Author Lawrence Lessig explores the influence of money on power and politics and how it fosters the decline of democracy
In “Republic Lost,” Lawrence Lessig delves deeply into the influence of money in American politics and how it has collapsed our government’s ability to govern. If the field running for office is highly restricted, you don’t have a democracy. Candidate nominations are driven by those who can raise money: To be credible, a candidate needs to “show the money” they’ve raised from the very few people who give to campaigns.
Thus, politicians are obliged to spend most of their time raising money, then obliged to those who donated to them. Equality of citizens should mean equal political empowerment. Money in politics destroys this. Before a voting primary, America has a money primary.
Lessig believes this has led to a “vetocracy,” where change of almost any kind is usually vetoed, due to so many having the power to block proposed change. Sensible reform has become impossible. A vetocracy is a system that has perfected the ability to make decisions that are bad for society, but beneficial to the few with power. Political funders are setting the rules in our markets, destroying what is supposed to be a free market. Entire industries become untouchable because to regulate them would be political suicide for those in power. Exhibit No. 1: The financial sector, where we have privatized the benefits but socialized the costs.
Lessig stresses the need for “citizen public funding” of elections. In America today, there are two conceptually different methods for this. Republicans favor vouchers, while Democrats generally support matching funds for small contributions. Vouchers are akin to giving voters a $50 gift card to give to the candidate of their choice (as long as the candidates meet a minimal standard that guarantees legitimacy). The matching-funds method would have government match small contributions, perhaps at ratios of 9 to 1. These approaches would limit the power of lobbyists.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision led to unlimited contributions to independent political action committees, enabling the rise of Super pacs. Because of a loophole in the way the law requires disclosures, billionaires, corporations and unions can use Super pacs to launder their contributions. If the entity giving money to a super pac is itself a nonprofit, then all that must be disclosed is the name of that nonprofit, which may or may not disclose the names of its contributors. This is what is called “dark money” in American politics.
Lessig chronicles how the amount of money in politics has skyrocketed. These infusions of cash drove Democrats to be more pro-business and drove both parties to be more extreme, albeit Republicans probably more so than Democrats. This extremism was needed to raise money, and more money led to greater political polarization. Lobbyists and Super pacs are eager to supply cash that obliges policymakers to them. Lobbyists give their clients a huge return on investment: for every $1 spent on lobbying for targeted tax benefits, the return is between $6 and $20. Being a politician, or working for one, is a stepping stone to the big bucks of working as a lobbyist. There has been exponential growth in the numbers of politicians retiring and becoming lobbyists. The system feeds itself.
Can Congress do anything about this? Lessig thinks they can, though he recognizes the reasons for pessimism.
The Constitution outlines two modes by which our fundamental laws on corruption could be improved. First, Congress can propose amendments to the Constitution (which the states then ratify); second, states can call on Congress to convene a “Convention for proposing Amendments” to the Constitution, or the “Article V convention.”
This is not a “constitutional convention,” as some call it, but rather a “proposing convention,” which requires three-quarters of states to ratify proposals resulting from Congress’s convention. States can ratify or refuse to ratify in either their legislatures or at state conventions, with the method chosen by Congress. In the U.S., we have always followed the first mode: Congress proposing amendments.
Lessig argues the Left has focused too much on getting state legislatures to pass a resolution “demanding” Congress propose an amendment. But he believes “there is exactly a zero chance that the U.S. Congress is going to pass by a two-thirds vote an amendment to effectively reverse Citizens United. Zero.”
The Right has pursued pushing Congress to call a convention. For this to happen, two-thirds of the states must make applications demanding Congress to call the convention. This has never happened before.
Lessig believes the solution relies on getting both the Left and Right to compromise. The Left needs to get real and move to the second option of calling for Congress to call for a convention. But the Right has got to lighten up on its restrictions for the scope of the convention. We need a conception of a convention that no one has any reason to fear. People have fears of a “runaway” convention where “extreme” topics are discussed. Lessig describes safety valves to alleviate these fears but he believes the foremost challenge for this movement is getting the American public to better understand how money has made our government utterly dysfunctional.
This powerful book is worth the read.
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