Lawrence Lessig Has a “Moonshot” Plan to Halt Our Slide Toward Plutocracy

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the launch of Apollo 11, the first Lunar landing mission, on July 16, 1969. The massive Saturn V rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin at 9:32 a.m. EDT for the Apollo 11 mission. (Image: Nasa)
The launch of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission, on July 16, 1969. (Image: Nasa)

Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, the crusader for campaign finance reform, feels that his fellow reformers don’t think big or boldly enough to inspire the kind of grassroots campaign that might break elite donors’ stranglehold on America’s political system.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Lessig argues that public cynicism about the prospect of deep reform actually working is the only thing keeping widespread outrage at our slide toward plutocracy in check. And he thinks that only a “moonshot” campaign — an ambitious, collective, national effort “unlike anything they’ve seen before” — can “crack this cynicism” and usher in a more democratic system.

BillMoyers.com asked Lessig to lay out his vision of change. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: There’s a cyclical dynamic at work. People are complacent about the issue of money and politics because they think they can’t change it — and that reforms are always designed to protect incumbents — so they don’t put pressure on politicians and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is that your view?

Lawrence Lessig. (Photo: Dale Robbins)

Lawrence Lessig: Yes, it is. I think what’s striking is that the overwhelming majority of Americans see a problem with the way money influences politics and want it fixed. Our polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans believe it’s important to reduce the influence of money in politics. And that’s true for Republicans as much as Democrats and Independents. This is just a universal view.

Yet we don’t do anything about it, because most of us think the system is so entrenched. There was a poll a couple of years ago by the Clarus Group which found that 80 percent of Americans believe that every reform has been for the purpose of entrenching the incumbents, as opposed to actually reforming the system.

Most of us wish we could fly like Superman, but we don’t leap off of tall buildings because we recognize we can’t. And it’s the same thing here. We just have this politics of resignation — a belief that there’s nothing you can do about it, that the rich and powerful will control our politics and that’s the way it will always be.

Holland: But are they wrong? Are they wrong to believe that money is, as they say, “like water” — that it will always find the cracks in the system?

Lessig: I certainly think they’re wrong, to the extent that a different system would produce radically different results.

We got Citizens United and then the entrenchment of super PACs because of something the DC circuit court did in a case called SpeechNow. After that happened, there was an explosion of money into the system that wasn’t there before. Now, if money always finds its way in, regardless of the rules, we wouldn’t have seen that. That money would’ve already been there. The rules changed and the amount of money and the size of the influence of large contributors went up dramatically. So the rules matter dramatically.

We’ve got to begin to recognize this will take a moonshot, and we need to start strategizing around the idea of building a movement that people look at and say, “Yeah, this could really work.”

But I think we need to recognize that Americans are realistic, and they’re not going to rally around a change they don’t believe has any hope of being achieved. So you could either say, “Let’s give up,” or you can say, “What is the kind of change — the kind of strategy — that could actually have an effect?” And how do you convince America of that strategy? That’s ultimately the challenge here.

We’ve got to begin to recognize this will take a moonshot, and we need to start strategizing around the idea of building a movement that people look at and say, “Yeah, this could really work.”

Holland: The Supreme Court’s conservative majority embraces the view that giving politicians money is a protected form of speech. Aren’t those five justices sitting there a real reason for skepticism?

Lessig: No. It’s certainly the case that we’ve got to eventually get the Court on the right track with respect to super PACs and their influence on our political system. And whether that means an amendment to the Constitution or not is an open question.

But long before we address the question of super PACs, the hard work, the really important work that has to be done is to convince Americans to change the way we fund elections. Right now, we fund elections by outsourcing it to the top 0.05 percent of Americans — the donor class. And it’s no surprise that when the tiniest fraction of the top 1 percent fund the elections, the government tilts in a way that attracts the support of that tiny fraction of the population. We as Americans have got to accept the responsibility of funding our own elections. We can’t outsource it to the super rich anymore.

And if we accepted the responsibility of funding our elections through systems supporting small dollar donations — if all of us were relevant participants in the process — that would radically change the way in which policy in Washington is made. And that change is completely constitutional, even with this Supreme Court. There’s nothing the Supreme Court has said that would invalidate, for example, a voluntary voucher system where everybody had a $50 or $100 dollar voucher, which they could give to candidates who voluntarily opted into a system of small dollar contributions. This Court has again and again indicated that kind of reform is perfectly constitutional.

