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Keeping The Republic

“We can’t wait for some deus ex machina to save our republic. Our republic is ours to save. Or better, it is only ours if we save it.”

By Alex Freeman

Boston, MA (TFC) – In his 2012 book, Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig writes, “We can’t wait for some deus ex machina to save our republic. Our republic is ours to save. Or better, it is only ours if we save it.” Certainly, there are many issues to address. On any given day, someone is in a public square exercising his or her right to free speech, addressing one problem or another. Lessig, the active Harvard Law Professor, finds the words of Henry David Thoreau quite timely in his frequent lectures and speeches. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root,” he quotes to captivated audiences. For Lessig, that root is the systemic and codependent relationship between money and politics. In order to save the republic, he believes, that relationship must be broken. More importantly, through Mayday PAC, he hopes that this relationship will be broken.

The relationship between money and politics, on its own, is not an evil thing, Lessig argues in Republic, Lost. The problem, however, is that election funding has been co-opted by a very wealthy few. The Supreme Court has ruled, on numerous instances, that campaign donations and public policy expenditures are forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. Since its ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (1975), elected representatives invest increasingly more time fundraising than governing. Two very prominent branches grow from that root: the wealthy have more time to influence a politician grateful for a contribution, and the representative relies increasingly on lobbyists for issue education and drafting of legislation. If the politician responds well to the contribution, and votes well for the lobbyist, then they are rewarded with further contributions in the near term, and lucrative employment opportunities after his or her time in office has concluded. Prior to Buckley, only 3% of Congress members became lobbyists. By 2013, 50% of Representatives and 42% of retiring Senators had become lobbyists after leaving Congress.

Lessig describes the problem:

The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is instead in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

This engine of influence, which he calls the “Gift System,” was responsible for breaking the republic, and the people’s trust in the republic, long before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United.

In response, Lessig created Mayday Pac with political consultant Mark McKinnon, who has worked for George W. Bush, John McCain and Bono (among others) to solve complex strategic challenges. Together, they and the team of Mayday PAC have developed a strategic plan for implementing fundamental campaign finance reform at the federal level. The “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs” launched May 1, 2014 with an ambitious goal: to create a crowdsourced, small donor SuperPAC committed to elect representatives that will change the way that political campaigns are funded. Essentially, they created a SuperPAC to render all SuperPACs obsolete:

In 2014, less than 2% of America gave anything to anyone running for Congress. But of those who did, the top 100 gave as much as the bottom 4.75 million. Less than .05% gave the maximum in even one election cycle. Less than half of that gave the equivalent of the maximum in both cycles. And 100 Americans gave 70% of the SuperPAC money spent through the cycle. We have to change this, if we’re to give ordinary Americans a reason to care about their politics again.

In the first stage of Mayday’s four stage plan, the organization raised nearly $11 Million from more than 68,000 individual donors to help elect candidates in the 2014 elections. Of eight sponsored, only two won. Those two races, however, made an impact. Even in a losing race, Mayday spent $2.15 Million to remove the Koch Brothers funded Fred Upton from Michigan’s 6th district, heavily taxing both Upton’s war chest and approval ratings. At the time, The Hill reported, “Supporters and opponents of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) are spending big in the final days before his election, turning a once-ignored race into a possible upset.” Mayday PAC was able to affect voter sentiment in multiple races, and engage the public on the issue of campaign finance reform, yet determined that direct participation in campaigns alone will not reach its goal.

In a phone interview, Lessig remains humbly scientific about the successes achieved and lessons learned from the 2014 election.

