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Chris Hedges interviews Lawrence Lessig about his plans to break the hold of big money over American elections

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CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: So let’s begin with your work on campaign finance, and maybe you can explain a little bit about what you’re doing. But also, if you could, explicate what you have targeted as the mechanism or the levers of change by which, you know, this reform might be made possible.

LARRY LESSIG, POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND HARVARD LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR: Yeah. I think there are three moving parts. And one is the president, the second is Congress, and the third is a part of the Constitution people like to ignore, which is the convention clause in the amending provision. And the work that I’m doing right now with this thing called the Mayday PAC–where “Mayday” comes from the distress call mayday, a mayday on this democracy–is to build, really, a super PAC that will engage in the election cycle of 2014 and in 2016 with the ultimate objective of getting a Congress in 2016 committed to fundamental reform.

And this project we began by basically hiring a firm a couple of years ago to make a calculation: what would it cost to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform? And the most important insight they had was that we had to run a campaign in 2014 that basically terrified Congress by winning in at least five seats on this issue in a way that made it clear that if you raised this issue before the American people, they would act on it. So that’s what we’re in the middle of right now.

And we did this Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million in 30 days, and we crossed that line in 13 days. And now we’re in a second campaign, a much more–maybe much too much more ambitious campaign of raising $5 million in 30 days. And with that and some matches, we’ll have the funds necessary to hire the firms to run these campaigns.

HEDGES: So how would you envision allocating, using this money, deploying this money?

LESSIG: So this is a super PAC. It’s an evil super PAC, right? And we’re sort of embracing the irony of using a super PAC for the purpose, ultimately, of ending all super PACs. So as a super PAC we have to act independently of campaigns. So, basically, we’re going to hire campaign shops, ideally in the Democratic side and on the Republican side, that will get into races and run campaigns, run a ground operation if that made sense–basically, do whatever makes sense to win.

Now, we’re eager to begin to push the development of new technologies that bring new people into politics. That’s going to be an essential part of winning here. But in the short term, for 2014, the objective is to win. And if we can win in a dramatic way in at least five of these seats, then I think we set ourselves up for a much bigger impact in 2016.

HEDGES: And when you say win, that would be supporting candidates who promise, once they get to Congress, to institute public financing of campaigns?

LESSIG: Who have committed to cosponsor what we call fundamental reform. But all of the things we’ve pointed to are basically different versions of small-dollar public-funded campaigns. And it’s critical, of course, to build the base in the Democratic Party. But even more importantly, we’ve got to find a way to get Republicans on this side of the fight, because this kind of reform is so fundamental that it cannot happen if it’s partisan. If it’s partisan, it will be certain to be defeated.

HEDGES: Right. Given that relatively small amount of money that you have compared with the kinds of super PACs that the Koch brothers and others can fund, don’t you worry that–you know, I mean, the last election cycle was $2.5 billion–that in terms of the percentage of money spent, it’s relatively insignificant?

LESSIG: Yeah. So in 2014 we’re in five races. We hope to have about $2 million in each race. That’s a pretty significant amount of money in those races.

HEDGES: Which races?

LESSIG: We haven’t announced them yet. We have determined been finally yet. It’ll be a function of where the numbers sit.

HEDGES: Are these Senate or House?

LESSIG: House.

HEDGES: House.

LESSIG: Mainly House. We’re toying with the idea.

There are two very interesting Senate races. South Dakota: Larry Pressler, who was a Republican but now is running as an independent. And he’s famous, of course, because he was the one member of Congress who blew the whistle on the Abscam scandal. And so he’s a very interesting candidate to think about supporting.

And in New Hampshire there’s a really wonderful Republican who openly embraces public funding, who’s running against Scott Brown. And that might be another interesting race to get into at the Senate level.

But the main races we’ve been looking at are at the House level. And so that’s a significant amount of money in a House race. And I think what we’ve seen, for example, in the Eric Cantor surprise is that if the message is right and it resonates with people in a way that I think this message does, it’s not actually going to take a lot of money to begin to line up people on the right side of this issue.

HEDGES: How do you handle candidates like Barack Obama who did talk about public financing in 2008, along with many other issues, including closing Guantanamo and revisiting NAFTA, etc., etc., protecting–rolling back the egregious violations of civil liberties under Bush, and then, once he got into office, these turned out to be, you know, essentially lies, public relations gimmicks in order to win an election, but he had no intention, we know, because he immediately brought in Larry Summers and others? How do you deal with the fact that so often in an election cycle, because of the polling, because they take the pulse of the American public, because they’re very good at feeding back to us what they know we want to hear, that as soon as they get into Congress they do the bidding of corporate lobbyists?

