banner
@NCCapitol

Lessig: Left, right must find common ground to change corrupt structure

Posted June 12, 2012

— 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. 

In between his speaking engagements Tuesday, he spoke to WRAL News.   Interview: Author and law professor Lawrence Lessig

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."

9 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Oldest First
View all
  • lolly Jun 13, 6:54 p.m.

    "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."

    Agree.

  • SARCASTICLES Jun 12, 7:25 p.m.

    Unions: BAD

    Anonymous, unlimited SuperPAC money: GOOD

    Any questions? ;)

  • WooHoo2You Jun 12, 6:43 p.m.

    Right now Harry Reid, US Senate Majority leader, is preventing the debate and vote on 30+ bills passed by the US House that would help increase job creation and spur the economy.- methinkthis

    Name the bills...if its the one's Rush is always whining about THEY ARE NOT "JOBS" BILLS BUT DEREGULATION AND COMPLETELY RANDOM THINGS LIKE THE 'CLEAN WATER ACT' that actually removes environmental regulations (thus less clean water) they are NOT "jobs bills" and never will be....just tired old spin and LIES.

  • methinkthis Jun 12, 6:23 p.m.

    If the Tea Party is Theocratic then the Founding Fathers were Theocratic as well as the Continental Congress and the first under the current Constitution. ALL 50 states give homage to a Supreme Being, sometimes Christian tradition, in their Constitutions, usually in the prolog.

  • westernwake1 Jun 12, 6:22 p.m.

    The points Lessig outlines make session. Beyond outlawing SuperPACS however - I do not see any concrete solutions put forward.

  • methinkthis Jun 12, 6:20 p.m.

    Right now Harry Reid, US Senate Majority leader, is preventing the debate and vote on 30+ bills passed by the US House that would help increase job creation and spur the economy. One man should not be allowed to do this. It is essentially a coup. And when President Obama chastises Congress for not acting on his proposals have you heard him say let the legislative process work and have he Senate debate the House bi-partisan passed bills????

    There are two problems with our current structure that disrupt the process. One is huge expenditures by the various PACs of all political persuasions. The second is that a significant part of the electorate is dependent upon the government payouts for their survival. Even the Founding Fathers warned about the destruction of the democracy when a significant number of the voters are drawing money from the government they are voting on to represent the people. Both problems need to be fixed! They both warp the process.We need Buffets Congress solution

  • ss3510 Jun 12, 6:15 p.m.

    THE problem with Ameicans is that Lessig will go on MSNBC (because Fox and CNN won't even give his idea's the time of day), and is then labeled a liberal, and both harassed and condemned by the Theo-Cratic Tea Party Right.

    and Congress (both Dems and Reps) BOTH enjoy that because it allows their Corruption to Continue.

  • SailbadTheSinner Jun 12, 5:39 p.m.

    IMHO, the root cause of political corruption lies in the way that bills are created in the legislative process.

    As long as it is possible to put an amendment on a bill that has absolutely nothing to do with the original content of the bill, there will be corruption.

    About the only way to keep everyone honest is to make each bill an independent piece of work. No unrelated amendments implies that there will be no way to make secrete deals behind the scenes, e.g., you support my amendment and I’ll support your bill....

    Think that will change any time in the near future, then I have some land in Florida to sell you ....

    STS

  • bravesfan1956 Jun 12, 4:31 p.m.

    Crickets..........