Let’s be clear about the extent to which it was not a success. If the objective was to demonstrate we could move voters on the basis of this issue in a way that would justify a much more significant investment in 2016, then we didn’t achieve that. We are as direct and honest about that as we can be. But we did learn some really important things about how and what to do in this context. The most important thing, I think, is we learned the importance of separating partisanship from this issue. So all we need is a majority of votes in congress. And we definitely need some of those votes to come from Republicans. And what we know from our data is that if you are in a safe seat, and you’re a voter who knows that your party is going to win, whether it’s a Republican safe seat or Democratic safe seat, you’re more open to distinguishing between a reform candidate and a non-reform candidate than you are when you’re in a context where your team is going to win. So putting our issue in the middle of partisan fights is a loser. Putting our issue in the middle of non-partisan fights I think is going to be a much more significant winner. So what we’re thinking about is where and how do we get involved in races that might give us a chance to push the issue without it being bogged down by the partisan issue.

Mayday PAC, however, also realized that simply electing fresh candidates is an overwhelming undertaking. In order to reach the Congressional majority required to pass campaign finance legislation, Mayday needs to recruit sitting members of Congress as well.

I want to get to a majority of congress committed to the idea of fundamental reform. We’re about 70 votes short in the House and the objective of what we’re launching in May is to try to close that gap. If we can get 50 votes taken care of, then at least when you say to presidential candidates “you ought to be taking up this issue,” they don’t look back at you and say “well, there’s no way I could possibly win this issue.” If you say “you could become a leader on this issue and you could actually win this issue, and it would be the equivalent of the civil rights act or the voting rights act of the Johnson administration,” that could be quite attractive to the right presidential candidate.

Lessig is confident that academics and activists can unite around this effort for stage 2 of Mayday’s plan. On May 1, 2015, Mayday will officially launch its citizen lobbying platform to crowdsource activists’ voices to influence incumbent members of Congress and recruit those members to support campaign finance reform. Currently, 164 members of the House of Representatives have committed to campaign finance reform. RepsWith.Us, sponsored by Mayday, contains a searchable database of those 164 representatives. Mayday is seeking assistance from activists and concerned voters across the country to help identify the other 50 members needed. The goal is to reach this majority by the 2016 elections.

Lessig says, “[Aaron] Swartz taught me to recognize the obvious — that nothing gets fixed till we fix this — and to act on it, whether or not there was a clear victory to be immediately won.” Stage 2 of Mayday’s plan provides a convenient and powerful platform for all Americans to fix the broken system.

Stage 3 entails passage of meaningful legislation dedicated to fundamental reform. While Mayday has only stated that some fundamental reform is necessary, it does not officially support one draft legislation over another. Mayday does support public financing of campaigns as a key element to that reform. For Lessig specifically, “the first best solution is public funding of elections.” Public financing can come through either government matching funds for those that decide to contribute small amounts, or through a voucher system, whereby the government provides a small amount to each voter to contribute as each voter chooses. When asked whether a voucher system would actually encourage the 2/3 of the electorate that did not vote in 2014 to become active in 2016, Lessig responded:

Well if you think about the business model of recruiting vouchers, you’re a member of Congress or a candidate for Congress and you realize you’re going to raise your money in small dollar chunks, you’ve got the time between two elections to raise your money. So you go out there and you try to raise it. That creates a very strong incentive for these candidates to find ways to recruit supporters from voters, and you know if you’re recruiting supporters from voters, who give you their voucher. One thing we know from social psychology is that that act, even though it’s artificial money according to the voter, it’s not out of their pocket, it’s a voucher, creates loyalty and commitment. So once you’re an investor, then you become a soldier. So candidates have a much more loyal base of people who have given them something, even something that is a gift that they receive themselves, than just people that have listened to television ads or received a mailing or something like that.

With matching funds legislation, the individual voter must invest his or her own money in a campaign for government match grants to kick in. Although the Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s matching funds program in 2010, several proposed federal acts contain some level of federal matching funds, through grants or tax credits. The voucher program, however, involves more of the demos. A district of 70,000 people would, for example, have $14 Million available to candidates in that district. As Lessig explains, the voucher program creates a strong motivator for candidates to reach out to the electorate more, and to the large donors less.

