Lawrence Lessig Needs Your Help Awakening a Sleeping Giant

Lawrence Lessig sees the American people, enthroned as sovereign of the nation by the United States Constitution, as a sleeping giant. It’s OK to sleep; in general, we’d all rather focus on things other than politics. But there are times when our political system is so broken, we must awaken and flex the powers granted to us by our Constitution. Lessig argues that now is one of those times.

Republic, Lost

The first event in the spring Media Lab Conversations Series featured a conversation between Media Lab Director Joi Ito and lawyer, professor, author, and reformer Lawrence Lessig. Joi and Larry met in Japan in 2002, and their paths crossed a number of times over the following years as each took on campaigns for creative culture and against state corruption.

Lessig most recently shifted to focus entirely on fighting corruption, despite his fame in intellectual property. He begins his talk with an apology for distracting us from our research. In an ideal world, he says, it’d be absurd for us to sit and listen to him. What’s happening here at the Media Lab is some of the most inspiring, creative work there is, and it’s absurd we should have to take time away from these pursuits to listen to a talk about politics.

But he’s here to recruit us, to distract us from our machines for a moment, because it’s critical that people like us pay attention and contribute to the solution of an extraordinary problem. Every 100 years or so, society finds itself at a point where even the geniuses are forced to confront the messy world of politics. In Europe, the physicists working on atomic power and other wonders had to stop their work and confront fascism. Lessig says we’re at a similar place now, where the scientists must look up from our pure research and take action.

Lessig leads with this Thoreau quote that inspired the name of his Rootstrikers campaign:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.

Even further back in time, Benjamin Franklin wrote a clause outlawing gifts to officials, with fear of a potential dependency between the officials and the gift-givers.

Yet in July of last year, Rasmussen reported that 46% of Americans believe Congress is corrupt. The institution isn’t filled with Rod Blagojeviches. It’s filled with people who came to Washington for a public purpose. Nixon said he wasn’t a crook, and so does Congress.

The framers of the Constitution gave us a republic, by which they meant a representative democracy, with a branch of government dependent upon the people alone. The model described in the Constitution places the people as the marionette, pulling the strings of Congress.

And yet it’s the campaign funders pulling the strings. Members of Congress spend between 30-70% of their time raising money to get back into Congress, or to get their party back in power. They develop a sixth sense, as any of us would, of what will raise money, not on important issues 1 through 10, but on issues 11 through 1,000, where a questionable position will draw less attention.

The Funders are Not the People
0.26% of Americans donate to political campaigns
0.05% max out their FEC limit
0.0000063% of Americans gave 80% of the SuperPAC money so far in this election.

This is corruption. It’s not the corruption of cash in brown paper bags, or of Rod Blagojevich selling access. It’s corruption of dependence, and a corruption of the framers’ intent that the Congress be dependent on the people.

Political scientists have trouble estimating the effect of money on policy, which people like former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith spin to suggest that there is no evidence of corruption. A lack of evidence does not suggest an absence of evidence, however.

Ask the public. Across party lines, Americans believe that money buys results in Congress (71-81%). ABC has recently found that 9% of Americans approve of Congress. More Americans supported the British Crown at the time of the American Revolution.

Rock the Vote has found that youth voting rates in 2010 were deflated by the expectation that a vote isn’t enough to make a difference in a corrupt system. The same reason is given by voters of all age groups. Regardless of the issue, from healthcare to global warming to financial reform, reform is essential. The system of government where the funders control Congress will systematically block change as long as it’s in place.

Lessig knows what rational creatures he’s speaking to at MIT. He beseeches us to realize that our current political system will block reason within the halls of Congress, no matter the issue. We are the 1% of people whose very occupation is the pursuit of reason, and we get to spend all day finding the right answer. When you recognize the privilege of living life in terms of doing what makes sense, and realize that our government never gets to ask that question, “What makes sense?”, you realize the responsibility you have to change the system.

Congress is fundamentally corrupt and they are responsible for that corruption.

So what do we do?

If the problem is systemic, and not just a matter of some corrupt people, then the solution is to give Congress a way to fund their campaigns without Faust. They need a way to behave that doesn’t involve selling the country’s future each financial quarter.

Citizen Funded Campaigns
Should citizens fund our campaigns? Or should foreign nationals and corporations fund our campaigns? The Constitution is pretty clear about how it feels about the latter arrangement.

