In 1787, Virginia statesman George Mason opposed the final draft of the Constitution, in part because he feared that the document failed to encourage "a fellow feeling" between elected officials and the people whom they were to represent. He wrote:
In the House of Representatives, there is not the Substance, but the Shadow only of Representation; which can never produce proper Information in the Legislature, or inspire Confidence in the People: the Laws will therefor be generally made by Men little concerned in, and unacquainted with their Effects and Consequences. ... This Government will commence in a moderate Aristocracy; it is at present impossible to foresee whether it will, in its Operation, produce a Monarchy, or a corrupt oppressive Aristocracy; it will most probably vibrate some years between the two, and then terminate in the one or the other.
Although Mason's concerns regarding an impending monarchy have proven unwarranted, we must take pause and consider the latter option -- the threat of aristocracy.
Do the People Have the Power?
Like Mason two centuries ago, many citizens worry that today's politicians are driven not by the needs or interests of "the people" but rather by the wants and desires of an elite class -- rich and powerful individuals, corporations and special interest groups who fund the bulk of many candidates' election expenses. To promote a more level playing field, some suggest an overhaul of the campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics. But, in recent years, Congress has failed to pass legislation that would accomplish this goal. Representatives and Senators are reluctant to go forth with the reforms, analysts say, because it might hurt their chances for re-election.
While "the people" continue to clamor for changes in how campaigns are financed, many politicians have responded by simply pushing their fundraising efforts into the background and out of the media spotlight. So, who really has the ear of candidates, ask advocates for campaign finance reform, "the people" or "the funders"?
A Media Journal Project
Students can explore this question and the larger issue of classism by monitoring candidate activity—current or past—through a media journal project.
- Each student should select one candidate whose campaign he or she will research or follow for a set period of time. (Teachers should establish an "end date" for the information-gathering portion of the lesson.) During this time, students will compile individual campaign binders that include media information about their candidate -- notes about or video tapes of the candidate's television appearances, newspaper clippings, audio tapes of (or notes about) radio interviews, magazine stories or on-line candidate information, for example. Teachers can keep costs to a minimum by asking local newspapers to donate subscriptions or by coordinating the lesson with the school's media specialist.
- At the end of the information-gathering period, ask students to review their journals, paying special attention to entries about fundraising. Did the candidate draw attention to fundraising events? If not, why do you think he or she was hesitant to do so? Were the fund-raisers televised? If not, why is that? Were they mentioned in the newspaper, on the radio or in on-line information? If so, what details do the media accounts provide? Who attended the fund-raisers? Where were they held?
- What interest groups, newspapers or other entities endorsed the candidate or, alternatively, his or her opponent? What are the beliefs, values or platform of the group making the endorsement? Did the organization make a contribution to the candidate's campaign or encourage others to do so?
- Ask students to identify the campaign's core issues by reviewing their notebooks. What sort of social and economic issues did the candidate discuss? What topics, for example, did the candidate address in his or her television commercials? Judging by his or her concerns, what constituencies did the candidate try to reach? What stops did he or she make along the campaign trail -- schools, local factories, homeless shelters, hospitals, military bases, chambers of commerce, business organizations?