LESSIG: Yeah, maybe that’s what would happen. But I don’t see the alternative to electing people who have committed to a pretty simple task–I mean simple in the sense it’s clear whether they do it or not. I’m not talking about people committing to voting for something. They are committing to cosponsoring something. So that’s about sending a letter on the first day to the sponsor of the bill and say, please join me to your bill. And if we can build a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate who’ve committed to this kind of reform, then I think we have a real shot of pushing it.

Now, obviously, five races in 2014 isn’t going to create the political movement to do it. But we believe that if we can demonstrate why this issue is so salient and we can show how we’ve moved the dial in an election, then when we get to 2016, there’ll be a lot of people, both small-dollar contributors and big-dollar contributors, who are interested in trying to support the effort to finally get this change through a Congress, ’cause I think what both sides are increasingly recognizing is that the way we fund elections can’t help but corrupt their own side against what they want. I mean, you know, we on the left see that in a thousand contexts.

But what’s interesting in particular, again, about the Eric Cantor fight is that the thing that was so powerful in what Brat was saying against Eric Cantor is that he’d become a crony capitalist, he’d given in to the crony capitalists. You know, I don’t like Eric Cantor’s politics, but the idea that Eric Cantor becomes a crony capitalist has got to be the clearest testimony to the fact that money is an impossible force to resist inside of the current system. And if both sides begin to say, look, we just can’t get what we want so long as this is the lever of control inside the system, we might begin to build the kind of cross-partisan support this will take.

HEDGES: Let’s look at the debate over the public option, because we had significant numbers in the House, I believe around 60: the Black Caucus supported it; we had Bernie Sanders support it; Dennis Kucinich, when he was in the House, was very outspoken in support of it. And yet through the Baucus hearings, they managed to utterly silence what would have been a rational discussion of health care by bringing up the public option. And the corporate state used very heavy-handed tactics to turn all of these people who had cosponsored this legislation, who had–I don’t know if they got it out of committee, but who had supported a public option, so that even Bernie Sanders and, finally, Dennis Kucinich supported Obamacare and didn’t fight for it. How do you envision confronting that monolith?

LESSIG: Yeah, I mean, the public option’s a perfect example of the way in which the threat of money is enough to stop a party from pushing for something, ’cause they basically said, you know, we’re going to defeat the Democratic majority if you don’t give us relief on the public option.

I think the difference with that, though, and the issue that we’re pushing here is that though it’s perfectly clear that if we change the way you fund elections it would radically weaken the power of lobbyists and these type of interests inside of Washington, it’s a hard thing to rally those interests against, right? You know, for example, think about the climate change debate, which–you know, I’m as committed to the idea of the need for climate change legislation as anybody. But I also believe there’s actually two sides to the debate–not the science debate; there’s not two sides to that debate. But if you go into a district, one side can stand up and say, yeah, yeah, I get the climate problem, but we have jobs, we need–there are people who need jobs, and you start doing this, you’ll destroy the economy. And that creates two sides to the debate, whether there should be or not. That produces it. But on this issue it’s hard to imagine what the other side of the debate says. Like, you know, it’s important the Koch brothers or that Soros, George Soros, has this extraordinary influence in our political system? I mean, what do people say?

Now, we know that sometimes people think–something that turns out to be completely idiotic, but they think, you know, it’s a good thing that the rich people have all this power, ’cause they’re the smart people. You know, that’s totally ridiculous in its way in which it plays out. But, anyway, they think that. But you can’t say that. You can’t run ads that sort of–that say that in any direct way. So I actually think there’s–it’s not that it’s an impossible thing to fight, but it’s a fight which is strongly on this side.

So, yeah, there’s going to be an enormous battle necessary to ultimately win this, because when K Street recognizes that 40 percent of the value of K Street is going to disappear if this type of reform gets passed, they’re going to fight it like hell, which is why we’ve got to find a way to build the biggest army possible of people saying, finally, let’s get this done so we can get back to what ordinary politics is supposed to be–you get your gang and I get my gang and we figure out who gets the most votes.

HEDGES: Well, they’ll fight it the way they always fight it, which is to lie, the swift-boat deal. I mean, they will mis—as they did with the public option: death panels, you can’t choose your own doctor. And they have such a huge megaphone that they can create false perceptions. That’s what they’re quite skillful at.

