An Icy New Hampshire Walk Sparks a New Movement to Get Money Out of Politics

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The temperatures started to drop Tuesday morning, and continued to plummet through the night, so by Wednesday at 8 AM it was 0° Fahrenheit in Concord, New Hampshire.

In the Marriott Fairfield Inn next to Interstate 93, noted activist Lawrence Lessig was lacing up his shoes. In the lobby was a crowd of about 20 people in white shirts reading “New Hampshire Rebellion.” They gathered, looking out at the snow piled high in the parking lot, which had thawed and refrozen many times over.

This frigid morning in Concord was the 12th — and coldest — day of Lessig’s walk from the top of the state to the bottom to raise awareness of the corrupting influence of money in politics. “New Hampshire Rebellion” was the title given the endeavor by a coalition of citizen’s groups. “Have you been interested in politics long?” Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard asked Mary Redway, a retired environmental organizer from Rhode Island. They were eating at the hotel’s complementary breakfast buffet.

“I’ve always been informed,” Redway said.

“This is a bit more than ‘informed,'” said Fung.

The group was gearing up to hike 17.5 miles that day, from the state capitol building in Concord to downtown Manchester, holding signs to draw attention to a cause that Lessig argues is the most important in America today. Whatever issue any given American might find important — whether the Occupy Wall Streeter protesting America’s crippling inequality or the Tea Party activist campaigning for tax reform — the government will do nothing until those who benefit from the status quo stop spending billions in campaign cash and lobbying money to maintain it.

“There is no important issue that the government … will address sensibly until we address this issue first,” said Lessig.

Lessig explained: “New Hampshire became an obvious target … because presidential candidates basically live here for two years of the presidential election cycle as they try to convince New Hampshire — the first primary — to vote for them. It’s a small state — most of the voters have direct exposure to presidential candidates in some time over that period — and it’s a fiercely independent state.”

The previous day was the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which unleashed the floodgates for special interest organizations to spend unlimited sums on elections. It was the excesses resulting from that 2010 decision — like the unprecedented $7 billion price tag on the 2012 elections — that made many reform-minded Americans aware of the potential of special interest money to corrupt Washington more than ever before. But Lessig traces the problem back 15 years earlier to 1995, when then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shortened the legislative week to three days — Tuesday through Thursday.

According to Lessig, “The rest of the time you are supposed to be at home, originally, but it turned out you needed to be out on the road raising money. And members of Congress now spend 30 percent to 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress and to get their party back into power. And what they find is that the most effective way to raise money is to vilify the opposition. You turn the other side into the devil. In the process of living this 30 percent to 70 percent of your life, you begin to be the person who believes [your political opponents] are the devil. And when you believe that, it makes it extremely hard to turn it around and put your arm around somebody and say, okay, let’s work something out, let’s strike a deal, let’s make something work. Instead, it’s a permanent war inside of Congress.”

A recent Gallup poll found that dissatisfaction with government is the top issue for Americans across the political spectrum; Lessig hopes his campaign will provide voters on both the left and right with a solution, to make those in Congress answer to their constituents. The campaign has attracted some notice. Walking with the New Hampshire rebellion on that cold day was Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks, the progressive Internet talk show, and Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD), who proposes giving voters a $50 tax credit to donate to the candidates of their choice, amplifying the voice of all Americans in a system where money and speech have become one and the same. The next day, marchers would be joined by Republican Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana, who ran for president in 2012 on a platform opposing dark money.

NH Rebellion in the Footsteps of Granny D
Archon Fung, the Harvard public policy professor who joined the New Hampshire hike said he believes their cause is of critical importance. “Hopefully, a lot of people will hear about the campaign, either by seeing walkers directly this year or next year, or they’ll read about the campaign on the Web or in the newspaper, or see the videos or people’s blogs or hear about it from their friends, and find the cause compelling,” he said. “When the presidential candidates come through in 2016, folks in New Hampshire will use the opportunity to ask the candidates: ‘What are you going to do about corruption in Congress?’

“This issue is really urgent today because our system is in danger of no longer being a democratic system. In every society, there are some people who are powerful and some people who are less powerful. And what a democracy means is that the people who are powerful politically are not the same people necessarily who are powerful economically or socially. But right now in America, that’s no longer the case: The people who are powerful politically are exactly the same people who are powerful economically and socially.”

The walk comes at a time when people are angrier about this issue than they’ve ever been, Fung said, noting that if there is a tipping point on the issue, it has already passed.

Lessig said, “It feels like America every hundred years goes through this cycle of struggling with corruption and finding a resolution to it. Jefferson thought his revolution of 1800, as he put it, was the first great revolution against the culture of corruption in American politics and the progressives were the second. I think this has got to be the third.”

Lessig plans to organize at least one walk each year leading up to 2016. This year’s 185-mile walk ended last Friday in Nashua.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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