Larry Lessig: The corruption of the American political system

Larry Lessig: The corruption of the American political system
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Two years ago, I interviewed law professor, author, and Creative Commons co-founder Larry Lessig to discuss his work on institutional corruption and what he describes as the "economy of influence" in American politics. This week he was back in Durham, NC to discuss his new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.

Nearly 100 people crammed into the basement of the matchbox-sized Regulator bookshop to hear Lessig read from his latest work and take questions about how to change the way money influences elections. The basic problem, he said, can be summed up with four numbers:

  • 0.26% of Americans give more than $200 in a congressional election;
  • 0.05% max out;
  • 0.01% give more than $10,000;
  • .000063% — 196 Americans — have given more than 80% of the superPAC money spent so far in this election.

It's easy to see that a tiny number of people have an enormous influence on our elections. "This will never get fixed until we fundamentally change the way we fund the political system." Lessig warns. However, "Nobody inside the beltway of Washington wants the system to change."

Some argue that Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court held the longstanding ban on corporate expenditures in federal campaigns to be unconstitutional, is to blame for the current state of ‘big money' influence in politics. According to Lessig, however, the problem existed well before the Supreme Court's decision. "Citizens United might have shot the body, but the body was already cold," he quips.

I won't go specifically into his plan for campaign finance reform. It's outlined in the book, and he wrote an excellent summary. What I found most interesting during his talk was his candor about how the political system currently works, including heavy criticism of the Administration for failing to introduce a single bill that would limit campaign contributions and the disillusionment that many voters felt at not seeing the changes in Washington that they had expected.

Lessig concludes that the office of the President cannot alter the current economy of influence. Rather, the single most important step, he argues, is to create a "genuine, cross-partisan movement of citizen politicians," not necessarily legislators, who demand the change at all levels of government. He advocates that all citizens take the anti-corruption pledge available at Rootstrikers (formerly Change Congress). 

The odds are stacked against him. He concedes that no politician can "just agree to take small donations only, because they'll never get elected under the current system." But, he says, "When talking about the meaning of love, whether it's your family or your country, the odds aren't relevant."

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bbehrens's picture
Open Source Sensei

Some staggering statistics, Mel. Thanks so much for covering this for those not able to attend.

jcschweitzer's picture
Open Minded

I think we are looking at the symptom of the dangers of money in politics. The recent Pharma emails from the health care debate clearly show that lobbyists are undermining the fundamental economy of the United States buy writing laws that enable crony capitalism. The rich have always had access to politicians, they have the time and resources to cultivate those relationships. The poor have access to mass protest. The stable middle class is where the power of democracy should be.

I firmly believe that the majority of the electorate are campaign influence money can buy. We are smart enough to sort through the distortions and half truths of television ads. While Citizens United has opened the door for unions and corporations to pour money into campaigns, their ultimate influence will be keeping traditional media in the black a few more years.

The true danger our democracy faces is the shift of the lower middle class to dependent status. Tip O'Neill said "all politics are local", and that is true. The institutions of the middle class have shifted to the Federal Level. Education is a prime example, where in the mid 70's education was paid for 100% by state and local governments, many districts today receive 20-30% of their budget from the Federal Government. One more point, Congressional representatives used to be based on a flat number, but because of a lack of seats in the capitol the number was frozen at 435. Within twenty years each representative, instead of representing a tight community that they are a member of, will have districts of a million citizens. In essence we are creating two house of Lords. Representatives that aren't retail but royal. Effects presidential elections too with the electoral college.

To solve our issues and make a more just society, increase the contributing middle class to 70% of the population, and let the House of Representatives grow so retail politics can return to this nation. That would neuter the effect of campaign money.

CustomDesigned's picture
Open Minded

IMO, the real problem is that voters let themselves be influenced by the propaganda that all the money buys. It will be even scarier if the propaganda stops working, and the money moves to more "physical" means of persuasion.

Joe Dyck's picture

SuperPAC's should be banned. Election funding should be by individual donation, with strict limits. Some other countries provide election funding from the government. This would be many times less likely to foster the levels of corruptions seen in the US government. Lobby groups should also be funded by individuals, not corporations, and should be carefully regulated.

jcschweitzer's picture
Open Minded

There is extreme danger with banning or regulating any political speech. The solution isn't to limit, but to level access. While some people are influenced by repeated TV ads, I believe the majority of people are not. There is a tendency to believe that people that disagree with your opinion are weak minded and easily influenced by shiny objects. That just isn't true.

To reduce the influence of unions, corporations and wealthy individuals you must defuse power to the smallest political units. The Federal government must be limited to basic Constitutional activities and its power defused to states and local governments. The cap needs to be taken off the House of Representatives, and allow its membership to grow with the population. That would require them to spend more time in retail politics, and add more diverse voices to the government.

Limit the effect of mass media and money in politics, but moving governance closer to the people where active participation has tangible results.

jcschweitzer's picture
Open Minded

Money isn't the root of political corruption, it is a symptom of a system with too little interaction.