Written by Asha Merz
My name is Asha Merz, I am 15 years old, and I am interning with Common Cause Connecticut this summer. It still sounds strange, even to me, hearing that string of phrases together. Most people assume that 15 is too young to produce good work or handle responsibility. I was definitely intimidated at first, but the experience I have gained at Common Cause has been very valuable to me in seeing firsthand how to counteract money in politics at the state level. Through relating my experience to my cohort, I hope to inspire a whole army of teens to care about what I regard to be the seminal issue that will define our quality of life in years to come.
My generation is notoriously naive and self-obsessed- either too involved in our own issues or other, petty things like the latest fashion trend or the newest technological gadget. I have experienced this firsthand, even at my own high school. The lack of participation and engagement on important political issues like campaign finance reform is astounding. Don’t get me wrong – we have our fair share of environmentalists, human rights activists, animal rights advocates- the list goes on and on. But I have noticed that none of these people seem to even consider that the issues surrounding campaign finance reform effect — and even define the fights for — the things they most care about. The financial value of many of the largest corporations, and heaviest contributors to political campaigns, is larger than the GNP of many nations. And their interests directly conflict with the interests of our citizens — clean air, clean water, living with dignity, and treating animals humanely.
One recurring thought that I hear from kids my age is that they “want to be heard” and “want to make a difference”. Because of the way our nation’s democracy works, the most effective way to do this is for the average person to vote for leaders that promise to focus on the things they care about. But as long as big money rules campaigns, elected officials will be captive to big money’s interests and will always legislate to the needs of their “owners” rather than the people who elected them. On every single issue. And after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, there is no limit to the amount of money these corporation can spend on politics because the Supreme Court has deemed that political spending remains protected as “free speech” and that corporations have the same rights as people in exercising their free speech.
How can the average person make a difference if their supposedly “equally weighed” vote is being overshadowed by the special interests of big money companies? The average person does not own a multi-billion dollar corporation and cannot give millions to a candidate to guarantee a policy favor once the candidate is in office. If the elections continue the way they are at the present, the average citizen’s voice will not be heard. The environmentalists will not get their fair say and will have little influence over legislators who will do what it takes to continue to get reelected in the short run, even if it irrevocably harms the environment, or even all of us, in the long run. The best antidote to the power of money is an informed and active citizenry. In the end, the political candidate still needs the masses to vote for him/her, and if we can become informed and empowered, we can collectively fight back.
This sad, but accurate truth must be spread. My generation has to hear this, or else they will continue to think that campaign finance reform doesn’t concern them. That is why I take every opportunity possible to spread my knowledge about these issues, to try to alert my generation to what is actually happening. Working with Common Cause has broadened my understanding of these issues immensely and helped me deepen my understanding of how we can make a difference: get people to register to vote, help them vote, help them understand the policy issues and how it affects them, work for clean elections and become informed consumers of the corporations that clothe and feed us. I hope to use this knowledge to the best of my ability and attempt to educate every young person I meet who falsely believes that change is not possible. It reminds me of my favorite childrens’ book growing up: Swimmy, written by Leo Lionni. When all the little fish band together to swim in formation, they become as big as the largest, most intimidating fish, and are able to scare predators away and swim in whatever direction they choose to go.