Raleigh, N.C. — Harvard law professor, author and big thinker Lawrence Lessig isn't interested in half measures. Our political system has been corrupted, and he aims to fix it. Or, more correctly, he aims to agitate until the citizens it serves are moved to fix it.
"I am not a compromiser on this," he said Tuesday after speaking to a breakfast hosted by the liberal think tank N.C. Policy Watch. "It takes a lot of energy to build a reform movement. We shouldn't be wasting it on aspirin. We've got a serious dose of chemotherapy we need to get our body politic into."
When Lessig talks about corruption in his latest book or during lectures, he's not talking about good, old-fashioned, cash-in-envelopes quid pro quo. Congress, he said, has been corrupted by the large amounts of perfectly legal money politicians need to raise, or at least be sure is raised on their behalf through Super PACs.
The need for campaign cash buttonholes politicians, conservative and liberal, into positions that leave little room for compromise, Lessig said.
He was scheduled to deliver much the same message to the conservative John Locke Foundation later in the day. And part of that message was that liberals and conservatives – the Policy Watch crowd and Locke Foundation crowd – need work together to end that corruption.
"I don't mean a common end. We have no common ends ... What we have is a common enemy. The common enemy is this root of corruption," Lessig said.
Lessig, who on a book tour, appeared before the two Triangle groups at the behest of Common Cause, a nonpartisan government reform group, is a lawyer who came to prominence talking about technology and copyright issues. A one-time conservative who has a clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on his resume, he is now known as a liberal thinker.
He wants to dig up that "root of corruption" by using public financing for federal elections and passing a constitutional amendment that would require Congress to regulate the flow of money in politics. He talks about calling a constitutional convention by way of the state legislatures to create pressure on Washington.
"Even if it doesn't grow into a convention, it has the ability to crystallize the anger and frustration that I know all of us feel," he said.
Q: In some ways, wouldn't this message have been better delivered to a joint audience, rather than liberals for breakfast and conservatives for lunch?
"I hope we get to a time when we can talk to the two groups in the same room. The ultimate message I want to push to the two groups is the same. But it is the case (that) you make people sensitive to the issue in different ways. So people on the right, the Libertarians, are rightly focused on the problem of crony capitalism. And the people on the left don't care much what capitalism is about, what they're focused on is different kinds of reforms. So you've got to find a way to get people committed to thinking about the problem. Once you get them committed, you can get them converged on the same kind of solutions."
Q: Is there still a useful political center? You've been talking about bringing two partisan sides together. Does the middle exist anymore?
"The middle exists, it just doesn't show up. If you look at work that tries to measure the polarization of America, it turns out America is not polarized. What's polarized is the politically active class in America. Most people in the middle are just tuned out because both extremes sound so crazy ... If you could find something that gets the two sides to agree, then the people in the middle might say, 'Wait a minute, if the two sides are finding something to agree about, then maybe there's something here serious I should consider.'"
Q: Your prior work focused on Internet freedom. In that case, as with the case of campaign funding reform, you're dealing with people who have the power to make changes with absolutely no incentive to change. Do lessons from one set of problems apply to the other?
"It's the same fight, just more general. In the Internet context, you had a bunch of vested interests who were enormously powerful politically, who don't like certain features of what the Internet makes possible," Lessig said. Copyright holders, for example, don't like how easy it has been share songs, movies and other material.
"The way they manifest their power is through this political system. When I saw that in the context of the Internet issues, I then made not a very insightful leap to realize it wasn't just on esoteric issues like copyright that money was corrupting the system. It was on the most fundamental issues like global warming, or health care, or the tax system and the debt. And if you've got these two extremes – the esoteric and the fundamental – that are both affected by that same dynamic, it's time to focus on that dynamic."
Q: Why not just let the money talk?
"We've seen what it does. What it does is turn representatives more and more to the richest suppliers. So, 196 people funding 80 percent of the Super PACs – maybe it would be 500 people funding all of elections.
"Now, what do they want in exchange for funding the elections? It's completely naive to believe that they're funding elections for the public good. If they wanted to do that, they'd be giving it to cancer research. When 500 people fund the elections, we will have a system where the representatives are responsive to exactly what the 500 people want. That's a government, it's just not a democracy."