Holland: Let’s get back to your plan to shake up the system. What is it that you believe might break that cycle of cynicism and complacency, and get people motivated to deal with these issues?

Lessig: I think you’ve got to identify two changes, and then ask how we bring them about. First, we’ve got to have a president who leads on the issue. And then we’ve got to have enough votes in Congress.

Those two changes could happen if there were the right resources behind them. And this is a little ironic, but we need to embrace the irony: We need a super PAC to end all super PACs. We need to think about how to raise an incredibly large “money bomb,” as Matt Miller described it, that would be influential enough to give people a reason to hope that there’s actually a chance of success.

When you start thinking about the numbers, it’s not so hard to imagine. Michael Bloomberg recently announced that he was giving $50 million to fight the NRA on gun control. Tom Steyer says he’s going to spend $50 million to fight the carbon industries in order to get climate change legislation. If you got 20 billionaires to each put $50 million dollars into a super PAC that was focused on changing the way elections were funded, there’s no doubt we would win. One billion dollars would certainly have enough influence in this political system to rally Americans to vote and to demand the thing that we already want. Ninety percent of us want a change in the system.

How do you begin to pull people together to support this level of commitment? We’ve begun to talk about doing it in stages. So on May 1 — or you could say May Day, or you could say mayday, as in, “Mayday, mayday, mayday, our republic is sinking” — we want to launch an experiment to see whether we can kick start, from the bottom up, a significant amount of money. I believe we’re going to set the target at a million dollars, and if we get that within 30 days, then it will be matched from the top down — by a big donor.

Then we’ll turn around and kick start another bottom-up $5 million dollar commitment, and if we reach that number, then we’ll get that matched from the top down at $5 million. That’ll put together a super PAC for 2014 of about $12 million dollars, which we will spend experimentally in different districts — at least five — to see what messaging and strategies could work. And we’ll begin to shift votes on this issue in the process.

My view is that if we don’t challenge this reality right now, the super PAC system for electing representatives will become the new normal.

Then, after this election, we’ll be in a position with real data and real experience to turn around to people and say, “If we could put together $700–900 million from the bottom up and then significant contributions from the top down, we could win a Congress in 2016 that would be powerful enough to bring about this kind of fundamental reform.”

People say that’s not realistic, that we ought to be thinking about 2020 or 2024. But my view is that if we don’t challenge this reality right now, the super PAC system for electing representatives will become the new normal. It’ll be accepted that 10,000 families in the United States fund our elections, and we’ll just kind of resign ourselves to the kind of democracy where there is no true democracy.

Holland: Tell me about your idea for a president “as bankruptcy judge.”

Lessig: People are skeptical, understandably. And they’re skeptical because once you’re elected president, there are a million reasons why people think you were elected. It doesn’t give you a mandate to tackle any one issue. One way to change that dynamic is to imagine a candidate — imagine a prominent national figure like Michael Bloomberg, or even a non-politician like David Souter, or a Christine Todd Whitman, who’s past her time as a politician — who says, “Look, I’m going to run, and I’m going to work on one issue. When I succeed in twisting Congress’s arm to pass the legislation that achieves this fundamental reform, I’m going to step aside. So think of me as a bankruptcy judge. The system is bankrupted. I’m going to come in and reorganize, and once it’s reorganized, I will turn it back over to the managers.”

If that person were elected, there would be no ambiguity about why. This person would be elected because he or she had committed to bringing about this kind of reform. And if the president were elected with that kind of mandate, it would be a very foolish Congress that would stand up to that president and say, “No, we’re not going to allow you to bring about that kind of reform.”

And if you imagine that if this began to take off with one party’s candidate, the other party would have to do the same thing, because you’d be choosing between the reform party and the status quo party, and we know how that has worked out historically.

Holland: Thinking about these ideas, I keep coming back to how polarized we are — and how that polarization is a genuine phenomenon. Liberals and conservatives consume different media. We use different moral frameworks to evaluate political proposals. We certainly trust different people. That seems like a real problem, even if polls show that we all agree that money in politics is a problem.

