Over the past six months, I have had the opportunity to talk to people of all ages and backgrounds as I run to serve in Congress. While jobs and the economy are always top of mind, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with elected officials and the political system. At some point, the amount of money that goes into politics always creeps its way into the conversation.
I was reminded again of this fact as college students started working with my campaign. These are hardworking, dedicated, smart and passionate individuals who want to bring change to their communities and make a difference. Yet, even amongst these engaged students, one thing became clear as they answered some questions for our blog: Money in politics is disenfranchising an entire generation.
I asked each of these students, "If there was one thing you could change about politics, what would it be?" Many things are top of mind for me as a voter and candidate, but most of the answers from the group were the same:
"If I could change one thing about politics, it would be the money in politics."
"If I could change one thing about politics, I would change how corrupt the whole political process is. At present, a lot of corporations and unions donate to politicians and political candidates in order to sway votes. The amount of power a person has in the political realm really depends on how much money they have, which is unacceptable."
"There are many issues that face young Americans today, and some experienced politicians are simply not in touch with those issues, or even the concerns of the average American."
"If I could change one thing about politics, it would be the way that campaigns are funded and the way that money influences the actions of politicians."
"If I could change one thing about politics, I think I would like to change the lawmaking process and the funding that goes into politics."
This surprised me at first. Campaign finance reform is not normally seen as a sexy issue or the first thing one would advance as the one thing they might change.
Walking a few days later to meet voters, I ran into a 19 year old and tried to engage him in my campaign. He told me that it didn't matter. As someone who is passionate about civic engagement beyond running for office, I pushed back a little on his position. His response was pretty frank: "I have no job, I have no money, so that pretty much means I have no voice."
We cannot forget that we have a generation who finds themselves economically disenfranchised. The post-2008 economy does not provide the same employment opportunities for those 18-24 years old. Many of those in this age cohort feel as if though they bought into a myth, that if you work hard, you will get ahead. Or perhaps, if you go to college and study hard, you will find yourself a job post-graduation. With a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent, this once reality for this age cohort seems elusive. While unemployment and economic challenges are not unique to this group, it is impacting their future prospects for economic engagement, and, I fear, political engagement.
The millennial generation, particularly, doesn't identify with who they see in Congress or many legislative bodies for that matter. They are exposed to a political system for the first time that seems like now more than ever, money is the primary driver of any action. Since this generation is not in the position to vote with their dollars, they are having a hard time finding or even justifying having a place in our democracy.
When a sizable portion of the population finds themselves without economic and political prospects, we lose the hope that we are inspiring this next generation to take the lead. Campaign finance reform is not just about some esoteric regulation: it is about maintaining citizen-centered democracy.