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Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges discuss the obstacles faced in an electoral challenge to the corporate party system

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CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: I mean, the question really is: where does power lie? Does power lie with the president? Does power lying with an elected member of Congress? Ultimately do they have political power? Or is it, you know, Exxon Mobil and Raytheon and Goldman Sachs? And where does power lie? I mean, the Occupy movement would argue that power is not in Washington, power’s on Wall Street.

LARRY LESSIG, POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND HARVARD LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR: Yeah. And the question is: how does Wall Street exercise that power? So one of the most dramatic pictures of the way it exercises its power is if you just a map the breakdown of Wall Street contributions to Democrats and Republicans. So in 2006 it’s roughly equal. In 2008 it’s slightly more for Republicans. Two thousand ten, it’s a little bit more for Republicans. Two thousand twelve, it’s overwhelmingly for Republicans. So after 2012, Democrats start talking about the deregulating derivatives. Like, it’s, like, like Wall Street bait to bring Wall Street back, because the party realizes it cannot survive if Wall Street is against it. And that’s because Wall Street, or, you know, finance, insurance, and real estate, is the largest bloc of contributions to campaigns in Congress. So the mechanism of power is through the funding of campaigns.

Okay. Well, you know, I still think there are end runs around that. So, again, if you had this kind of president


who runs a campaign about reform and elects a bunch of people with him or her also focused on reform, then that person doesn’t depend on Wall Street. You know, that person’s independent of Wall Street. And if you have a Congress that’s been kind of, you know, elected in the context of this type of campaign, it’s going to be kind of hard for them to back down from it, or at least many of them to back down from it, because there’s this expectation that’s been created. Here’s the person we elected. This is what the election was about. You’d better do it, or two years later, when he or she is still in the white House waiting for that bill the town, there’s going to be a pretty bloody midterm election about this type of–.

HEDGES: But do you envision this coming through the two-party system or outside of it?

LESSIG: Unfortunately, the way our party system is structured, I think this has to be through the two-party system. Now, you know, it’s got to be a kind of independent person through the two parties, not a kind of, you know, ordinary politician wannabe who works his or her way up through the system, but somebody who’s credible outside the system. And so, you know, people are talking about how that candidate gets developed and who that could be. But that might be, you know, at the–when I did the second version of my book, in the afterword I basically said this might be the only way to imagine the presidency playing a central role.

HEDGES: But then you’d have to change the internal rules of the parties themselves,–

LESSIG: Right.

HEDGES: –because after the McGovern election, where they, essentially the grassroots, won, the Democratic leadership rewrote the rules to make sure that would never happen again. And you saw–let’s go back to the 2008 primaries where you had Dennis Kucinich physically not allowed into the debates, which were sponsored by corporations. The first debate was sponsored by pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

LESSIG: Right. And dramatically you saw that, I think, in the Republican primary. You know, in the Republican primary of 2012, there was arguably the most qualified candidate, Buddy Roemer, who was a governor and a four-term congressman and a person who had started a bank and made a successful community bank in Louisiana. Was not permitted to be in any debate. And why? Well, because he had tied himself to a pledge that he would take no more than $100 from anybody. He’d take no PAC money. A hundred dollars from anybody. And they said, well, you can’t win, buddy. And he said, well, look, you know, I can’t win if you don’t let me in the debates. So they said, okay, you’ve got to get 1 percent national recognition. So when he got that, then they said 5 percent national recognition. When he got that, then they said, you have to have raised $500,000 in the prior six weeks. And he said, my whole campaign is about the money. You can’t force me to give out the central part of this premise of my campaign to be allowed in the debates. This is just the way it is.

HEDGES: And they did the same thing to Kucinich. Remember, you had to be in the top–by the time New Hampshire rolled around, he, under their imposed rules, he had qualified, and they just–I can remember why–they didn’t let him in the debate hall. He literally was standing outside in the snow. So, I mean, working within those two-party systems requires confronting those structures even to get heard.

LESSIG: Yeah, that’s right, although, you know, I think that there’s a way in which you are prominent enough that you can’t be excluded. You know, Ross Perot couldn’t be excluded in the ’92, right, just couldn’t be excluded. There was a debate that had all three. And I think, you know, Dennis Kucinich, is much as one loves him for what he stands for, did the chief the national support necessary to make it impossible to exclude him from the debate. So it’s–.

HEDGES: Well, am I not correct in saying that after the Ross Perot phenomenon, the Republican Party changed the rules so there would never be another Ross Perot? I think that’s right.