As of now, a miniscule percentage of Americans privately funds our campaigns. While the framers of our Constitution worked extremely hard to make all voters equal on Election Day, our current system allows the tiniest slice of the wealthiest among us to gain the most influence.

One alternative is government-funded elections, where the government dispenses funds. But people complain that their money is used to subsidize speech they don’t believe in. And, like other government funding systems, it becomes bloated.

Lessig proposes a mix between private and government funding. It’s a mix we see in some states, where small donations are amplified by public matching funds. Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have such systems in place.

In 2010, the House came close to passing the Fair Elections Now Act. Lessig proposes what he calls the Grant & Franklin plan. It’s based on the fact that each of us contributes at least $50 (the bill featuring Ulysses S. Grant) to the federal treasury. If we rebated that $50 in form of a democracy voucher, candidates could run entirely on these funds. We could match democracy vouchers with another $50 (making it $100, featuring Benjamin Franklin).

This would amount to a campaign funding system funded with $7 billion, multiple times the $1.8 billion spent in private donations in 2010. Such a plan would remove a source of incessant cynicism.

Would that be enough, given the SuperPACs out there?
No. We’ve entered the age of the SuperPAC, with the Tony Soprano model of influence. Evan Bayh, retired Senator from Indiana, described the impact of the Citizens United case:

Every incumbent is now terrified that, 30 days before their election, some Super PAC will come in and drop millions of dollars in advertising against them.

Candidates feel that they need some form of Super PAC insurance, so that when a (money) bomb is dropped on one side, another (money) bomb gets dropped to neutralize it. You get insurance by paying premiums in advance. Super PACs have succeeded in aligning votes with mere promises of insurance – they actually call members of Congress with scripts saying things like “We need you to support us 80% of the time for us to support you.”

A plan like Lessig’s wouldn’t ban independent political expenditures, but it would limit them within 90 days of an election. If we had these two features, it’d make trust in our institutions possible again.

But is all of this possible? It’s easy to see a problem, and not so difficult to see a solution, but can be quite difficult to enact a solution.

Congressman Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, described Capitol Hill as “a farm league for K Street.” Many in Congress are focused on their lives after government, as lobbyists. Fifty percent of the Senate and forty-two percent of the House left to become lobbyists and cash in on their contacts and experience.

Insiders vs. Outsiders
One Way Forward, by Lawrence LessigLessig just published One Way Forward to chart the course ahead. He sees the primary divide in American politics not between left and right, but between inside and outside. Outsiders have become so disgusted with how things are, they’ve put aside their lives for a moment to try and find an answer. The year 1998 saw Americans rally behind In 2009, the Tea Party took the spotlight, followed by Occupy in 2011.

These waves are building over time. The challenge, Lessig argues, is for these waves to have some awareness of their combined potential, of their latent power. Right now, they’re extremely passionate, but also polarized. We should look at each of these waves and see the cross-partisan potential they have to move and act together, even if right now there’s very low recognition of that potential. That’s what we need to change.

This giant — the people — is sleeping most of the time. It must be awakened. Think of the Allied Forces against Naziism. We must stand on common ground, not because we have a common end, but to recognize the common enemy of corruption.

Lessig doesn’t try to predict the complete arch of this movement. But we do need to engage more ordinary citizens in the practice of teaching. is recruiting citizens who will teach fellow citizens about the connection between the things they care about and the root of it, corruption. If Thoreau’s math found that there are 1,000 striking at the branches for every 1 hitting the root, we’ll need 311,000 teachers for all 3.11 million Americans. That’s their goal.

There’s corruption happening around the world, and around the world, people are rising up in fury against it. Starting this week, Lessig’s asking people to pledge to end corruption, and to specify how they’ll do so. The branding resembles the various Creative Commons licenses.

We Are All Enablers
Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph HazelwoodLessig plays the audio from the Exxon Valdez’s return transmission alerting the dispatcher of the collision and ensuing oil leak. It’s clear to everyone listening that the pilot is intoxicated. The captain escaped conviction, but there’s little doubt to observers that he was drunk.

There was no doubt, however, that he had a problem with alcohol. His own mother testified, and there are records of his license being revoked for DUIs. At the time he capsized a supertanker, he was not allowed to drive a VW Beetle on the highway. But consider everyone else around him: all the people who did nothing while a drunk was driving a supertanker. We are those people.

We have many problems today. And yet our institutions are distracted, too busy to focus. And so are we, too busy doing the real work that produces value and contributes to the world, too busy to focus on this critical problem and give it the serious attention it needs. So who’s to blame?

