Mary Barker: America's hidden primary, and what you can do about it

By Mary Barker, For the Deseret News

Published: Thu, June 26, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Democracy is often defined on a sliding scale – from the oxymoron of authoritarian democracy, to the ideal where, like Muslim pilgrims entering Mecca, citizens shed their worldly privileges and participate as equals.

Democracy is often defined on a sliding scale – from the oxymoron of authoritarian democracy, to the ideal where, like Muslim pilgrims entering Mecca, citizens shed their worldly privileges and participate as equals.

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Democracy is often defined on a sliding scale – from the oxymoron of authoritarian democracy, in which the ritual of elections is had but with no real choice; to the ideal where, like Muslim pilgrims entering Mecca, citizens shed their worldly privileges and participate as equals.

In an unsettling TED talk, Lawrence Lessig informs us that ours is far from the ideal. Of course, we don’t live in a single-party state that filters candidates for mock elections, but we do have a filter; a hidden primary where our influence is anything but equal. And Lessig, a Harvard law professor and former young Republican, explains how it works and what we can do about it.

He introduces us to an imaginary world called “Lesterland,” where there are two elections – the primaries, in which only people named Lester vote, and the general. So technically speaking, the people in Lesterland choose their representatives, but only after the Lesters “have had their way with them;” only after they have passed through the filter.

How do we resemble this imaginary world? America’s “Lesters” similarly filter our candidates through their financing of campaigns. In order to succeed, a candidate must please those with fortunes to spend on them. And just as .05 percent of the population is named Lester, so too, .05 percent of us finance our candidates. In fact, it’s worse than Lesterland. In 2012, for example, .000042 percent (or 132 Americans) provided 62 percent of the Super PAC funds, so it would be more accurate to say that we live in Luxland or Zepherland (Lux and Zepher being rare names given in 2012).

Typical members of Congress spend 30-70 percent of their time raising money from this tiny slice of Americans, Lessig notes, which leads candidates to “shape-shift” or bend their will to their patrons.

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson explains it this way. “[N]arrowly construed, special interests…provide the lion’s share of campaign funds — and exercise undue influence in tax and spending matters as a result.” The “unhealthy alliance” between those with fortunes and the politicians that need them, leads to “a clear conflict of interest that undermines fiscal responsibility.” Other Republicans have concurred, including former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens, who wrote a lengthy dissent to the Citizen’s United case claiming that such spending allowed corporations to dominate the “marketplace of ideas” for profit-making.

The dependence on money may explain a lot. The NRA, for example, contributed $1,400,405 to the 2012 election cycle and spent a whopping $2,980,000 on lobbying. And despite the fact that 83-91 percent of Americans favor requiring expanded background checks to buy a gun, it only received 54 votes in the Senate.

A forthcoming study by Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern finds that the triumph of corporate interests over the majority of citizens means that we have become more of an oligarchy (they use the phrase “economic elite domination”) than a democracy. In other words, we’re sliding down the scale. The American public, they conclude, “has little influence over the policies our government adopts.”

This “pathological, democracy-destroying, corruption,” Lessig argues, violates the baseline set by the framers of the Constitution as expressed, for example, in James Madison’s Federalist Paper #52, which Lessig notes, establishes an exclusive dependency of the legislature on the people alone

He hopes to defeat the hidden primary and restore integrity to our democracy with his “Super PAC to end all Super PACs.” He’ll explain the clever details to you at www.mayday.us, where he hopes to raise $5 million by July 4th. To inject integrity into his own efforts, he’ll return all donations should he fail to raise enough money to make a difference.

Lessig notes, however, that many of us fail to act because we consider the situation hopeless; the money stacked against us overwhelming. To us he asks, movingly: What do you love? He then reflects on what he would do in another possibly hopeless situation; for example, the hypothetical case that his son had a fatal disease with no cure in sight. “[W]ould I do nothing? Would I just sit there? Accept it?” No, he concludes, he wouldn’t. “I would do everything that I could because that is what love means.”

With a similar appeal to love of our Republic, Lessig asks us to help restore its integrity by visiting his website and joining the effort to remove the corruption of money from elections. He asks us to end the hidden primary.

Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.

1. Roland Kayser
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 26, 2014

Congress does an excellent job of representing the donor class. It's too bad that average Americans have no one to represent them.

2. The Real Maverick
Orem, UT,
June 26, 2014

@ Roland

Well, if you're not rich or employed, blame yourself! That's what Hermain Cain said. I have no clue why he didn't win...

And bribery is free speech. That's what an activist justice just said a few months ago. Maybe you should focus on obtaining more money to bribe your representative?

3. 2 bits
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 26, 2014

SOME people don't vote because they think it doesn't matter (because big money will win the election no matter what they do).

But MOST people don't vote (in primaries) because the day sneaks up on them, and when it gets here... they realize they have no idea who is running, or anything about them. They are embarrassed to go vote not knowing who they intend to vote for (and rightfully so). They don't feel comfortable voting just on party affiliation (especially in a primary... where both candidates are the SAME party), and they don't want to go select random names. So they just stay home.

And while that's sad... that's probably for the best. If you don't even know who's running, or if you should vote for them or not... just staying home is better than voting based on name, party, hair style, etc...

4. JoeCapitalist2
Orem, UT,
June 26, 2014

I find it funny that every time one of these articles are written it is slanted toward those "corrupt rich conservatives" who are buying votes with money. Of course, the example given is the influence of the NRA.

The truth is, this kind of thing happens on the left just as much or more than it happens on the right. Rich liberal donors have a huge influence on the candidates selected for the Democratic party. Environmental groups, unions, lobbyists for minority groups, and the entertainment industry give a ton of money to promote far-left agendas. Democratic Congressmen are "bought and paid for" just as much as those in the GOP.

I would like to have a better system, but at least it would be refreshing to see a balanced article which throws equal blame on both sides. Instead, the media follows the logic of Lois Lerner and thinks "something must be done to stop those corrupt conservative groups" while completely ignoring equal or worse infractions by their side.

5. 2 bits
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 26, 2014

JoeCapitalist2 is right.

If you think Democrats don't use money... you have another think coming.

I only have 200 words, so only one example.

George Soros (multi-millionaire Democrat) stated, "Removing President George W. Bush from office in 2004 was the central focus of my life."

He put his money where his mouth is, giving $23.58 million to various 527 groups dedicated to defeating Bush. His early financial support helped jump-start Barack Obama’s political career. Soros hosted a 2004 fund-raiser for Obama when he was running for the Illinois Senate and gave the maximum-allowed contribution within hours of Obama’s announcement that he was running for President.

Soros has given more than $7 billion to a who’s who of left-wing groups. This partial list of recipients of Soros’ money says it all: ACORN, Apollo Alliance, National Council of La Raza, Tides Foundation, Huffington Post, Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.


Getting the political result Soros wanted was the "central focus of his life".

Likewise it's the central focus of MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, etc....