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Why Washington is corrupt

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Story highlights

  • Lawrence Lessig: America's democracy is hobbled by the power of money in politics
  • A tiny slice of Americans provide funds that largely determine who wins primaries, he says
  • The funders of elections generally don't share most American's priorities, he says
  • Lessig: Congress should vote to fund campaigns through small contributions

We Americans are disgusted with our government. We ranked fixing "corruption in Washington" number 2 on Gallup's poll of top presidential priorities in 2012. Yet Washington doesn't seem to care. Neither President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney even mentioned "corruption" as an issue that their administration would address. And it will take a lot more work by us to get them to pay attention.

The first step, however, is to figure out how best to talk about the problem. People say the problem is "money in politics." That we need to "get money out." That "money is not speech." That "corporations are not people."

These are slogans, and they're quite effective at rallying at least some of us to the cause. But as slogans, they're likely to turn off most to the right of America's center. And in any case, they don't quite capture what's gone wrong with our political system today. They therefore don't point us to a plausible solution to the problem of our political system today.

So in my TED talk, I created Lesterland: Imagine a country like the United States, with just as many "Lesters" as the United States (about 150,000 out of a population of more than 300 million, or about 0.05%). And imagine those Lesters have a very special power: Each election cycle has two elections. In one, the general election, all citizens get to vote. In the other, the "Lester election," only "Lesters" get to vote.

Lawrence Lessig

But here's the catch: To be allowed to run in the general election, you must do extremely well in the Lester election. You don't necessarily need to win, but you must do extremely well.

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    We all get what Lesterland would be like. Sure, as the Supreme Court said in Citizens United, "the People" of Lesterland would have the "ultimate influence" over elected officials. Ultimate, because in the final election, the people get to vote. But "the People" only get to vote for the candidates who have made "the Lesters" happy. And no doubt, that fact will produce a subtle, understated, somewhat camouflaged bending to keep those Lesters happy.

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    Once you see Lesterland, and the corruption it creates you understand USA-land, and the corruption we suffer. For the United States is Lesterland.

    Like Lesterland, the United States also has two elections. One a voting election, where citizens get to select the candidates who will ultimately govern. But the other is a money election, where the candidates who wish to run in the voting election raise the money they need to compete. As in Lesterland, the candidates don't necessarily need to win the money election. But they must do extremely well.

    And here's the stunning fact that links the United States to Lesterland: there are just as few "relevant funders" in USA-land as there are Lesters in Lesterland.

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    Less than 0.05% of us — about 150,000 Americans — give enough money to be even noticed by the candidates desperate to fund their campaigns. Even that number is likely an exaggeration. The better number is probably closer to 50,000 Americans (just about the number of "Sheldons" in America) (Really)

    Now that fact alone — that we fund campaigns from a tiny slice of us — doesn't necessarily create the corruption that is our Congress. What does that is how the money is raised from that tiny slice of us.

    For members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money from this tiny, tiny slice of us. Think of a rat in a Skinner box, learning which buttons to push to get pellets of food, and you have a pretty good sense of the life of a congressman: a constant attention to what must be done to raise money, and to raise money not from all of us, but from the tiniest slice of the 1% of us.

    And so what issues might that tiny, tiny slice of the 1% care about? Unemployment? Out-of-control health care costs? Actually reforming Wall Street? Obviously not. The issues that matter to this tiny fraction of the 1% are not the issues that matter to America.

    This is the corruption of USA-land. And it will only ever change if we change the way we fund elections.

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    Members of Congress will always be dependent upon their funders. But if we adopted a system to fund campaigns like the one proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, The Grassroots Democracy Act, then "the funders" would be "the People." If members raised the funds they needed from small contributions only, then many more of us would be the "relevant funders." And thus when members were responsive to their "funders," they would thus be responsive to that many more of us.

    That, after all, was the Framers' original design. James Madison promised us a Congress "dependent upon the people alone." "Alone." We've got instead a Congress dependent upon the people and dependent upon the Lesters.

    We need to find a way back to Madison's original design, so that we can find a way to restore again a government that works. Leaving Lesterland is the critical first step. Congress could do that tomorrow.

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