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Lawrence Lessig on How We Lost Our Democracy

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'Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It' by Lawrence Lessig

Courtesy of Twelve/Hachette Book Group

The following is an excerpt from Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It by Lawrence Lessig.


There is a feeling today among too many Americans that we might not make it. Not that the end is near, or that doom is around the corner, but that a distinctly American feeling of inevitability, of greatness—​culturally, economically,  politically—​is gone. That we have become Britain. Or Rome. Or Greece. A generation ago Ronald Reagan rallied the nation to deny a similar charge: Jimmy Carter’s worry that our nation had fallen into a state of “malaise.” I was one of those so rallied, and I still believe that Reagan was right. But the feeling I am talking about today is different: not that we, as a people, have lost anything of our potential, but that we, as a republic, have. That our capacity for governing—​the product, in part, of a Constitution we have revered for more than two centuries—​has come to an end. That the thing that we were once most proud of—​this, our republic—​is the one thing that we have all learned to ignore. Government is an embarrassment. It has lost the capacity to make the most essential decisions. And slowly it begins to dawn upon us: a ship that can’t be steered is a ship that will sink.

We didn’t always feel this way. There were times when we were genuinely  proud—​as a people, and as a republic—​and when we proudly boasted to the world about the Framers’ (flawed but still) ingenious design. No doubt, we still speak of the founding with reverence. But we seem to miss that the mess that is our government today grew out of the genius that the Framers crafted two centuries ago. That, however much we condemn what government has become, we forget it is the heir to something we still believe divine. We inherited an extraordinary estate. On our watch, we have let it fall to ruin.

The clue that something is very wrong is the endless list of troubles that sit on our collective plate but that never get resolved: bloated and inefficient bureaucracies; an invisible climate policy; a tax code that would embarrass Dickens; health care policies that have little to do with health; regulations designed to protect inefficiency; environmental policies that exempt the producers of the greatest environmental harms; food that is too expensive (since protected); food that is unsafe (since unregulated); a financial system that has already caused great harm, has been left unreformed, and is primed and certain to cause great harm again.

The problems are many. Too many. Our eyes get fixed upon one among them, and our passions get devoted to fixing that one. In that focus, however, we fail to see the thread that ties them all together.

We are, to steal from Thoreau, the “thousand[s] hacking at the branches of evil,” with “[n]one striking at the root.”

This book names that root. It aims to inspire “rootstrikers.” The root—​not the single cause of everything that ails us, not the one reform that would make democracy hum, but instead, the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first. The cure that would be generative—​the single, if impossibly difficult, intervention that would give us the chance to repair the rest.

For we have no choice but to try to repair the rest. Republicans and Democrats alike insist we are on a collision course with history. Our government has made fiscal promises it cannot keep. Yet we ignore them. Our planet spins furiously to a radically changed climate, certain to impose catastrophic costs on a huge portion of the world’s population. We ignore this, too. Everything our government -touches—​from health care to Social Security to the monopoly rights we call patents and copyright—​it poisons. Yet our leaders seem oblivious to the thought that there’s anything that needs fixing. They preen about, ignoring the elephant in the room. They act as if Ben Franklin would be proud.

Ben Franklin would weep. The republic that he helped birth is lost. The 89 percent of Americans who have no confidence in Congress (as reported by the latest Gallup poll) are not idiots. They are not even wrong. Yet they fail to recognize just why this government doesn’t deserve our confidence. Most of us get distracted. Most of us ignore the root.

We were here at least once before.

One hundred years ago America had an extraordinary political choice. The election of 1912 gave voters an unprecedented range of candidates for president of the United States.

On the far Right was the “stand pat,”  first-​term Republican William Howard Taft, who had served as Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of war, but who had not carried forward the revolution on the Right that Roosevelt thought he had started.

On the far Left was the most successful socialist candidate for president in American history, Eugene Debs, who had run for president twice before, and who would run again, from prison, in 1920 and win the largest popular vote that any socialist has ever received in a national American election.

In the middle were two “Progressives”: the immensely popular former president Teddy Roosevelt, who had imposed upon himself a two-​term limit, but then found the ideals of reform that he had launched languishing within the Republican Party; and New Jersey’s governor and former Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, who promised the political machine–​-bound Democratic Party the kind of reform that Roosevelt had begun within the Republican Party.