LESSIG: They changed the rules, and they certainly changed the rules in the debate. But we’ve not yet had a case where you’ve got somebody who’s developed enough of an independent political–you know, 10 or 15 percent or 20 percent support who’s been excluded in the context of the debate. The debate rules explicitly say, if you achieve this little level at a certain point, then you will be included in the debate. So no doubt the bar is much higher. And so you’ve got to aim for that bar. Now, whether they continue to move the bar higher and higher–.

HEDGES: Well, that’s what they did. That’s what they do, did they?

Well, we’ll see. I mean, that’s the question.

I mean, they just rewrite rewrote the rules every week. The whole goal was to keep those voices out. And we can go back to Nader. I mean, the person or the party that destroyed Ralph Nader was the Democratic Party.

LESSIG: Absolutely.

HEDGES: They were terrified. He held a rally in Madison Square Garden. He didn’t have the money to rent the hall. He said, everyone has to pay $five and he filled it. And at that point the Democrats set out and did destroy him. So it’s not just the structure of campaign finance, it’s not just a corrupt political system, but it is essentially parties that have atrophied in the sense that they have locked out any kind of genuine grassroots candidates, anybody who–nobody rises from the base.

LESSIG: No, that’s right. Through the party.

HEDGES: They are anointed by the moneyed and political elite, which is how we have been reduced to this monstrosity of, you know, a few ruling families. We may very well have election between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. It’s like the end of Rome.

And so I guess, you know, the question is: how far gone is the system? And I think you probably believe that it isn’t–that it’s still transformable internally.

LESSIG: I don’t have to believe that to believe that this is what I should do. I could believe that it’s not transformable. But in the face of it being non-transformable, you still have to act openly and honestly to transform it. And if there are enough people beaten down doing exactly that, that’s the conditions for making it so the structure that makes it the way it is weakens. Now, so maybe not this generation or the next, but what else to do, right?

HEDGES: But what about the German political system, where you have a party that


kind of militantly represents labor? It never polls more than 5 percent, as far as I know. But it is a factor that has to be taken into consideration. Of course, it’s a parliamentary system, but it is a factor that has to be–. It doesn’t sound from what you’re saying that this money is going to go to third-party candidates. It is going to be funneled into the traditional parties. And third-party candidates–you know, I mean, Nader would certainly argue that that is the only way to build pressure, especially on the Democratic Party, is to separate from the party and build independent political movements.

LESSIG: Yeah, and I would agree with that after we find a way to neutralize the money. I mean, the difference between Germany and the United States, you pointed to it: it is that’s a proportional parliamentary system. So having 5 percent is to have a lot, because then that’s the difference between winning and losing for the majority parties. But in the United States having 5 percent is nothing, because we’ve allowed this two-party system to lock us down into this constant battle between parties which on most important issues, the money issues, there’s no difference between them.

I mean, and this is what’s so interesting about the polarization debate: America’s not polarized; it’s inconsistently polarized. So the parties–there’s one party on money. You know, think of Clinton’s race to deregulate Wall Street. But then the social issues, they’re radically opposed to each other. But that’s a nice strategy for flushing money out of the base, because you scare them because they’re pro abortion or pro gay rights, while at the same time sitting down with the Wall Street bankers and saying basically the same thing.

HEDGES: Well, it’s both parties have adopted a fear-based ideology, and they whip up the fear–you know, homosexuals will be teaching your children in kindergartens kind of stuff. And yet you’re right, they’re all feeding from the same trough. And, you know, at that point, to use Sheldon Wolin’s term, we’ve walked away from anything that can honestly be called a democracy. At that point we live in what he calls inverted totalitarianism, we live in a corporate totalitarian system. And the way that you effect reform and change within a totalitarian structure is very different from the way you effect change within a liberal capitalist democracy.

LESSIG: Maybe. But I think the historical difference here is the enormous capacity for violence, organized violence. You know, it’s one thing to resist in a direct, powerful way in a world where there are muskets and redcoats, but you saw firsthand in the Occupy movement what happens when it’s spun around so that they could invoke the right to deploy, literally, jackbooted troops in to suppress the uprisings and to restore peace. You know, it’s in–my view is it’s a scary time. And it might be that historically you look back and you say, yeah, what happened is people organized and they, you know, rose up and overthrew the government. I’m not sure we have the technical capacity to rise up against that amount of force, you know, legitimized force right now.

HEDGES: But I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the only way you do it, as you saw with–we’re now at the 20th anniversary of Tienanmen Square. When Beijing sent in troops, beep people surrounded the convoys for four days, brought them food and water, invited them into their homes, and paralyzed that military structure. This is what happened in Czechoslovakia. It’s what happened and East Germany. And when the–.

LESSIG: Yeah, but remember–let’s stop with Tienanmen Square, because I was in China literally–my plane was supposed to land on June 3, and I was diverted and I came in two weeks later.


