In recent years, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has taken up the struggle against what is perhaps the root problem of American dysfunction: money’s corrosive effects on our political system. His recent book, Republic, Lost, outlined the systemic nature of the problem, its horrific cost both to the health of our society and to the political goals of both the left and the right, and just how daunting it will be to fix it. He offered detailed solutions as well, though he admits each has only a small chance of succeeding.
Now he’s issued a new call to action: an omni-partisan campaign to seize control of Americans Elect and use it to strike a powerful blow for reform of our entire political financing process. If it succeeds, the project promises to pull the rug out from under Democrats and Republicans alike, forcing both to reckon with issues that have remained well off the radar screen throughout this election cycle.
For those unfamiliar with Lessig’s recent work, his argument boils down to this: our Congressional representatives are no longer “dependent on the people alone” (as James Madison insisted they must be) but rather on deep-pocketed campaign and super PAC donors. This dependency on campaign money – or the fear of having it deployed against them – and the role of lobbyists in bundling it and in providing lucrative careers to retired legislators, provide every incentive for our representatives to keep their patrons happy, even at their constituents’ expense. This situation has perverted everything from the regulation of financial services (both before and after 2008), the national response to global warming, our (loophole-laden) tax code, and complex regulatory system (“that just can’t resist one more regulation (and hence one more target for congressional extortion)”), as Lessig puts it.)
He argues that fixing this will be enormously difficult because if we did so, large individual and corporate donors would lose a considerable degree of their political influence, incumbents on Capitol Hill would be anxious about their electoral success under a cleansed system, and lobbyists would see the value of their industry collapse. “If ‘Capitol Hill is a farm league for K Street,’” he wrote, “then imagine asking players on a baseball minor league team whether the salaries for professional baseball players should be capped, and you will quickly get the point.” He suggests laying the groundwork for a constitutional convention, running reform candidates for president, and deploying a small guerilla army of primary challengers against recalcitrant congressional incumbents in the hopes of manipulating them into taking up the reform banner as well.
But in his newly released e-book, One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic, Lessig identifies a new front in the war for the republic. Americans Elect, the Internet-driven “third party” nominating process created founded by Peter Ackerman, has, for the first time in modern U.S. history, created a path to the presidential ballot in every state that is not controlled by the two major parties. In what many expect to be a closely contested presidential contest, Lessig argues in the book, a credible Americans Elect candidate could “radically destabilize the plans of both major-party candidates, forcing both to account for the third in a way that makes the strategy of each different.” His goal: unite political outsiders from left, right, and center to nominate a candidate primarily focused on reforming the rules of the game.
“Americans Elect has been completely off the radar, but I think when Romney finally secures the nomination and is standing next to Obama, there will be two major party candidates, each with a base that is not excited about them,” Lessig told me when I spoke to him recently. “If there’s a candidate that is focused on the reform issue while the others are missing the point, it could make for a really interesting situation.”
Lessig isn’t a great fan of Americans Elect as conceived by its founders: a vehicle to put a moderate, post-partisan figure in the White House who can break the political logjam. He’s met Mr. Ackerman and his son, Elliott (who serves as AE’s chief operating officer), and heard their pitch; he wasn’t sold. “They have a theory of what is wrong with government that I don’t agree with,” he says. “They think the presidency is too polarized. I say, forget the presidency, its Congress that’s the issue, and the need to have a Congress that’s focused on the issues that Americans care about…. They want a president who represents the bipartisan middle, I want someone who will change the way the system works,” he adds. “I don’t think they will be happy if my sequence occurs.”
His sequence, as argued in the e-book, goes like this: concerned citizen outsiders become Americans Elect delegates, make reform their top issue, and work online to convince their fellow delegates that it should be their top issue too. Then they cast their electronic ballots for a candidate who has made reform their overriding issue. “Forget Democrat or Republican. Forget Left or Right. Forget mushy centrism,” he writes. “Vote for the candidate who could make change something other than a slogan.” If such a candidate emerges, they might have a reasonable chance of getting on the presidential debate stage, and at the very least force the big party nominees to “promise the stuff that reformers demand.” A reform-minded president could push, pull, and shame Congress into taking action.
Could it happen? Lessig thinks it’s not impossible. “Because it is virtual and all takes place online, the Americans Elect nomination process is a lot more manageable” than a conventional, on the ground effort across fifty states, he told us. “If a number of candidates enter the process, the victor is going to get some national attention, and if they do, they can get national support.” The most obvious contender is former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who has been a member of both major parties and has been seeking the AE nomination since November. But Lessig also expects there will be more surprises in store for AE.
Of course, there are plenty of dangers. A reform candidate might draw more votes from Obama than from (presumed GOP nominee) Romney, which raises the specter of a Nader-like spoiler who, in championing reform, throws the election to the major party candidate least likely to enact it. (Lessig concedes this possibility, but says that given the current mix of candidates, the reform challenger might well be to the right of Obama, making it easier for him to protect his base.)
And is an Ivy league law school professor really going to be able to rally a citizen army to save the republic? He’s founded an online campaign – rootstrikers.org – which is now a project of an anti-corporate lobbyist group, United Republic (whose president, Nick Penniman, was once publisher of this magazine.) Still, it seems a longshot, and Lessig himself says he isn’t confident there’s an army to rally. If it’s to work, he says, the key moment still lies ahead. “Outsider politics is like bodysurfing: wait for the wave,” he says. “Once the GOP nomination is clear, the AE process will become more prominent.”
And what of Congress? Aren’t they addicted? “In Republic, Lost I used this metaphor of alcohol addiction, but I think a better one would have been smoking,” he says. “With every smoker, if you sat them down and asked ‘do you really want to be smoking?’ they would say no, it’s hurting myself and my family,” he says. “But if you ask them to take the steps to stop, the vast majority can’t. It’s a similar situation with Congress.” If the leader of the free world were bullying them from the pulpit, maybe they’d be shamed into cleaning up their institution’s act, or be replaced by someone who would.
Maybe, but Lessig’s strategy requires completing three very long shots in a row: rallying a grassroots army around a reform candidate, pushing that candidate into the Oval Office, or near enough to influence whoever winds up there, then having said president out-bully the combined forces of K Street, the donor class, and corporate America. When the time comes, there had better be one very large wave headed for the beachhead.