Monday, October 31, 2011

Upon the People Alone

(Note: This post departs from the usual education-related content of this blog. Politics alert.)

I don't have enough background knowledge to do this justice, but I wanted to take a moment to recommend that folks who care about democracy read Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress - and a Plan to Stop It by Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig makes a compelling case for how money - both campaign finance money and the money associated with the revolving door of politicians and staffers becoming high-paid lobbyists - has corrupted our representative democracy. For me, one of his key points is how he defines corruption. Like most folks, when I hear corruption I think of the most base form: bribery (or, perhaps less derogatory, quid pro quo).

While that certainly exists, Lessig articulates what I've always believed which is that "corrupt" politicians in that sense are few and far between. That the vast majority of folks who go into politics - even the ones I vehemently disagree with on policy - are good people, and want to do good by performing public service. But that the current system has fostered a second type of corruption, what Lessig refers to as "type 2 corruption" (p. 228), or "dependence corruption." This corruption is not as obvious, and it is not bad people doing bad things, it's good people not always doing the right thing due to being placed in a bad system.

Again, I can't do this justice, but in a very simplified form Lessig argues that our current system has negated perhaps the most important principle of the founders: that our elected representatives would be dependent "upon the People alone." (p. 231, I believe originally from Federalist #52) That the current system of lobbying, and campaign finance, and the revolving door between Congress (both elected representatives and their staffers) and lucrative jobs in the lobbying business, has split the dependence of our elected representatives. True, they are "dependent upon the People alone" on election day, but that's the only day they are dependent upon them. The rest of the time the "People" are second-class citizens to those with money.

If you give money, your phone calls get returned. If you give (a lot of) money, your opinion counts (more) than my opinion.
"Individuals with family incomes over $100,000 represented 11% of the population in 2004, cast 14.9% of the votes and were responsible for approximately 80% of the political contributions over $200." Only 10 percent of American citizens give to political campaigns; less than 0.5 percent are responsible for the majority collected from individuals. (p. 233)
The statistics go on and on, you really need to read the book to get the full scope. (As an aside, I did not find this an "easy" book to read, but it's an important one.)

A second, associated problem, is the perception that money influences our elected representatives. Lessig again makes a compelling case that even if the money wasn't influencing our representatives (and he makes the case that it is), it would still be just as pernicious because the perception of the vast majority of the public is that it does corrupt. This damage to the faith we have in our political institutions is just as serious, as it condemns us to have dysfunctional political institutions that can't perform the roles they need to.

About three-fourths of the way through the book I was pretty darn depressed. In fact, I even tweeted to Mr. Lessig and asked if it would have a "happy ending." To my surprise, he replied

This post is partially due to that reply (up to you to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing). While I have no misconceptions that my blogging will affect much, if perhaps a few more folks read his book and/or begin thinking about these ideas, perhaps it will help.

So what are Lessig's solutions? Well, he outlines several possibilities, but freely admits that they are  mostly long-shots. (Yet it is up to to all of us to try.) These possibilities are the ones I found the most intriguing:
  • The Grant and Franklin Project: Each voter gets a $50 "democracy voucher" (Grant) that they can donate to the candidate or candidates of their choice (this money comes from the taxes we already pay). If they don't donate, it gets donated to the party they belong to. If they don't identify with a party, then it supports the "infrastructure of democracy." (p. 266) In addition, each voter could also contribute up to $100 (Franklin) of their own money to any candidate. The only requirement is that the candidates who accept this money must opt into the system, meaning they would only accept this public financing.

  • An Unconventional "Primary" Game: Folks enter races against incumbents for the sole reason of putting pressure on the incumbent to support citizen-owned races. By recruiting prominent people in each state (non-politicians) whose sole desire is to change the process, this could apply enough pressure on candidates to do the right thing.

  • An Unconventional Presidential Game: A candidate runs for President with "a single two-part pledge: if elected, she will (I) hold the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is our government, and (II) once that program is enacted, she will resign." (p. 285) You really have to read this section, it's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, I would both support and vote for such a candidate.

So, if any of this intrigues you, please read the book. Or watch this 45-minute talk by Lessig about the book if you want a shorter version.

Republic, Lost from lessig on Vimeo.

If any of you happen to be a prominent, non-politician citizen, consider becoming that primary candidate. Visit and VotersFirstPledge to learn more. Demand that your candidates for Congress take a pledge to support small-dollar funded campaigns. Ask them the question, repeatedly (and, if possible, in public - and record and post to YouTube).

So, if this is a long-shot as even Lessig admits, why even bother? I can't say it better than Lessig:
Any sane soul who looked at this cause would have to conclude that the odds are overwhelmingly against us. So, why do it? Why waste your time?

I was asked this question quite pointedly once, after a lecture at Dartmouth. "What's the point?" the sympathetic listener asked. "It all seems so hopeless."

And for the first time in my life, in the middle of a public lecture, I was so choked by emotion that I thought I had to stop. For the picture that came into my head as I struggled for a response to this fair yet devastating question was the image of my (then) six-year-old boy, and the thought, the horror, of a doctor's telling me that he had terminal cancer and that "there was nothing to be done." I painted that picture to that Dartmouth audience. And I then asked this: "Would you give up? Would you do nothing?" (p. 306)
This is not an issue of the Left (keep in mind that Lessig clerked for Scalia and was a Young Republican, before turning to his current Libertarian bent). Or of the Right. It applies just as well to the Tea Party as it does to Occupy Wall Street. It's an American issue. I'd even say a human issue. As Lessig states,
We need to remember how different our forebears were. Two hundred-plus years later, they all look the same to us. But they had very different values and radically different ideas about what their republic should be.
They put those differences aside, and saved their nation from ruin. We must do the same. Not after the next election. Now. (p. 326)


  1. Thanks for this important post, Karl. I was just asking someone what Lessig was doing these days with his work in this area.

    I am itching to support an unconventional move to address this issue. It seems to me to be one of the most important things I could do.

    We all need to do something. Before it is too late.

  2. I love the two-promise candidate idea. I've been joking lately that Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders should run together on a platform of strict reform, nothing ideology driven, just stamp out all the corruption. That's the same as Lessig's first requirement. I'd vote for them!