You Say You Want a Revolution?

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Posted By Michael Bryan

A lot of our time here at BforAZ is spent railing against incredibly stupid policies adopted by Congress and the crazy extremes to which our political parties (especially the GOP, in my view) have polarized our political dialog. Many important issues (health care, the federal budget, unemployment relief, climate change, the national debt, etc., etc.) are either not addressed, or are inadequately addressed by our political system. It often seems as if America has become effectively ungovernable, and our government has become unable to meaningfully address the very serious problems we face in the 21st century.

The problem, as most of us recognize intuitively, is that we can no longer trust the Congress actually serves the national interest. Instead, Congress has become dependent upon the lobbyists and big-money donors who fund members' campaigns, rather than upon the voters alone. Thus Congress pays attention to the issues of importance to those lobbyists and donors, effectively setting an agenda that increasingly has little to do with the preferences and concerns of average Americans.

Professor Lawrence Lessig, who is one of my favorite public intellectuals, has devoted himself to the study of why Congress has so consistently gotten wrong what should have been 'no brainer' decisions regarding copyright, patent, and internet regulation (his areas of legal study and expertise). The results of his study of the problem and prescriptions for how to fix it are contained in his latest book 'Republic, Lost', which I have now read through twice.

His conclusion is that underlying the crisis in confidence in our political system (only 9% of Americans have confidence that Congress is looking after the public interest – as Lessig points out, more Americans had confidence in the British Crown at the time of the Revolution…) is the corrupting influence of money in our politics. Not the venal sort of criminal corruption – taking bribes for policy – but a more subtle corruption that has caused Congress to become dependent on special interest money to fund members' campaigns.

Lessig argues that the intended dependency of Congress, designed by our Founders and enshrined in our Constitution, is upon the voters alone. Congress should respond to the will of the people as expressed in terms of votes.

What we have developed instead is a kind of weighted two-tier system: actual votes, which are increasingly irrelevant to actually influencing Congress, and the money vote, in which a special interest, corporation, or even a foreigner, can buy as many votes as they can afford. Increasingly, it is the second system of money votes that Congress actually responds to, not the former, as intended in a republic. Unfortunately, this system has become so entrenched and embedded in our legal system that rooting it out will be very difficult, indeed.

That Congress has become utterly dependent upon those who fund their campaigns is undeniable and obvious to most everyone. The problem with that dependency is that those who fund political campaigns are a but a small subset of the voters, and their interests are not necessarily the interests of the voters as whole. It is this 'dependency corruption' which subverts our republic, causing Congress to ignore the needs of those voters, on whom they are intended to be dependent, in favor of lavishing attention on those who can afford to pay for access to government.

Lessig, of course, makes the case more persuasively than I ever could. Here's Lessig summarizing the thesis of 'Republic, Lost' to a Google employee audience:

Campaign finance reform is certainly not the most important issue we face as a nation, but it must be the first. For unless we restore the proper dependency of Congress to the people alone, reform and sensible policy in other areas will inevitably be blocked by those with a vested interest in the status quo, and the money to prevent any real change.

If you are open to the idea that the way we finance political campaigns is the first problem we must address to reform our political system, then perhaps you will want to purchase a copy of Lessig's book or check out a copy at your local library, and then join the grassroots effort to reform Congress with the good people at Rootstrikers.org and United Re:Public.