Within two weeks it was almost impossible to find anybody in China would say anything good about the youth movement that had–. So, yeah, there’s a guy standing in front of a tank in an effort to sort of slow them down, but they won, right? And they won largely because of this overwhelming force that they could deploy. And people realize they have this force.

Now, Eastern Europe is different story, right, because Eastern Europe was filled with these Potemkin village-like forces. And once people saw this all collapsing, it was easy to imagine escaping it. And people did. You know, the reality of United States right now is not weakness in the security dimension. This is the one thing we do well. Like, we have guns and tanks and bazookas and drones. We’ve got everything they need. And if we ever get this fight framed in a we’ve got to keep the peace dimension, yeah, it’s not just that we lose. We die.

HEDGES: Well, that’s why it has to remain nonviolent.

LESSIG: Nonviolent, yeah.

HEDGES: But, I mean, I covered the STASI state, which was the most sophisticated security and surveillance state until ours. And they brought it down with Erich Honecker tried to send down an elite paratroop division to Leipzig to fire of the demonstrators and they refused. Honecker last another weekend. And I think revolutions, despite the mythology, are usually nonviolent and that what broke the czar was the Cossacks going to Petrograd, refusing to fire on–indeed, fraternizing with the crowd, and the czar abdicates.

LESSIG: Yeah, but my point is not whether they are nonviolent or not. My point is whether they can be framed as violent when they are not.

HEDGES: Well, that’s what they always seek to do.

LESSIG: They always seek to do, right. And–right. So I want to structure this in a way that makes it almost impossible to characterize it. So I want to do it in the old, you know, high school civics like way. Like, we’re talking about organizing people to vote and we’re talking about turning out to force candidates to answer questions and we’re talking about–. Now, that might not work. You know, it might need another strategy, might be out there. But I want to try all these strategies and I’m going to play the side that you cannot begin to say that I’m a revolutionary, right? I’m not. I’m ordinary, working within the system to bring the system.

HEDGES: I guess that’s the distance difference between the two of us.

LESSIG: Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s why we need both. We need both of these.

HEDGES: And, you know, it doesn’t really matter at this point if–you know, sitting around wondering whether it’s going to work or not work, because if you don’t do anything, you know it isn’t going to work.

LESSIG: Right.

HEDGES: So everything should–you know, pressure from every point should be pushed, with a clear understanding of what we’re up against. How would you handle a candidate–. Let’s take the candidate to beat Cantor in the primary. So he did rail against Wall Street, but it is a kind of, you know, proto-fascist Tea Party populism, and it’s frightening. And you can see it within Ron Paul, where on issues of civil liberties and empire he’s really good; there are very problematic questions about issues of race, you know, the welfare state. What happens when you get these far-right-wing populists who on this issue are good?

LESSIG: Well, I think what happens is we ideally bring them together with progressives who want to change the system to. We change the system. And then we go into a fight about what our democracy stands for.

You know, what’s interesting in Arizona, which is one of the, you know, three publicly funded elections states at the state level, is that many of the mainstream Republicans in Arizona now hate public funding, ’cause they say, look what public funding did in Arizona. You got all these crazy right-wingers who took over politics in Arizona. And my response is, well, you know, that’s Arizona. That’s the people.

But I don’t actually think the people in the nation, you know, poll to that extreme. I mean, there are people at that extreme. Fine. But that’s what democracy is about. It’s about saying, okay, we’ve got people at this extreme and people at that extreme. They’ve got to find a way to build a coalition to govern that’s not going to be at those extremes.

So, you know, I read what Brat said. What I was impressed about with Brat is that number two on his list of issues was, quote, crony capitalism and the way in which these people have sold out to the moneyed interests. Fine, I take that. I want that. That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric I want. And then I’m going to say, we’re going to bracket the immigration stuff. We’re not going to have that conversation. I’m not having that conversation with you. I’m going to have the conversation with you where we can find a common ground to bring about a change so that we’re not fighting the money interest.

You know, people–you know, people, especially some progressives–you know, and I talk about creating vouchers so that people can put their money together. They say, oh my gosh, we’re going to have the people doing all sorts of crazy special interest legislation to benefit the people. And I’m like, you know, that’s a tiny problem, in my view, compared to the special interests that we’re getting on behalf of the funders of campaigns right now. So I don’t support the idea of elite governing America. I support–I’m a populist in this sense; I support the idea of the people, recognizing I’m not going to agree with what the people do on a whole bunch of cases. But I don’t know the alternative that I in the long-term would turn to other than that.

HEDGES: That’s great. Thank you very much.

LESSIG: Thank you.


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