“I would argue, and a lot of other people would argue, that in the post-9/11 era we need politicians learning more about the issues,” he said, adding that as congress members spend fifty percent of their time raising money, few understand the issues as well as they should.

“What does it mean for the state of a democracy if people have already given up on it by the age of 22 or 23?” Weinberg asked. “They don’t vote because they didn’t think it will make a difference.”

He also argued against the idea that it doesn’t matter which candidate will win and that change isn’t possible. Weinberg cited the improvements in the South that he had seen first-hand since the 70s as evidence that things do indeed change.

Throughout his speech, Weinberg attacked what he saw as anti-democratic moves from a number of sources, including Republicans, Democrats and the Green Party. Speaking on Kerry’s presidential bid, Weinberg criticized the special interest groups which sponsored anti-Bush advertisements while claiming not to be working for Kerry’s election.

“If it looks like a goat, and smells like a goat, then guess what?” he asked. “It’s part of Kerry’s campaign.”

Weinberg went on to emphasize that college students could still make a huge difference in the world through politics. “For those of you who are cynical and say nothing can change,” he said, “it simply isn’t true. You can make a difference.”

He cited recent reforms in Maine, which now has a public financing system for candidates.

“Guess what happened in Maine?” Weinberg asked. “People actually started paying attention to the political process.”

A more diverse candidate field, created when the monetary barrier is removed, allows candidates to focus more on issues important to the constituency, Weinberg argued.

Weinberg also addressed the diversity of thought on college campuses. Although colleges are doing great work on educating youth, he said, they no longer teach the traditional values of citizenship that used to make up a core part of the curriculum. He said that colleges had become results-oriented and overly concerned with job placement, that traditional values were often sidelined in favor of more tangible results.

“Intellectual diversity on college campuses is virtually kaput,” he said. “How do you turn it around? We need to shift what we do on college campuses … we need to think of ourselves as groups.”

Weinberg felt that the individualism found on campuses takes away from the sense of civic responsibility college students once took for granted.

Josh Rubin ’06, Democracy Matters’ campus director, felt that the talk went well.

“A lot of times you are ready to jump to judgment [on students],” he said. Weinberg’s approach to making elections more contested through reform, Rubin said, was effective in drawing students from different backgrounds.

“I’ve heard great things about the work he’s been doing at Colgate,” Rubin said. “And he’s a real supporter of the organization in general.”

Zachary Hollander ’04 had similar praise for the speaker.

“He really speaks on our level, which I think is great,” he said. “He touches on the core issues … and he acknowledges the fact that students do care and students are active, and I think that’s the most important point to make.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy