One Way Forward by Lawrence Lessig Part Two

by Anita

Political groups like the Tea Party Patriots and Occupy Wall Street do not have a common end, only a common enemy – corruption. It is generally legal corruption, in which money indirectly buys power in the government. It affects all political groups, and prevents us from reaching our goals.

Lessig quotes Henry David Thoreau: “[t]here are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” This is the origin of the name of Lessig’s group called Rootstrikers.

The “root” is the role that money plays in our government – specifically, the money from a very small part of America. Only 0.26% of Americans give more than $200 to congressional campaigns, and 0.01% spend more than $10,000 in a campaign cycle. Because of the enormous role of campaign contributions, the government is accountable to rich individuals (and corporations) rather than to “the People” as the Framers meant it to be.

The infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff was convicted of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in his lobbying for casinos. (He served almost 4 years in prison because of it. To make amends for his wrongdoing, Abramoff wrote a book to expose how this “legal corruption” works.) He says that the role that money plays in our government is “one of Washington’s dirty little secrets – but it’s bribery just the same.” It isn’t generally explicit, so it’s not “illegal.”

In order for a change to occur, Lessig says that individuals of all political persuasions need to agree that government is corrupt and that corruption must end. Also, we must agree that we will end it by removing the corrupting influence of money – not by removing all money, but by ending the kind of money that makes outsiders view it as a way of buying politicians and policies.

Lessig outlines his plan for ending corruption as follows:

1. Engaging Congress

As outsiders, citizens must hold insiders accountable – Congress is responsible for continued corruption because they could change the situation at any time by enacting laws to “dramatically weaken the corrupting influence of money.”

For example, Congress could pass a statute establishing small dollar public funding of elections, leading to a constitutional amendment to fix Citizens United.

It is important for individuals and local groups to discover what position each member of Congress takes on corruption. Lessig suggests asking Senators and Representatives to take The Anti-Corruption Pledge:

“I hereby pledge to do whatever it takes to end the corrupting influence of money in our government.”

The person making the pledge commits:
A – to provide that public elections are publicly funded
B – to limit and make transparent contributions and independent political expenditures
C – to reaffirm that when the Declaration of Independence spoke of entities “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” it was speaking of natural persons only (i.e. not corporations)

For more details about the pledge, visit Congresspersons, candidates and citizens can take the pledge and indicate what specific legislation they would co-sponsor or support.

2. Engaging the President

Because presidents usually take the lead in reform, rather than Congress, it makes sense that we should look to the presidency. When Lessig was writing this book, the organization Americans Elect was working to get a candidate chosen by the people themselves onto the presidential ballot. However, in 2012 this effort was unsuccessful. Visit the links below to learn some reasons why it was unsuccessful this year. Perhaps these weaknesses can be addressed in future campaigns.

3. Engaging the Constitution

Lessig asks, is it enough to pass a public funding statute? His answer is “no, because Congress needs to have the power to limit independent expenditures.” A constitutional amendment is necessary. There are two paths to amending Constitution: through Congress first, or through state legislatures calling an Article V constitutional convention. The latter has never been used, and people are afraid of it. The idea of a constitutional convention suggests that extensive changes in our way of government could be made. But an Article V constitutional convention only has the power to propose amendments, not create a totally new system of government. The proposed amendment(s) must be ratified by 38 state legislatures or state conventions.

He suggests a “convention-in-a-box” – running serious mock conventions to show that citizens can think sensibly about constitutional change. It would also be instructive to examine what Iceland did after their financial crisis, when they developed a new constitution through a meeting of ordinary citizens rather than politicians. is a cross-partisan organization to facilitate an Article V convention. They held a conference in September concerning how to organize. Videos from the conference are available on their website.

4. Engaging Citizens

All citizens need to be educated about the importance of “striking at the root,” not just “hacking at the branches.” Getting more people involved in is a good way to start. But in order to meet our goals, we must learn to work with people who are different from us, who believe in different things, who want a different politics. For example, Tea Partiers and Occupiers must dialogue about their commonalities and let go of the business model of hate. When talking about how to play the game, we can’t let our different goals get in the way.


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