Academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig will be in the studio this morning with Bill to discuss how a very exclusive, very wealthy group of Americans have used their money to purchase our political system — and the various ways in which we might take it back. Lessig is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Previously, he was a professor of law at Stanford Law School and founder of the Center for Internet and Society.
In 2011, he and political consultant Joe Trippi founded Rootstrikers, a nonpartisan group dedicated to reforming our campaign finance system. The group’s name draws on a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The “branches of evil,” in this metaphor, are the many issues taken up by activists, from climate change to media reform, civil liberties to education. The corrupting influence of money in politics, Lessig argues, is the “root.”
“We will never get your issue solved until we fix this issue first,” Lessig said in a TED talk earlier this year. “So it’s not that mine is the most important issue. It’s not. Yours is the most important issue, but mine is the first issue, the issue we have to solve before we get to fix the issues you care about.”
Watch the entire TED talk.
Lessig illustrates his point with the story of Lesterland, a fictional country where a general election happens after everyone named Lester has had his say over who the candidates will be. Presumably, the Lesters of Lesterland would be of all stripes: young, old, poor, rich, liberal, conservative, black, white, Latino and Asian, hailing from all states in the country. In America, it works much the same way it does in Lesterland, but with one big difference: we cast our ballots only after a relatively homogeneous group, the richest of the rich, have announced their favorite candidates. Citizen United amplified their voices; in the 2012 election, 132 Americans — 0.000042 percent of the country — gave 60 percent of the money super PACs received.
Lessig goes on to say this is not an insurmountable problem. “If you think about the issues our parents tried to solve in the 20th century, issues like racism, or sexism, or the issue that we’ve been fighting in this century, homophobia, those are hard issues. You don’t wake up one day no longer a racist. It takes generations to tear that intuition, that DNA, out of the soul of a people. But this is a problem of just incentives, just incentives. Change the incentives, and the behavior changes, and the states that have adopted small dollar funded systems have seen overnight a change in the practice.”
Got a question for Lessig? Share your thoughts below and be sure to tune in to Moyers & Company for Lawrence Lessig’s interview later this week.