Even with majorities in Congress, passing meaningful reform will be a challenge. In Missouri, for instance, State Senator Rob Schaaf recently sponsored Represent.Us’s American Anticorruption Act, which also includes restrictions on SuperPACs and locks the revolving door between lobbyists and public servants, in addition to a biennial tax rebate of $100 for qualified political contributions. As C.K. Golden reports for The Fifth Column News, lobbyists managed to rewrite the bill to exempt current legislators from the required “cooling off period,” effectively undermining the legislation.

If Mayday can achieve its goal of reaching a Congressional majority by 2016, and meaningful campaign finance reform does pass in 2017, then one more step remains: pressing for Constitutional reform to secure these gains, and keep the republic. They are lofty goals, but Lessig remains undaunted. From his March 2014 TED Talk:

Hope is the one thing that we Aaron’s friends failed him with, and we let him lose that sense of hope. I love that boy like I love my son. But we failed him. And I love my country, and I’m not going to fail that. That sense of hope we are going to hold and we’re going to fight for no matter how impossible this battle looks.

Aaron Swartz, the Internet’s Own Boy, heavily inspired Lessig to look deep into the abyss that is the systemic corruption of the American political system, a corruption not as brazen as gilded handshakes, but no less harmful to the integrity of the republic. While Lessig may not have the same style of activism that Swartz had, he nonetheless contributes an intellectual power to the fight against corruption that activists across the country should appreciate. Case in point, I have reported elsewhere on a study conducted by Lessig analyzing large donor funding in the US as compared with the nomination process in Hong Kong that sparked last year’s Umbrella Revolution. The percentage of funders in the US matches closely the percentage of nominee selectors in Hong Kong. When I asked Mr. Lessig why he thought that many Americans remained complacent while hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets, he replied:

That’s a great question. I don’t think we honestly know. Here’s my theory. We’ve done polling that has discovered both very strong desires to see the system change, like 96% that want to see the reduction of money in politics, but just about the same percentage who don’t think it can be changed. So 91% who doesn’t believe the system is going to change. The belief that you can’t do anything about something induces resignation to that thing. Just like if you had said to African Americans in 1900, “What do you think about the system of Jim Crow that you live under? Do you oppose it?” They would have said, “Of course we oppose it!” So then if you said, “So why aren’t you out there doing something about it?” The answer would have been, “What the hell do you think we can do? We go out and protest we’ll get killed. So no, we’re not out there protesting about it, but don’t confuse that with our acceptance of the system. We just don’t have anything that we can do.” And I think the difference between the United States and Hong Kong is that the kids that showed up on the streets of Hong Kong in a context of a transition into a democracy in Hong Kong, supposedly promised by the Chinese government to Britain when Britain gave up Hong Kong, they haven’t yet accepted the idea that there’s nothing they can do. That might be because they’re young and naïve, it might be because that this might be the moment that they need to establish that they can do some things. So that’s why they’re out there, but they’re not as far down the cynicism pipe as Americans are. That’s why I think the biggest challenge that we’ve got is the challenge not so much of convincing people there’s a problem, but convincing them that there’s a solution. That there’s something we can actually do about it.

Today, Mayday PAC launches its second of its four stage strategy, offering a solution that provides you, the reader, something that you can actually do to affect meaningful reform of the deeply corrupted American political system. Moreover, the starting point, the motivation, the inspiration for Mayday’s strategy starts with a very fundamental sentiment: “that sense of hope we are going to hold and we’re going to fight for no matter how impossible this battle looks.” If the engine of influence in Congress is fueled with campaign contributions, Lessig’s engine is fueled by a “feeling of endless trust that my 5 year old shows me, and the recognition that, as a generation, we have not yet earned it.” Should Mayday PAC, with your help, succeed in its mission, then on that day, the trust will be earned. With trust restored in Congress, then perhaps we will be able to say that “the Republic, Madame, has been kept.”

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This article was published by The Fifth Column Copyright © 2015

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