Fifty years in civics class, I learned about how our democracy worked. I learned about our founding leaders, the three branches of the federal government, our state government in New Jersey, and our local government in Paramus. I learned how I could (and should) participate by voting and by learning about and campaigning for leaders that I thought were in line with my values.
Nowhere in those lessons did anyone mention that in order to be heard I needed to have a lot of money. And that every time a politician or special interest group or political action committee wants my opinion, they also want me to donate money. It has become overwhelming. People now receive solicitations from national senate and representative campaigns from all over the country–not just their own districts. (Note that although political candidates from all over the nation and state ask me for money, I do not have the privilege of sending them messages through their government email. I may only correspond with the officials who represent me in my districts.)
This political carnival is truly breathtaking and brutal on one’s email inbox, wallet, and psyche. I am glad that I have opted out of carrying around a smartphone that instantly alerts me to email. A friend was visiting recently and her phone went off constantly with email messages. She is a self-employed entertainer, and at first I figured she needed to keep abreast of job opportunities, but finally she confided that most of the messages were political junk mail. She was weary of it.
So am I. My inbox is littered with messages, and if I take the time to sign a petition or give my opinion, my reward is not pride of having participated in democracy, but another email in my inbox requesting yet another donation.
This “pay to play” approach is even more pernicious than the Citizens United. The persistent wearing away of the public’s desire to participate in political issues is more dangerous than “money equals speech.” Why? Because as people weary of the sideshow aspect of politics, they will cease to participate.
How many times can I donate $10? Doesn’t seem like much, but if you add up the requests, you can easily shell out hundreds of dollars a week. And each request makes it sound as if your measly $10 is the break point to turn around the political machine. Seriously, I doubt it. Is the point that if I am willing to donate, then my voice is stronger? Shame on anyone who thinks that—most of all a politician who makes me feel guilty if I don’t pony up. My willingness to part with money is not an indication of how strongly I believe in something.
How many email lists can I reasonably be on before my brain is depleted of passion and energy? At some point we will become so numb to the commercialized political process that we will refuse to participate and our enthusiasm will dissipate.
Such a decision, though, will be at our peril. Putting our heads in the sand endangers democracy more than powerful leaders with unlimited funds. Perhaps we do not have enough money to combat the rumbling political machines, but we have something better. Although we may be single, sometimes disenfranchised, voters we have the ability to organize and to speak. We can make our voices heard without PACs or organizations that are constantly begging for handouts.
We can mobilize ourselves to take action in our own communities—the old fashioned way, through face-to-face communication. We can start our own political revolutions and stand up for what we believe without “dialing for dollars.”
Social media is terrific and has made it more efficient to spread messages, but the machines needed to run these huge, national fund raising and advertising campaigns are sucking the life out of democracy.
I look forward to the "change."