It’s too easy to point to the evil people. They have their share of responsibility. It’s the good people, the decent people, the most privileged, who have the obligation to fix this. Corruption is permitted by the passivity of the privileged.

A republic depends on the people alone. We have lost our republic, and it’s time for all of us to act to get it back.

Joi points out that the Media Lab is focused on future impact, but also on building stuff that will be immediately useful, as with the Center for Civic Media. With Creative Commons licenses, Lessig built a technical solution that scaled one solution to the widespread problem of traditional copyright’s chokehold. Yet with reform, Lessig’s been writing books and giving talks. What’s the scaleable solution?

“I discover a new limit almost every single day,” Lessig admits. He sees his role as seeding ideas and infecting communities to leverage their own recognition to solve the problem. We can’t choose not to engage in the political system. There are hugely important problems, that, unless the government engages in a serious way, are going to screw us. He admits that it’s enormously frustrating to be researching at the coolest place in the world and be told you need to divert your attention to get America to fix its government…but it’s what we need to do.

Ian Condry asks how we can better model participatory democracy.
Lessig sees a realistic democracy as one where things basically function, and citizens can sleep most of the time, and pay attention when things break down. Things have broken down. It’s completely rational to be ignorant about government right now, because it gives you frustration, and you’d rather spend time with your kids. If we can change the system to give us some faith that democracy is functioning, more people would participate.

People look back to our founding and say, “They were all basically the same white guy.” But we forget: they were radically different people. There were people in that room who believed in slavery, and people who believed that slavery was the moral abomination of the age. They were able to bracket that debate long enough to produce a constitution. We don’t have to draft a constitution — we just have to tweak it a small bit.

How do you actually get the Constitution amended in this environment?
The Constitution provides two paths: Congress proposes an Amendment (every existing Amendment has been ratified this way). Or, if it turns out that Congress itself is the problem, the Constitution allows for a constitutional convention to be held by the states. This almost occurred when Americans were organizing to force elections for Senate seats, but Congress stopped the convention movement by caving to the demands for an elected Senate. Lessig’s OK with organizing a convention movement to the point that Congress must give into the pressure to diffuse it.

Asked about the likelihood of achieving such reform, Lessig asks us to imagine a doctor has just told you that your son has terminal brain cancer. Would you do nothing? Or, would you fight like hell, despite the odds, to do everything possible? When you love something, you fight regardless of rationality. Patriotism is a useful motivator here. We need to find a way to motivate people to act, even assuming it’s impossible, because we have no choice. We can’t being to address the problems we need to address unless we do. You’re only a citizen? That’s all we need. Only a citizen.

What’s the role for the coders of America?
They can enable an infrastructure to rally and organize people effectively to surpass the power on the other side. This is a problem we can only fix in this period of technological transition. The 20th century model of informing and directing people is currently broken, and we can take advantage of this fact. If you’re Tim Wu, you think the current system will soon be co-opted by the powers that be. But even if he’s correct, we have five years before that mold is set. We need more and better tools to topple corruption. So yeah, we need code, the right kind of code, code that thinks about waking the giant up and helping the giant recognize that it has a left and a right hand, and has to learn how to walk, and has to act in a rational way, not just crazy, as waking giants frequently act when they first wake up [think French Revolution].

With regards to visualizing networks and data, Lessig recommends Super Crunchers.

Asked about transparency, Lessig critiques “naked transparency,” where people believe that transparency alone will lead to change. Of course we want to see the bad stuff that’s happening, but we also want to stop the bad stuff from happening. If you only achieve the former, you actually dissuade more people from having anything to do with politics.

Christopher Fry argues, “You need people in the government who are well motivated, and you need a good process for them to follow. If you don’t have both, you won’t succeed. We have neither in DC right now.”

Lessig responds that there isn’t just one problem to fix. There are forty. We’re filtering for a special kind of person when we consider the amount of work required to fundraise at the amounts they’re fundraising at. Is that the sort of person you want at the lever? But when you’re dealing with an alcoholic, you need to solve the alcoholism first. Pick your issue. We will not solve it under this system. Global warming. Healthcare. Broadband. Reagan passed the biggest reform of US tax code through Congress by striking a deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats in an environment that’s entirely unfathomable today.

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Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media and former New Media Director of Americans for Campaign Reform, where he worked in a broad coalition with Rootstrikers.