This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on lessons I’ve learned through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA at CAN TV and my time spent at the 2011 National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR).
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root”- Thoreau
If there’s any one issue that liberals and conservatives can agree on it’s that there’s too much money in today’s politics. Following the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, campaign finance reform finally reached a crisis point. Without any restrictions on the amount of donations companies and other big money can give, unlimited funds began running towards political candidates of all parties. Lawrence Lessig, one of the headline speakers at #NCMR, issued a call to arms against this form of corruption.
Lessig pointed to the fate of popular Open Internet legislation as an example of the influence this big money already has on political issues. The movement towards network neutrality and an open Internet was a popular one, with support from hundreds of thousands of Americans and politicians from both parties. While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to promote net neutrality legislation, saying it is essential to development, diversity in the media, and equality of access to information. And yet, despite Obama’s election and widespread bipartisan support, this issue is now politically dead.
According to Lessig the root of the problem boils down to this: Private funds drive public elections. In order to better their political chances, politicians always “lean towards the green,” instinctively adjusting their views to maximize the opportunity for them and their parties to become the party in power.
“There’s no quid pro quo bribery here,” he said. “It’s a corruption of the independence of these institutions.”
This corruption takes many forms, according to Lessig: “Revolving door” jobs for regulators; Cronyism that values loyalty above competence; And unlimited political contributions. After all, members spend 30-70% of their time trying to get reelected or to support their party. It shouldn’t be surprising that their need for funds to get re-elected would impact their decisions.
In a democracy that’s supposed to have a Congress “dependent on the people alone,” he said, these factors lead to a startling fact: only 11% of Americans have confidence in Congress. There were more people who believed in the British crown during the Revolutionary War than believe in Congress today.
In order to confront this issue, Lessig launched what he’s calling #rootstrikers, a web-based project that allows everyone to document the influence of money in politics. Whenever participants stumble upon a news item or other story that demonstrates the impact of money on politics, they can share it with social media and tag it with “#rootstrikers.” Then a centralized database collects these articles in one place where people can review and share them. By bringing all of these stories into one place, he hopes to convince more people to take up the mantle of campaign finance reform.
- Private funds drive public elections- big business, big labor, and big banks provide most funds for candidates.
- Members spend 30-70% of their time trying to get reelected or to support their party.
- 11% of Americans have confidence in Congress; There were more people who believed in the British crown during the Revolutionary war than believe in Congress today.
“There’s no progress so long as private funds drive public elections,” Lawrence Lessig
“Every single issue we care about is blocked by the same fundamental rot… We won’t get anything real from our government until we change this”- Lessig
Here’s the video of Lawrence Lessig giving his speech