CULLOWHEE -- U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) urged a crowd of Western North Carolinians Tuesday (Feb. 15) to re-engage with the political process, in spite of rampant public pessimism due to pervasive negative campaign ads and the influence of big money and lobbyists.
"We are still a country of the highest aspirations and the greatest hopes. That's why we need to reform our campaign system in this country, because government should be about the hopes and aspirations of the American people, and not about who can write the biggest check," said Edwards, speaking at Western Carolina University as part of the Chancellor's Speaker Series.
"Government has got to come back to the people. People have disengaged from government. They've stopped voting and they've stopped listening," he said. "They haven't done it because they're lazy and they don't care. The truth is they've disengaged because they believe deeply that their participation doesn't matter any more."
The root of that disengagement is an influx of big money into the political process -- money that is used to buy access and influence, Edwards told a group of about 450 Western students, faculty and staff, and WNC residents from as far away as Hendersonville and Marion.
"North Carolinians have a lot of good old common sense, and the folks here in Western North Carolina have more of their share of good old common sense. Common sense tells people that when they don't write a campaign check to a candidate and somebody else writes a $10,000 check, there's no way that they're going to be treated the same way as that person who wrote a $10,000 check," he said.
"They believe -- and rightly so -- that they will not have the same access to their senator or their representative as the people who write those big checks," Edwards said. "The little guy who didn't make a contribution is not going to be heard, and that person knows it."
Edwards also cited a recent conference hosted at Western on the topic of citizenship and democracy, and the university's plans to continue exploring ways that members of the university and surrounding community can re-evaluate their roles in the political process.
"Oftentimes when we talk about problems and we worry about who ought to be doing something and who ought to be responsible, the truth is the place we ought to start is by looking in the mirror. All of our hopes and possibilities are in that mirror, and our lives as responsible citizens and members of our community involve an awareness that everything we do -- or fail to do -- contributes to our society," he said.
"This university helps form the bedrock of a civil society. It's engaged, it's involved in this community, involved in Western North Carolina. You, as a university, have already taken many of the steps necessary to build a society that respects everybody, every individual, and that provides equal economic opportunity for everyone."
Edwards praised the World War II generation, recently hailed as "the greatest generation," but reminded the audience that "the rest of us haven't been that shabby, either." He mentioned such accomplishments as victory in the Cold War, creation of the Internet, and building the strongest economy in the nation's history.
"We live in an amazing time. All of us here have helped make it the way it is. We have a very rare opportunity to create another great generation -- a great generation formed by a commitment to reinventing citizenship at every level, from the small actions that each of us take every day to make our communities better to the fight for a responsive and responsible government that works for the people that it's responsible to."
Edwards also answered about 15 questions from the audience, on topics ranging from a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning to the pros and cons of free trade, and from funding for the National Endowment for the Arts to school prayer.
The Chancellor's Speaker Series is designed to bring significant figures to campus to discuss major issues of the day, and to provide WCU students with an opportunity to interact with some of the people who shape and influence our world.