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4 June 2015

In Washington, money talks louder than ordinary Americans – and we do nothing

We’re staring at our drunk uncle Sam. We have lost faith that he could ever break the habit. So we don’t even ask any more. We just try to get along, accepting “reality”.

By Lawrence Lessig

There will be a time when all of this is obvious but, right now, the obvious in American politics is unsayable. We have evolved a system for funding campaigns that gives enormous power to the tiniest fraction of us. The only solution is for ­federal elections to be publicly funded. Yet practically no leader in the US political system is willing to stand before the American people and tell them what is clearly true: that private funding of public campaigns impairs and corrupts our government.

Just how corrupt is the current system? In Texas, in 1923, the Democratic primary was a “White Primary”. The state legislature forbade black people from voting in it. In theory, if they could register, African Americans were permitted to vote in the general election. But they were not permitted to help select who could run in the ­general election.

That system was corrupt. It was another two decades, however, before the Supreme Court could find a way to declare it unconstitutional. It was corrupt because it denied black citizens an equal voice in their democracy: 16 per cent of Texans were blocked from participating in the essential first step of selecting representatives. Those 16 per cent were right to believe that a basic commitment of representative democracy had been violated.

We don’t have a White Primary in the US any more. We have a “Green Primary” – a primary the colour of our money. The first step for anyone (save the super-rich) running for federal office is to raise the money he or she needs to be deemed “credible” as a candidate. Raising that money is a contest, a kind of primary. In that primary, certain citizens matter more than others. Those capable of giving the largest contributions matter most. As candidates for Congress spend 30 to 70 per cent of their time competing in the Green Primary by raising money, they become quite good at telling large funders what large funders want to hear.

These large funders are few. In 2014, fewer than 60,000 Americans – 0.02 per cent of America – gave the maximum amount to even just one candidate ($5,200 for the primary and general elections). So we have evolved a system in which politicians spend half of their time begging for the funds they need to run for office from a fraction of 1 per cent of us. Is anyone surprised that in perhaps the largest study of actual policy decisions by our government in the history of political science, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page found that policies tracked the views of the economic elite but “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact”?

The Green Primary was not created by the Supreme Court. It existed long before Citizens United v Federal Election Commission (2010), the ruling that allowed corporate money to flood election campaigns. Limits on spending wouldn’t fix this. It isn’t a hole filled with “dark money”. It is not a weakness of voter registration laws or voter ID restrictions. It is simply the predictable product of a choice to allow the funding of campaigns to be outsourced to a tiny few. Those few have wildly more power in this system than the rest of us. We may all be equal but they are more equal than the rest of us.

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The only thing that would end this power inequality is the public funding of political campaigns. Yet within the beltway of Washington, power depends on the existing system surviving. The lobbyist-industrial-congressional complex thrives on the dependency that members of Congress have on campaign money – because it can feed that dependency. The lobbyists get rich, the corporate interests that hire the lobbyists get rich and the congressmen who retire to become lobbyists get rich. The only losers in this economy are the one group this whole system was designed to serve: us, the people.

So, why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t voters demand that politicians change all this? Why don’t we boycott ­giving? Why don’t we protest against the system of unequal citizens?

Because we don’t. The most striking – and depressing – fact about this is that we, the people, do squat to change it. Is that because we like it? It isn’t. In a poll conducted a year ago, 96 per cent of Americans thought it was “important” to reduce the influence of money in politics. But with the very next question we found that 91 per cent thought “reducing the influence of money in politics” wasn’t possible.

We’re staring at our drunk uncle Sam. We have lost faith that he could ever break the habit. So we don’t even ask any more. We just try to get along, accepting “reality”.

Yet the truth is that this addiction could end. A single statute would solve 90 per cent of the problem overnight. There are half a dozen proposals in Congress promoted by activists right now that would radically deprivatise the funding of public campaigns. Any of these changes could fundamentally remake the economy of influence in Washington.

All it would take is for us to utter what is now unsayable. All it would need is voters who ask: “Will you commit to funding public elections publicly?” Crazy talk for the world we live in, I get it. But it is the only kind of talk that could end the insanity that is our government now. We should begin to utter it.

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