Say someone like Michael Bloomberg were to run for the purpose of cleaning up Washington. To whom would he turn over the reins of government afterwards? If it’s a Democrat, the conservative media would dismiss it as a ruse for the Democrats, and the liberal media would do the same if the reins were going to be turned over to a Republican.

Lessig: If there were two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican, who each committed to the same kind of fundamental reform, then the election would be an election between the vice presidential candidates. It’d be just like the regular election, except it would be one step down.

And I could see it going Republican or Democratic depending on who that particular candidate is. I’m a Democrat, so I would of course strongly support a Democratic candidate.

But the point of this bankruptcy-judge-as-president idea is that we need to make an adjustment before we can get back to the ordinary program. It’s like on those old television shows, where they’d show a card that said “We interrupt this program” for technical reasons. That’s what we need to do here. We need to interrupt the program, reset the balance, create a system where members of Congress are not obsessively focused on what the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent care about and go back to a democracy where, as Madison said, we’d have a Congress dependent on the people alone, and not the rich more than the poor.

Holland: A related question: Money in politics was once a bipartisan issue. Today, it seems to have become a liberal issue, and if you’re a cynic, you could say that’s because conservative mega-donors outnumber their liberal counterparts.

You cite polling that shows that there’s popular support across the ideological spectrum for fighting corruption, but wouldn’t any concrete effort to do this be demagogued by the right?

Lessig: I’m sure that there will be people who have a very strong interest in opposing this. And so of course there would be all sorts of vicious and hysterical attacks toward any kind of real change. But I think what’s important is that American voters overwhelmingly support this kind of change.

You’ve got to be strategic about this. There are a lot of people who say we need to cut the amount of money that’s spent in politics. I’m not sure that I agree. But I am sure that if you were talking about cutting the amount of money spent in politics, the media would have a strong interest in opposing you, because they make an enormous amount of money from political advertisements.

But the changes that I’m talking about wouldn’t necessarily reduce the amount of money being spent. It would just change the way in which that money was raised. So rather than raising it from the tiniest fraction of the top 1 percent, you’d raise it from a much broader group of Americans.

When you think about a presidential candidate spending all of his or her time talking to that tiny, tiny fraction of us who have the capacity to fund political elections, it’s obvious why the perspective of government is skewed relative to what most Americans care about.

Holland: You said that you wouldn’t want to cut down on the amount of money in politics. What about the fact that we have very long and very expensive elections in this country? In most parliamentary democracies, there’s an election period of weeks or a few months. They don’t campaign for two years. In Germany, every party gets to run just one ad.

And while you cite polls showing that Americans want to clean up politics, a Gallup poll found that only about half of the public supports public financing for federal campaigns.

What about these kinds of structural issues?

Lessig: Personally, I would love to see a more regulated system, where there’s an appropriate time to campaign and then there’s an appropriate time to govern. And we used to have that. And we’ve lost the norm supporting that, so I would love to be able to reestablish that.

The problem is that the Supreme Court would certainly strike down any such restrictions as inconsistent with the First Amendment. So eventually, we’ve got to find the way to reassert the freedom for Congress to actually create the conditions of sensible balance in the way we run campaigns, but that’s going to take either a constitutional change or a change in the Court.

You’re right that most Americans don’t embrace the idea of public funding. But, again, if 80 percent of Americans think that every proposed reform advanced by insiders is about benefitting themselves, then it’s not surprising that people are wary when those insiders talk about using tax funds to fund their campaigns.

But if we could cement a recognition of the need for fundamental change, then I think there are ways to present this that most Americans, especially on the right, would sign up for right away. When I talk about vouchers — taking the first $50 dollars of everybody’s taxes and returning it to them in the form of a voucher that they could give to candidates who agree to fund their campaigns with vouchers and contributions that are capped at, say, $100 dollars — it appeals to every instinct that ordinary Americans have. It’s not the government determining who gets the money, it’s me. It’s not me spending somebody else’s money, it’s me spending my money returned to me by the government. So I’m not subsidizing anybody’s speech. My speech is my speech and somebody else’s speech is their speech. And it’s creating an opportunity for a much wider range of people to participate in the actual funding of elections.

I think when people are brought to the place that they can see this as a real alternative, we can begin to build the support necessary to get it passed. But that’s the work we need to be engaging in right now. That’s what takes leadership, and that’s what we need people to start talking about.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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