In 1945, the world had very few democracies. Millions of people across the free world had just fought and died to hold back a bloody tide of totalitarianism; standing in the bombed-out ruins of Western civilisation, my grandparents’ generation, frequently called the Greatest Generation, set out to rebuild the institutions of democracy where they had been destroyed and spread the gospel of democracy to countries where it was lacking. It believed the world needed democracy and that democracy could fix the world.
Fast-forward to 2015 and we find that democracy is in trouble again, this time from within. A sense of malaise has rolled in like a grey mist across America, indeed across much of the West, as the average citizen’s belief in the democratic process, and the belief that they can affect change through it, has diminished. Once heralded as the panacea to many perennial problems, democracy has failed to take root in many parts of the world. Worse, it has become dysfunctional at home. Despite the ideal of rule by the people, American democracy has not delivered on its promise, as government seems to many to be rule by the wealthy, in a game rigged by the wealthy.
Professor Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, and author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, has spent a lot of time thinking about how the American republic has failed to live up to its ideals. Speaking in London last week at the InnoTech Summit—a series of networking and ideas-sharing events that seek to bridge the gap between policy makers, entrepreneurs, and investors—Lessig claimed democracy was in grave peril, but that the problem could be fixed.
Representative democracy has become corrupted and the system cannot fix itself. It’s not the explicit corruption of bribery and payments for access that have caused this situation, however. As Lessig points out, in terms of illegal activity, this is the least corrupt government, perhaps ever. Rather, a corruption of the system and even ideals of democracy has taken place, in which fundraising has been allowed to become the centre-point of American politics. Lessig estimates that the average politician now spends 30-70% of his or her time directly on fundraising activities. Politicians, therefor, out of necessity to survive in office, have developed a sixth sense for raising money that influences everything they do.
Lessig, born in 1961, believes that his generation has overseen the biggest denigration of politics of the last century—so much so that Lessig refers to them as the Worst Generation. It has allowed money to corrupt democracy in America leaving the electorate—your average Joe and average Jane—deeply cynical about politics and politicians. People no longer feel their voice matters.
In the recent past, blacks were systematically denied their right to vote, and completely excluded from participation in the Democratic primary elections in the South. This obvious corruption of the democratic process was fought by a civil rights movement. “The battle for equal rights was a fight to remove that illegitimate bias,” Lessig says, “and give African Americans an equal say in their government.” But illegitimate bias still exists in politics today. Today, it’s not a problem of race or wealth inequality, says Lessig, but an inequality of citizenship.
Today there’s no “white primary.” Today, there’s a “green primary.” To run in any election, primary or general, candidates must raise extraordinary sums, privately. Yet they raise that money not from all of us. They raise it from a tiny, tiny few. In the last non-presidential election, only about .05 percent of America gave the maximum contribution to even one congressional candidate in either the primary or general election; .01 percent gave $10,000 or more; and in 2012, 132 Americans gave 60 percent of the superPAC money spent. This is the biased filter in the first stage of our American democracy.
This notion of the “biased filter” is at the heart of Lessig’s critique of how political fundraising corrupts American democracy. He calls it Tweedism, after William “Boss” Tweed, the 19th-century American politician who said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating”. Fundraising, Lessig argues, has become its own contest, giving the economic elite unparalleled influence in American politics.
There are reform solutions on both the Left and the Right to Tweedism, according to Lessig, but the problem is generating enough political will to create change. To build this change Lessig encourages people to participate in walking protests, built on the tradition of the Selma to Montgomery marches, which caught the attention of the world in 1965. Have a look at the New Hampshire Rebellion Web site to get a feel for what this looks like in action. While getting big money out of politics is essential to fixing democracy, I wonder if Lessig, by suggesting this is the civil rights movement out our time, and appropriating the symbolism and language of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, risks diminishing the importance of the ongoing fight for racial justice happening in America right now.
During Lessig’s talk, there was no mention of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the fight to end police brutality against black men. Lessig’s ideas to create procedural reform to the American democratic system can help reshape political culture for the better, but his approach to change feels, despite his best intentions, top-down. Not only was there no mention of #BlackLivesMatter, but there was no mention of the minimum wage campaign (the largest protest of low wage workers in the history of the USA), Occupy or any other major social, bottom-up campaign for economic and political reform. While campaign finance reform should be at the top of the political agenda, unless the idea connects to deeper desires for freedom and justice, I don’t see how such reform, likely requiring constitutional change, can come about.