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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  • Clear Vision

    Nice pipe dream here. I guess you can call me a hopeless cynic, but I can see no possibility in the current political climate for any meaningful change in the system of bribery that controls every aspect of American politics. Giving money or other gifts to any politician is not free speech. It is simple bribery. You can call it whatever you wish. Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig.

  • David Venhuizen

    Naive. But still rather interesting. So instead of spending large amounts of their time raising money from a select few that can give big wads of cash each, now they’ll spend even more of their time trying to convince a much, much larger number of people to give them a little bit each. And that part about a “bankruptcy judge” president is just looney, isn’t it? Dismiss this as just part of the cynicism that you decry, but really, as long as we have a Supreme Court that is unabashedly promoting plutocracy with such non-sensical views as “money is speech” and “corporations are people”, we have a problem with the PEOPLE running the system, not with the system per se. But those ideologue plutocrats have lifetime appointments, so what you gonna do?

  • JonThomas

    Nice sentiments, and perhaps I too am cynical. but the party machines, which thrive on exactly the monied system now in place, are not going to allow any such reforms.

  • Anonymous

    Michael Bloomberg? LOL

  • Anonymous

    We are not sliding toward plutocracy. Admit it! Or, help cannot begin until we admit that we are a plutocracy!

    If the news media is owned by big business and the internet is transitioning to big business’ ownership, if the wealthy are Wall Street and the banks, *own* the political system from the statehouses to congress, influences the Executive and Judiciary Branches, controls food, fuel and jobs, and is likely tied in with the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc., what *exactly* can be done to implement change? Similar to Leona Helmsley’s famous utterance, “…Only the little people pay taxes”, the U.S. Constitution and laws are for the little people. The makeup, extent and power of the plutocracy only recently was exposed and the future with the plutocracy will have them accumulating more power and a tightening their grip on that power.

    It would be nice if ideators proposed solutions that outlined all of the elements to be combatted and the strategy to win against all of those elements. Look at WWII, the war included battles fought on the land and sea and in the air and within each of those, there were sub-elements to be dealt with such as code encryption, submarines, extended supply lines, courageous enemies, great expanses of ocean, Buzz Bombs and V2 rockets.

    Mr. Lessig certainly brings a lot of good to this matter, however, these are unique times and the issues are immense but the solutions are feeble. How can one not be cynical? At this time, the little people should make friends with the inevitable.

  • snortgurgle

    The idea of vouchers is a good one, except that it denies a voice to the truly penniless! There do exist individuals, however many and however few, who do not pay taxes, for whatever reason. Are they to be denied a voice?

  • Arm of Keaau

    Tax the bastards and the bastards pass on the taxes to the consumer while maintaining their over-inflated salary, bonus’s, and stock options. If they happen to get cornered, out come the lobbyists to legislate them out smelling even richer. It’ a common person no-win, privileged all-win situation not likely to change. I’m afraid armed revolution as in other parts of the world may be the quickest form of lasting change. (_: FBI

  • GregoryC

    That was my first thought too. A billionaire who changed political parties to stay in office as the savior of the working class?

  • Mychele Hillary

    I was hoping for something revolutionary, at least bold. But Lessig shares the same mental disorder that so many others do- he still can only think in terms of the U.S. having a political duopoly- Democrats and Republicans.
    Nothing is going to change as long as the entrenched corporate interests control these two very imperfect parties and alternative parties are not allowed to participate in the electoral process. Lessig’s vote is still quite OWNED by a side of the same coin.

    A moonshot plan would include third parties and the promotion of others at the table.

  • Anonymous

    Nope — they’d be fully refundable. Everyone would get voucher.

  • Anonymous

    One final post here. Political reform is necessary but it is just one front situated well downstream from the source of the problem. Your “Moonshot” is going against an army of lobbyists supplied with and authorized to spend an amount of money from a reservoir greater than $700 – $900 million.

    Is political reform the entire plan? What about educating people across the country with the simple truth about ALEC, inequality, license plate readers, abuse of SWAT teams, the U.S. Constitution being ignored and shredded, and much more? Of course corporate media will not assist and has to be avoided. How to get to the little people is hugely important; winning their hearts and minds is essential. My opinion.

  • Jason Boyd

    In order to win an election, a candidate needs the financial support of donors, but also needs the political support of their party. This is one reason no third party candidates have been real contenders in any election as far back as you can remember.

    Besides which, I see no evidence that the current GOP has any interest whatsoever in campaign finance reform, regardless of the assertion that the public is in favor of this across party lines. The GOP *is* the party for feeding the wealthy who are running everything. This is an issue for a serious Democratic presidential candidate, not a single-issue candidate, which sounds highly improbable.

    If 80% of the public supports the idea of getting the money out of politics, then a candidate proposing a voucher-based public campaign financing option would have a huge advantage on that issue against opponents who did *not* support public campaign financing. It’s one of the defining issues of our time, what makes it impossible for any candidate to include this in their campaign platform? Remember how Obama defeated the GOP SuperPAC assault? By appealing to the working public? Imagine a candidate who actually meant it.

  • Anonymous

    I actually did LOL when Larry brought up Bloomberg.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for confirming everything Larry said about the majority apathy. You proved his point very well.
    Here’s an idea. Since you and a few other posters above don’t think this will work, and you have nothing to lose by supporting it, why not get behind this movement if just for kicks, if just to “see” what happens?
    How can you be so sure what will and will not work without giving it a try?
    If it fails, you’ll have the satisfaction of the good old “I told you so”.
    If it succeeds, you’ll be delighted you were wrong. So will your children and grandchildren. Do it for them if not for yourself. Certainly you can’t want them to inherit what we have.
    Come on, join the party.

