Lawrence Lessig, always a fountain of reformist ideas and political energy, wants to fix the rot at the core of our democracy: the massive amounts of money from special interests that influences our elected representatives. The tech-savvy activist who helped to found Creative Commons is now the director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University (where he teaches law). He used to engage audiences with quirky presentations arguing for reduced copyright and trademark restrictions; now he speaks about political corruption and reforming our campaign finance system. Lessig’s sixth book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop it, published in 2011, offers a blueprint for getting money out of politics.
Lessig, whose organization Rootstrikers has partnered with MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan’s Get Money Out campaign, believes small-dollar donors and greater political participation from the American public can shift congressional priorities away from powerful interests. I spoke to him in late December while he was in Chicago to give a talk about his new book.
—Aaron Krager, February 6, 2012
Clearly, money is a big part of the current presidential election campaign. What can we do to make a difference this year?
The biggest thing to do is to start rewarding candidates who take this issue seriously, and punish candidates who ignore it. Raise the issue with candidates who promise to take up the issue and don’t end up doing anything about it. The president made [money in politics] a central issue in his 2008 campaign, and then promptly forgot about it once he was elected. There are a lot of candidates out there, both House and Senate, for whom this issue ought to be a central question for them to address.
Any examples of how to reward or punish a candidate?
Withhold your vote from anybody who doesn’t commit to taking a pledge to remove the corrupting influence of money from politics. On our Rootstrikers website, we have the beginnings of a pledge. and with United Republic we are working on a platform to make it easy for people to see which candidates actually implemented the pledge. That’s a first step. If candidates don’t take the pledge, they shouldn’t get your money or your vote.
What is the best way to get the influence of money out of politics?
I don’t think we ought to be getting the influence of money out of politics; we’ll never do that. We have to get the right kind of influence of money into politics. The problem right now is a tiny slice of Americans fund campaigns, .26 percent of Americans give more than $200 in a congressional campaign, .05 percent of Americans max out in congressional campaigns. That means it is an extremely tiny slice of America that is actually doing anything to support the elections in Congress. That means Congress is responsive to a very tiny slice of America. Now, a small-dollar funding system, as I propose in Republic, Lost, would make sure the money is coming from a broad swath of America. … That would reduce the corrupting influence of the money in politics, not by removing it but by removing the corrupting money from politics.
Politicians generally respond to those that most forcefully pressure them. Today, that tends to be hordes of lobbyists. How much of the country’s current corruption predicament has to do with citizen apathy — the absence of grassroots pressure pushing politicians to act for the public good?
I think a significant part comes from voter apathy. Maybe the apathy is rational in that the current system doesn’t make much sense for people to spend their time worrying about politics, because many people believe money buys results in politics. We need to have a system in which spending time is worthwhile. We need people to recognize the value they have.
How would you rate Americans’ interest in cleaning up corruption?
The polling actually shows that nearly everyone believes the system is corrupted and is skeptical there is much you can do to change it. If you give people an option on what you could do to change it and give them the tools, then they can get motivated and engage in the process of changing it. …
The Citizens United ruling must have knocked the wind out of you. Democrats recently introduced a constitutional amendment in the House and Senate to effectively overturn the Supreme Court decision. How essential is such an amendment to solving the country’s governance problems?
The amendment is half the solution. The amendment does a good job in covering independent expenditures and limiting contributions. I don’t think any solution that relies on limits alone is going to be solutions. What it needs is a proposal that also provides a version of public funding. If we had an amendment that called for both public funding and for limits on independent expenditures or contributions, that would be the mix necessary to make real reform.
Tell us about a country that cleaned up its election rules and governance structure relatively recently to keep monied influences marginal. What should Americans learn from that country’s story?
I am not convinced we could learn a lot from other countries directly. There are differences. We have a first amendment that has been interpreted in a very narrow way to restrict the power of Congress to use all sorts of solutions other countries use. Other countries limit the time of elections, they give free air time and have much more power to limit contributions. They are much more generous with public funding.
All those different dimensions would have to be adjusted to see what other countries can suggest from a comparison. There is a complexity that leads to a problem. And it’s that Congress is dependent upon its funders, but the funders are such a tiny slice of America that we should find a way to make the funders a broader slice of the country to see if that actually solves the problem.
Are any currently elected officials immune to the corrupting influence of money?
Paradoxically, the one’s who fund their campaigns solely from their own wealth. But even they might not be immune — they have to raise money for their party and their parties increasingly put pressure on them to raise money because of the need elsewhere. If it is anyone, it’s the people who self-fund.
With so much power already in the hands of the one percent, how do we guarantee a Constitutional Convention does not result in their desires being fulfilled?
What we need at a convention is to make sure it is populated by random selection of citizens. Now, that’s an odd thing to push for and people would be very skeptical of it. The essential point is to recognize that if we had something like a civil jury for the convention then it would be producing legislation that would not be driven by special interests. …
How do you propose to unite both major political parties around the idea of corruption being an enemy to both?
That is an important challenge. I think it is done slowly, by getting them recognize the fact that you don’t have to have a common goal to have a common enemy. The system is made to block the left and right from getting what they want. Highlighting the way in which the current system blocks both sides from their goals is a critical first step. I’ve been trying to do that wherever I can. The book spends a long time trying to convince people that you don’t have to be from the left to believe this is a critical issue. It is going to take a lot of effort to do that because most people have a kind of political valiance and this doesn’t quite sit on the right’s valiance as it typically does on the left.
What would stop a court challenge and the Supreme Court ultimately overturning your version of public financing?
My version doesn’t actually trigger any of the issues the Supreme Court has concerned about. My version has a more voluntary system to make it easy for people to opt in or opt out. If they opt in, they are expressing their own first amendment values of being associated with a certain system of funding instead of the other kind, in which people associate with corruption. I think that all of those differences that make it not vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.
What’s Rootstrikers’ goal leading up November’s elections?
Rootstrikers wants to be as broad as it can to get people to understand the corrupting influence of money in politics. We are going to talk about the issue at the state level and local levels, as well as the federal level. People can begin to have an automatic reaction when they hear of an issue and link it back to its root and address that. We are looking to get a much more active and much more passionate group of supporters to push America to focus on this issue and get them to do something about it.
[Henry David] Thoreau said it right. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” That means there should be 300,000 root strikers and we want to organize around them.