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.