Lawrence Lessig may be the greatest radical at work in America today. Lessig, a polymath, professor at Harvard Law School, is no ivory tower type. He is a radical — someone who strikes at the root of things — in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. His latest book The USA is Lesterland breathes intelligent, courageous-to-the-point-of-
Lessig’s core proposition:
… I offer a simple way to understand the nature of the corruption that is the United States Congress today. I also sketch out a strategy to fix it. That corruption isn’t illegal corruption. It’s not the bad behavior of bad souls. It is instead the ordinary behavior of good souls within a corrupted system. It’s legal corruption, and it has infected and poisoned our government.
Like a magnet beside a compass, or molasses in a gearbox, or a wheel not aligned: This is a system of influence that corrupts the government of our Republic. And it is a bi-partisan, equal opportunity corruption. It blocks the Left. It blocks the Right. It blocks both in the sense that it makes it harder (maybe impossible) for either side to get the principled reform that each side would push.
Lessig creates a sort of fairy tale to make his point simple and compelling. Rather than Alice in Wonderland we get Lessig in Lesterland with Lessig casting himself more Cheshire Cat than Alice. However, in light of the gravity of the problem, this is more epic David and Goliath than fairy tale.
“Once upon a time,” his book opens, “there was a place called ‘Lesterland.’" He uses, as a literary device, the fact that 150,000 Americans are named Lester. And that 150,000 people fund Congressional elections.
He develops a winsome extended metaphor. What if candidates had to gain the support of many, preferably a majority, of the 150,000 Lesters … before the rest of us got to vote? That would give "the Lesters" disproportionate influence on elections.
Lessig then notes that candidates do have to raise enough money, to run, from 150,000 self-selected campaign contributors. Lessig does not present this as an attack on the rich or on capitalism. It is an attack on a campaign financing system that gives disproportionate influence to around a quarter of one percent of the electorate (themselves a minute fraction of “the rich,” few of whom make political contributions).
Lessig’s demand for a system that creates, as a non-coercive option, without muzzling big donors, a bigger presence for rank-and-file voters is consistent with arguments that this right-wing columnist elsewhere has made about the crucial vitality of citizen engagement. Since about twice as many Americans consistently describe ourselves as conservative than we do liberal it is slightly indecipherable that so many conservatives are diffident about Lessig’s proposition.
Restoring “consent of the governed” is not about Right versus Left. It is about setting up a system to restore control of Congress to us outsiders, the people, over the insiders, the special interests, by creating an incentive for us to contribute and an incentive for candidates to take our contributions in preference to those of the special interests. And most Congressional campaign donors are special interests — if only because they are victims of a Congressional extortion racket.
Lessig, a man of the Left, is not propounding a system to privilege Progressives (although some of his Progressive admirers are appropriating, and corrupting, his work to their own ends). He offers 200-proof pure constitutional populism. His proposition is as consonant with Conservative principles as it is with Progressive ones.
He does not advocate violence against the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech by proposing limits on independent expenditures. As much as he detests Citizens United, and the power of SuperPACs, he recognizes the terrible danger posed by government censorship of political speech: “If I thought that the only way to end the corruption of our government was to risk this type of censorship, I’d think long and hard about whether to risk it.”
Lessig is eloquent about how the current financing system hurts the Right at least as much as it does the Left.
The Right wants a smaller federal government. But the current system for funding elections only gives the Congress an interest in keeping a large and invasive government.
For example, when Al Gore was Vice President, his team had an idea for deregulating a significant portion of the telecommunications industry. They took the idea to Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill wasn’t impressed. “Hell no,” was the response described to me. “If we deregulate these guys how are we going to raise money from them?”
The need to raise money thus tilts Congress members the preserving the extortion-like power that only a regulator (or thug) can leverage.
Or think of the Right’s desire for a simpler tax system — Herman Cain’s call for a “9-9-9 plan,” for example, or Rick Perry’s call for a 20 percent flat tax.
The motivation here is not hard to understand. … So … the existing system for funding campaigns tilts Congress away from a simpler tax system — in part because complexity makes it easier for them to raise money.
What, then, is Lessig’s solution?
How could we end this corruption and make it possible for We the People to move on to the issues that we must address sensibly?
The analytics are not hard.
The problem is a system that forces candidates to:
(a) spend too much time raising money from
(b) too small a slice of America (aka, “the Funders”),
The solution is a system that
(a) demands less time raising money, and raises its money from
(b) a wider slice of America (aka, “the People”).
This is not Leninism. This is constitutional populism.
Lessig lays out the problem, his strategy, and his proposed tactics in The USA is Lesterland, following a TED talk that has drawn well over a million views, and now is coupled with a new million dollar SuperPAC, MayOne.US, designed, without irony, to end the disproportionate influence of all SuperPACs.
Most politics is engaged with maintaining the status quo or making tiny incremental changes. Lessig proposes a radical change.
As Jefferson famously wrote in America’s fundamental mission statement, the Declaration of Independence, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Lessig thus bears a burden of proof.
Are our current evils sufferable?
The political status quo really is bad. How bad?
America is well into its fourth decade of wage stagnation. Many of the elements of our cost of living are inexorably rising. The real price of gas at the pump has approximately tripled from 10 years ago. Our wages have been flat.
Stagnation really began when President Nixon took America off the Bretton Woods international gold-exchange standard. Promptly thereafter median family income, which had been rising smartly, flat-lined. Meanwhile the “rich get richer” went into overdrive. This writer has called our stagnation the “The Little Dark Age.”
Democrats call this predicament “income inequality.” Republicans call this “inequitable prosperity.” Or should.
We workers are struggling to make ends meet. 40 years is a long time. Our officials are not listening or, when listening, are offering trivial, often bad, solutions. Could this be a symptom, as Lessig declares, of a corrupt Congressional election financing system that is to blame for distracting our elected Representatives?
Will The USA is Lesterland succeed in rousing America? Will its proposed solution survive robust public debate?
Will Lessig and his allies develop more credible tactics than peer-to-peer conversations; than the underpowered rootstrikers.org; than calling upon nonprofit groups to tithe into his cause; than praying for a wave of non-politician politicians; than romantically hoping for a “Regent" presidential candidate to run ... and, if elected, resign as soon as this is enacted? Or even a SuperPAC to take out those who do not subscribe to his agenda....
Lessig gets populism beautifully… but, in this old politico's view, doesn’t get politicians or politics. Quixotic mechanisms, deriving from a certain blindness to the human element of politics, weaken prospects for achieving a noble goal. To succeed, Lessig, as David, needs five far smoother stones than these....
Will Lessig catch lightning in a bottle? Will he succeed in birthing a financing system for Congressional elections that demands less time raising money, and raises its money from a wider slice of America? If so, will it bring about the transformation in government responsiveness he promises?
As former Federal Reserve Governor Henry Wallich once said, “Experience is the name we give to our past mistakes, reform that which we give to future ones.” Wikipedia notes that the first PAC was created by the CIO in response to the Taft-Hartley Act prohibiting campaign contributions by labor unions. PACs really took off in response to amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act restricting the amount of money that could be given directly to a Congressional campaign.
That's neither a snarky aside nor counsel of despair. This could succeed.
Is this good code? The Devil, Lessig, is in the details.
Meanwhile … The USA is Lesterland belongs at the center of our immediate and future politics. It belongs in your mind.
Welcome to Lesterland. Welcome to the most radical project in America today.