PILPSS Speaker Lessig Explains 'Corrupting Influence of Money on American Politics'

Professor Lawrence Lessig - Public Interest Law and Policy Speaker

Though Americans may be more ideologically divided than ever, there is one thing on which most would agree: money plays too big a role in the political process today. More specifically, according to legal scholar, author, and political activist Lawrence Lessig, money is corrupting the framers’ vision of America as a representative democracy.

Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, shared his views at a recent Public Interest Law and Policy Speakers Series lecture. Co-sponsored by the Assembly Series, University Libraries, the American Constitution Society, and the Public Interest Law Society, Lessig’s lecture drew from his most recent book, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. 

“We can’t ignore the problem of corruption anymore,” Lessig said. “We need a government that works for the left and the right.” 

To explain how America got to this point, Lessig went back to “the icon for the theory of American Constitutional government” that James Madison outlined in Federalist No. 10. That theory proposed a representative democracy—a government dependent on the people alone—to eliminate the effects of factions, or groups who are motivated by impulses that are against the long-term rights or interests of the people. Lessig called this central idea of Federalist No. 10 the “republican principle.” 

Madison envisioned a large republic in which the effects of minority factions would be eliminated by the vote of the majority of people. But his theory also envisioned the possibility of a majority faction, and the remainder of Federalist No. 10 is devoted to eliminating the effects of a majority faction. 

Public Interest Law and Policy Speaker - Professor Lawrence Lessig

However, in Lessig’s view Madison erred in his ultimate belief that the large size of the republic, with so many different viewpoints, would protect the country from the creation of a majority faction. 

“That’s totally wrong,” Lessig said. “It has been the Bill of Rights, something Madison didn’t think the Constitution needed, that in fact has been the bulwark against the majority abusing the rights of the minority. And with respect to the problem of the minority faction, as we look at Washington today, we must recognize that this has not been solved.” 

To illustrate why this is the case, Lessig asked the audience to imagine a country called “Lesterland.” Like the United States, Lesterland has about 311 million people. Of those people, 144,000—or less than .05 percent—are named “Lester.” 

Lester-land has two elections—a general election, in which everyone of voting age can vote, and a “Lester election,” in which only the 144,000 people named “Lester” can vote. But the only way to become a candidate in the general election is to do very well in the Lester election. 

So in Lesterland, the people technically have influence over the general election, but since the general election candidates are those favored by the Lesters, the election may be skewed to support the Lesters’ viewpoints. 

The United States, Lessig said, also has two elections—a general election and a “money” election, in which funders choose the candidates who get into the general election. 

“The key is to understand that there are as few ‘funders’ in the U.S. as there are ‘Lesters’ in Lester-land,” Lessig said. 

For example, in 2010, only .26 percent of the people gave more than $200 to any one Congressional candidate, .05 percent gave the maximum, and .01 percent gave more than $10,000. In 2012, .000042 percent—132 Americans—contributed 60 percent of the SuperPAC funds. 

“I would say that today, at most, .05% of the people are relevant funders of elections in the United States,” Lessig said. 

Meanwhile, members of Congress spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising, Lessig noted, adding that they behave like animals in a “Skinner Box,” a device that doles out rewards (food) for animals that push the right buttons. 

“They know the right buttons to push to get the money they need as they spend hours and hours calling people for contributions,” he said. Candidates quickly develop a “sixth sense” about how to adjust their views to raise more money. 

As flawed as democracy is in Lesterland, Lessig said that it actually fares worse in the United States. 

“In Lesterland, there is at least the possibility that the Lesters will act for the good of Lesterland,” he explained. “But in the U.S., the vast majority of that .05 percent are acting to protect their own private interests, not those of ‘the people.’” 

Public Interest Law and Policy Speaker Lawrence Lessig with Washington University Law professors Tokarz, Collins and Richards

American Democracy today is thus a corruption of what the framers intended, Lessig said. “They called it a ‘republic,’ a ‘representative democracy,’ in which one branch of government would be dependent upon the people alone, and they were to represent all people, ‘not the rich more than the poor.’” 

Lessig closed by recalling an anecdote in which a woman on the street reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin, “Mr. Franklin, what have you wrought?”—and he replied, “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.” 

“We must recognize the fact that we have lost that republic, that representative democracy dependent on the people alone,” he said. “That is not our country today. But there is no doubt that we must find a way to work to get it back by changing the way we fund elections.” 

- By Timothy J. Fox