These two self-described Progressives were very different. Roosevelt was a big-government reformer. Wilson, at least before the First World War, was a small​-government, pro-​federalist reformer. Each saw the same overwhelming threat to America’s democracy—​the capture of government by powerful special interests—​even if each envisioned a very different remedy for that capture. Roosevelt wanted a government large enough to match the concentrated economic power that was then growing in America; Wilson, following Louis Brandeis, wanted stronger laws limiting the size of the concentrated economic power then growing in America.

Presidential reelection campaigns are not supposed to be bloody political battles. But Taft had proven himself to be a particularly inept politician (he was later a much better chief justice of the Supreme Court), and after Roosevelt’s term ended, business interests had reasserted their dominant control of the Republican Party. Yet even though dissent was growing across the political spectrum, few seemed to doubt that the president would be reelected. Certainly Roosevelt felt certain enough of that to delay any suggestion that he would enter the race to challenge his own hand-​picked successor.

A Wisconsin Republican changed all that. In January 1911, Senator Robert La Follette and his followers launched the National Progressive Republican League. Soon after, La Follette announced his own campaign for the presidency. Declaring that “popular government in America has been thwarted . . . ​by the special interests,” the League advocated five core reforms, all of which attacked problems of process, not substance. The first four demanded changes to strengthen popular control of government (the election of senators, direct primaries, direct election of delegates to presidential conventions, and the spread of the state initiative process). The last reform demanded “a thoroughgoing corrupt practices act.”

La Follette’s campaign initially drew excitement and important support. It faltered, however, when he seemed to suffer a mental breakdown during a speech at a press dinner in Philadelphia. But the campaign outed, and increasingly embarrassed, the “stand pat” Republicans. As Roosevelt would charge in April 1912:

    The Republican party is now facing a great crisis. It is to decide whether it will be, as in the days of Lincoln, the party of the plain people, the party of progress, the party of social and industrial justice; or whether it will be the party of privilege and of special interests, the heir to those who were Lincoln’s most bitter opponents, the party that represents the great interests within and without Wall Street which desire through their control over the servants of the public to be kept immune from punishment when they do wrong and to be given privileges to which they are not entitled.

The term progressive is a confused and much misunderstood moniker for perhaps the most important political movement at the turn of the last century. We confuse it today with liberals, but back then there were progressives of every political stripe in America—on the Left and on the Right, and with dimensional spins in the middle (the Prohibitionists, for example). Yet one common thread that united these different strands of reform was the recognition that democratic government in America had been captured. Journalists and writers at the turn of the twentieth century taught America “that business corrupts politics,” as Richard McCormick put it. Corruption of the grossest forms—​the sort that would make convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff wince—​was increasingly seen to be the norm throughout too much of American government. Democracy, as in rule of the people, was a joke. As historian George Thayer wrote, describing the “golden age of boodle” (1876–​-1926): “Never has the American political process been so corrupt. No office was too high to purchase, no man too pure to bribe, no principle too sacred to destroy, no law too fundamental to break.”

Or again, Teddy Roosevelt (1910): “Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.”

To respond to this “corruption,” Progressives launched a series of reforms to reclaim government. Many of these reforms were hopeless disasters (the ballot initiative and elected judges), and some were both disasters and evil (Prohibition and eugenics, to name just two). But mistakes notwithstanding, the Progressive Era represents an unprecedented moment of experimentation and engagement, all motivated by a common recognition that the idea of popular sovereignty in America had been sold. The problem was not, as McCormick describes, a “product of misbehavior by ‘bad’ men,” but was instead now seen as the predictable “outcome of identifiable economic and political forces.”

That recognition manifested itself powerfully on November 5, 1912: The incumbent Republican placed third (23.2 percent) in the -four-​-man race; the socialist, a distant fourth (6 percent); and Teddy Roosevelt (27.4 percent) got bested by the “new” Democrat, Woodrow Wilson (41.8 percent).

Yet only when you add together these two self-​identified Pro-gressives do you get a clear sense of the significance of 1912: almost 70 percent of America had voted for a “progressive.” Seventy percent of America had said, “This democracy is corrupted; we demand it be fixed.” Seventy percent refused to “stand pat.”