LESSIG: Yeah, they will do all that. But it don’t think we have the option to just sit back and say, okay, so therefore let’s not try it. We’ve got to try it. We’ve got to step up and do whatever the hell we can, because the consequences of not fixing this problem are too great. There isn’t a single problem you and I care or a single problem that people on the right care about that can be addressed sensibly so long as we have this system. So, you know, we might lose. You know, it might be likely that we’re going to lose. But that’s no excuse for not doing absolutely everything we can to [crosstalk]

HEDGES: How do you handle the courts, which have, especially at the Supreme Court, become wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate power?

LESSIG: Actually, the kinds of reform that we’re pushing are totally fine, even with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has been, you know, activist in striking down reforms that try to silence people. And they had this ridiculous decision where a public funding statute basically put more money into a race if private money was being spent on the other side. And the court struck that down, which was, you know, just a ridiculous interpretation of the First Amendment. But even that court has consistently affirmed the idea that you can create, basically, public funding schemes. And this public funding scheme is the least problematic, because rather than, you know, the model of, for example, presidential public funding, where the government decides how much money people get to run their campaigns, this is give every voter the power to facilitate public funding by either matching their small dollar contributions or giving them a voucher they can use to support small-dollar candidates. Those are completely constitutional, even with this Supreme Court.

Now, they could make up a whole new, you know, theory, but I actually don’t think that’s what they would do. I think that as long as it were voluntary, at least in the way it was structured, they would uphold this.

HEDGES: And how would public financing look to you, of the campaigns?

LESSIG: So, in my ideal vision of public financing, you basically give every voter a voucher and you say candidates can take those vouchers if they agree to take only those vouchers plus maybe small contributions of up to $100. So, in my book I described a $50 voucher. You know, and $50 per voter is $7 billion, which is about three times the amount raised and spent in the last congressional election. So it’s real money. But the critical thing is it’s real money that’s spread out across all the voters, because in my view the central problem to the current system is that we have outsourced the funding of campaigns to the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent. You know, it’s basically 150,000 Americans who are the relevant funders of campaigns. It’s the same number of people that are named Lester in United States. So the Lesters basically are the funders of campaigns. But funding the campaign is an essential step on the way to getting elected, right? So we’ve created this two-stage election where this tiny, tiny fraction determines the first stage, which then gets you to the second stage. So, you know, unlike–you know, very much like the white primary in the Old South, we’ve created a green primary in the new America. But the difference between the white primary is in the white primary, at least the majority got to vote. In the green primary, it’s the tiniest, tiniest fraction of the one percent that get to vote.

So the only way to address that problem, in my view, is to find a way to spread out the funder influence so it’s no longer the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent, it’s the vast majority or, you know, maybe it’s 20 percent or 40 percent that are the relevant funders of campaigns. And the way to do that is to facilitate this kind of funding that a wider range of Americans participate in.

HEDGES: And one would assume that eventually the goal is to abolish super PACs altogether.

LESSIG: Yeah. And by super PACs–you know, I mean that very precisely. I don’t have any problem with independent political action committees, so long as contributions to them are limited, right? So, you know, if AARP or Planned Parenthood or the ACLU or the NRA wants to get their members to support an independent political action committee, that’s democracy, in my view.

The corrupting dynamic that’s been produced now, though, is that because they can take unlimited contributions, they’ve become the kind of laundering device for candidates who–for rich people, and also now corporations, who want to participate in the political process, because, you know, the thing that most of us–at least I certainly missed after Citizens United was that, you know, Citizens United just created the–or, according to the Court, affirmed the right of corporations and unions to spend whatever they want in political elections.

But, it turned out, corporations, like rich people after Buckley, were pretty shy. You know, there was a high cost to free speech, as Target found when it supported an anti-gay candidate for governor in Minnesota. So they don’t want–they don’t actually use the right to spend their own money. It was only after the D.C. circuit created the super PAC by saying that limits on independent political action committees also had to be abolished that they began to give their money to the independent political action committee, so that the independent political action committee becomes, the super PAC becomes the device that engages in political action. And because of the really outrageous transparency rules which the FEC has imposed here, corporations can now give their money to a C4, this nonprofit entity, and the C4 can give its money to the super PAC, and you have no idea who’s actually giving the money to the super PACs.

So the dark money has risen dramatically in 2012. It’ll be much higher in 2014. And that’s because of the structure of the super PAC. So, yes, eliminate super PACs in the sense of [incompr.] can take unlimited contributions. But there’s no problem with independent political action committees or any entity that can take small contributions as a way to facilitate democratic organization.


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