DEMOCRACY CAN'T BE BOUGHT
By Peter Bearse
A Harvard Professor has set up a SuperPac. He's using it to place big political bets using other people's money (OPM). He aims to buy himself a Congress that will vote to do away with big money in Congress. His name is Lawrence Lessig [LL for short]. His fund is called Mayday. It's a good name for a risky venture to fund high risk political campaigns. As a professor, he's very bright but his field is law, not mathematics. His failure to do the math shows. His first bet was $1.2 million placed on an excellent horse running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. The horse not only didn't win; he didn't even place. He lost the primary by 27 percentage points.
LL's money-driven approach is the latest turn in campaign finance reform [CFR]. So much so that he hangs it on the horns of an ironic twist that has bedeviled CFRers from the outset: that a focus on money rather than people is the key to a better politics of, by and for “We the People”. Rather than face the contradiction built into his approach, he says: “Embrace the irony!” It's easy to be brave with OPM.
The overriding focus on money leads him to believe that “democratizing money donations” will turn the tide against big money in politics. Democratizing means: (A) increasing the number and proportion of small (no more than $100) donations; plus (B) public money in the form of federal grants augmented by 5:1 public matching funds. So, the “big money,” would be provided by taxpayers – the biggest source of OPM. Presumably, this would at least reduce the influence of private big money donors on political campaigns, legislation and government decisions.
Having devoted several years in the '90s to CFR, this author finally concluded that CFR is a dead duck. One reason is a sad fact: Big money will always find its way. Primarily, however, CFR has been trying to solve the wrong problem. The basic issue is the retreat of too many people from participation in what should be THEIR politics. This issue has neither been addressed nor solved by more recent CFR initiatives such as “Clean Elections,” nor by LL's assault on big-money's “corruption” of our politics. After all, only about 4% of the electorate contribute ANY money to political activities. Is it plausible that “democratizing money donations” would raise this percentage by more than a few points? Then what about the great American majority?
Since LL's approach carries CFR's miscast assumption forward, we can expect that it will also continue CFR's tradition of failure. The only significant impact of the Mayday Fund may be twofold, to:
(1) Aggravate the financial arms race that campaign finance has become, and
(2) Further reduce the number and proportion of people willing to participate and so worsen the vicious circles inhibiting efforts of people to really take back our politics. Why would more than the usual, politically self-interested suspects get involved in an activity that the media have tarred and feathered with negativity, when all you'd have to do is feel good by sending a check? Why participate in the political process when your time is so little valued?
The substantial impacts that LL imagines seem less likely because the corporate and billionaire big boys can always call his financial bluff and up the ante without having to yell “Mayday!”
Not even a Harvard professor can resolve a contradiction simply by mouthing a clever turn of phrase. The resolution lies in seeing the real value of money in politics – as a tool to empower people – those citizens who would indeed work to “take back” politics from the big money boys, political pro's, big media and others who have corrupted, rigged, poisoned and otherwise spoiled a system that belongs to US – “We the People”. Then, LL, the terrible irony you would have us embrace disappears. Focus only on the money needed to put the tools of politics into the hands of concerned citizens and to show them how to use those tools. For people politically unarmed are powerless before those who presume to power.
Shifting the focus from people to money is like shifting from people volunteering their own time to buying other people's time – from the people-based politics of American citizens to that of mercenaries. Mercenaries did not win the American Revolution. Remember the Battle of Trenton? Citizen soldiers won over Hessian mercenaries. Nor will today's mercenaries suffice to uphold the great American experiment in republican democracy that was bequeathed to us by citizen soldiers of the Revolution.
The citizen soldiers of today are not mercenaries. They are those who devote time to meet and talk with others to identify shared concerns on the issues of the day, week, month, year, and longer; who write letters, make calls and stuff mailboxes on behalf of candidates, who have house parties during election years, and who continue to be involved in political activities during non-election years. Without our direct involvement, politics will continue to be what it has become, a game of US v. THEM. When them's got the money and “We the People” don't put in the time, WE LOSE.
Unfortunately, LL and I have become contestants rather than collaborators. Pray that a people-based politics wins. Some might call it a new populism. More on this at another time.