A century later we suffer the same struggle, but without anything like the same clarity. A “fierce discontent,” as Roosevelt described America in 1906, is once again raging throughout the republic. Now, as then, it gets expressed as “agitation” against “evil,” and a “firm determination to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics.” We look to a collapsed economy, to raging deficits, to a Wall Street not yet held to account, and we feel entitled to our anger. And so extreme is that entitlement that it makes even violence seem sensible, if only to the predictably insane extremes in any modern society.

Roosevelt was encouraged by this agitation against evil. It was, he said, a “feeling that is to be heartily welcomed.” It was “a sign,” he promised, “of healthy life.”

Yet today such agitation is not a sign of healthy life. It is a symptom of ignorance. For though the challenge we face is again the battle against a democracy deflected by special interests, our struggle is not against “evil,” or even the “authors of evil.” Our struggle is against something much more banal. Not the banal in the now-​overused sense of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil—​of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler’s Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal.

For the enemy we face is not Hitler. Neither is it the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. Our enemy is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engendered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women. And if we’re to do anything about this corruption, we must learn to agitate against more than evil. We must remember that harm sometimes comes from timid, even pathetic souls. That the enemy doesn’t always march. Sometimes it simply shuffles.

The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is instead in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

As a former young Republican—-indeed, Pennsylvania’s state chairman of the Teen Age Republicans—​I don’t mean to rally anyone against the rich. But I do mean to rally Republicans and Democrats alike against a certain kind of rich that no theorist on the Right or the Left has ever sought seriously to defend: The rich whose power comes not from hard work, creativity, innovation, or the creation of wealth. The rich who instead secure their wealth through the manipulation of government and politicians. The great evil that we as Americans face is the banal evil of second-​rate minds who can’t make it in the private sector and who therefore turn to the massive wealth directed by our government as the means to securing wealth for themselves. The enemy is not evil. The enemy is well dressed.

Theorists of corruption don’t typically talk much about decent souls. Their focus is upon criminals—​the venally corrupt, who bribe to buy privilege, or the systematically corrupt, who make the people (or, better, the rich) dependent upon the government to ensure that the people (or, better, the rich) protect the government.

So, too, when we speak of politicians and our current system of governance, many of us think of our government as little more than criminal, or as crime barely hidden—​from Jack Abramoff (“I was participating in a system of legalized bribery. All of it is bribery, every bit of it”) to Judge Richard Posner (“the legislative system [is] one of quasi-​bribery”) to Carlyle Group co‑founder David Rubenstein (“legalized bribery”) to former congressman and CIA director Leon Panetta (“legalized bribery has become part of the culture of how this place operates”) to one of the Senate’s most important figures, Russell B. Long (D-La.; 1949-1987) (“Almost a hairline’s difference separates bribes and contributions”).

But in this crude form, in America at least, such crimes are rare. At the federal level, bribery is almost extinct. There are a handful of pathologically stupid souls bartering government favors for private kickbacks, but very few. And at both the federal and the state levels, the kind of Zimbabwean control over economic activity is just not within our DNA. So if only the criminal are corrupt, then ours is not a corrupt government.

The aim of this book, however, is to convince you that a much more virulent, if much less crude, corruption does indeed wreck our democracy. Not a corruption caused by a gaggle of evil souls. On the contrary, a corruption practiced by decent people, people we should respect, people working extremely hard to do what they believe is right, yet decent people working with a system that has evolved the most elaborate and costly bending of democratic government in our history. There are good people here, yet extraordinary bad gets done.

This corruption has two elements, each of which feeds the other. The first element is bad governance, which means simply that our government doesn’t track the expressed will of the people, whether on the Left or on the Right. Instead, the government tracks a different interest, one not directly affected by votes or voters. Democracy, on this account, seems a show or a ruse; power rests elsewhere.

The second element is lost trust: when democracy seems a charade, we lose faith in its process. That doesn’t matter to some of us—​we will vote and participate regardless. But to more rational souls, the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real. Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.

In the first three parts of what follows, I show how these elements of corruption fit together. I want you to understand the way they connect, and how they feed on each other. In the book’s final part, I explore how we might do something about them.

The prognosis is not good. The disease we face is not one that nations cure, or, at least, cure easily. But we should understand the options. For few who work to understand what has gone wrong will be willing to accept defeat—​without a fight.

From the book Republic, Lost. Copyright (c) 2011 by Lawrence Lessig. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

How Money Corrupts Congress: Interview with Lawrence Lessig

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