  • Clear Vision

    The last thing I want is to be right. I’m AFRAID I will be. Once a system of corruption as deeply entrenched as our current system is fully vested, peaceful demonstrations are not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m never in favor of violence to solve problems, but violence does solve problems. History has shown time and time again that true change can only be brought about by the blood of true patriots. (Just look what Gandhi accomplished.)
    Ironic that a country born out of revolution considers any action against the current system sedition. Self interest I suppose.

    Time will tell the tale. Only when the last pork chop is on the table will people finally act. And then the whole sorry process starts anew. Money is power, and power rules the day.
    In the mean time, I’ll get behind any party looking to bring about the change discussed here. Nothing to lose by trying. It’s just that there are so damn few of us. And the masses are so….stupid.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a catch 22 of the mind Clear Vision, and that’s how it becomes self fulfilling prophecy. One must break that train of thought because while it seems logical and based upon what we see happening, or not happening, it is only vecause so many folks are thinking that way, which, BTW, is exactly the way special interests and their lap dogs in Congress want us to think.
    Here’s evidence of the fallacy in that thinking.
    This Citizen’s Super Pac started two days ago with a goal of raising $1 million in 32 days. Well, here we are two days later and over $300, 000 has already been pledged. Even Larry was caught off guard, as his server (shared) couldn’t handle the volume and crashed. They are switching to a dedicated server tonight. This doesn’t happen from a mostly stupid majority. What it shows is that people are willing to join something they see as really viable, and this is it.
    I know it may seem that the majority is dumbed down, but that is absolutely not the case. Worn out and beaten up is more like it with a sense that it’s every person for him/herself.
    That is monumentally demoralizing when you think you are alone in wanting change. What can one person do? That’s the whole point though, every “one person” adds up to a whole bunch of people and Larry has hit on a rallying point that obviously is resonating with a lot of average folks.
    All this will take to really succeed is for each one of us who have joined this movement is to get three others to join, and those three each get three more, and before long what started as a trickle will be a flood.

    The only option will be , as you say, wait until the last pork chop is on the table, and people are forced to take up arms simply to feed their families. Better if we can avoid that, since it is inevitable if nothing is done to prevent it. History is full of examples and ready to repeat itself if we don’t act now.
    JMHO.
    Cheers

  • Arm of Keaau

    Mr. Lessig’s plan is not a “Moon Shot”… it’s a center of the universe shot. What is repugnant to me though is that Mr. Lessig’s plan is no different than the plutocrat’s. The use of obscene amounts of money to buy elections. What happened to the ethical high road in this country? If 90% of the people in every political party abhors the use of money, then change the laws. Otherwise they don’t really believe it now do they? (_: FBI

  • jane rc

    Not all billionaires are bad, not all poor people are good.Just saying.

  • borntobewild

    Personally, I really struggle with answering the question “What action can we take?” I get the cynicism and ALL that. So if anyone has better ideas, -please share them.

    As for me, I’ve pledged some money in the hopes that this experiment just might be successful. I urge all skeptics to do the same – unless of course, you have a better idea !!!

    There has been so much talk – but not enough action. This is a self-acknowledged experiment – let’s give it a try. Not much to lose !!!

  • Anonymous

    The only way to get money out of politics is to raise the level of representation so high (i.e. from 1/1,000,000 to 1/1) that the Moneybags, if they want to influence our political decisions, will have to bribe ALL of us, rather than just 300 of us. In other words, set up a Democracy, in w EVERYBODY can participate in the legislative process, rather than just 300 so called “representatives”.

  • pointofgrille

    It’s not repugnant….It’s a realistic attempt to unite us in spite of our single issue differences. This is about using our money to buy elections so that we can eventually get the money out of politics. How do you suggest we confront the Oligarchs on the field of battle…..with our looks? It will require $$$$ to balance against their $$$$ to ultimately remove $$$$$ from our political process. Divide and conquer is the number one action those in power use to remain in power. This is how we STOP the divide half of that equation. Now is the time to set aside single issue differences and UNITE to get the money out of politics. It will take money to do that,

  • pointofgrille

    Many of the people who participated in the Salt March did not agree with Gandhi on all issues, BUT they ALL agreed something must be done to bring this matter to a head, so they participated………..We must participate, if not we just facilitate the Status quo.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Oh how trite! I’m old enough to remember where nuclear weapons were used as bargaining chips and who ever had the most was “top dawg”. You’re proposing to use the same silly, ignorant tactic when principle should be the measuring stick rather than how much money you can feed politicians and news medias. (_: FBI

  • pointofgrille

    So your standard for progress is standing on principle? How does that move us forward?

  • pointofgrille

    Compromise and cooperation of the people is the way out of our national morass. We need to put aside our single issue differences to unite (with$$$$, if we must ) to throw the Ba$#^&>s out, and then remove the money from our political process. If we unite to throw them out, those we put in will understand they must listen to the people.

  • Arm of Keaau

    The same way this country started, not from some fat-cat’s wallet book. (_:

  • pointofgrille

    Ever heard of Robert Morris? Pretty much a Fat Cat with $$

  • Citizen E Peace

    The little people should work on adapting to defeat but never give up hope because that is giving up on life which is a detriment to the entire country. Hope will help change cynicism

  • Citizen E Peace

    The system ended up this way do to violence. It will never be the solution to any human problem.

  • Citizen E Peace

    As we are days into phase 2 I believe the question is how to expose this to and help the less fortunate to understand. Most simply are blind to this issue.