Hedges and Lessig on Money and Politics (2/3)

Chris Hedges and Lawrence Lessig continue their discussion about how to break the power of corporate money in the US political system

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Story Transcript

CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: How much emphasis in terms of change, in terms of wresting back power from corporate hands, do you place or how much energy would you like people to place in campaigns like this and the electoral process? And how much energy should be placed in building mass movements that obstruct the mechanisms of corporate power, like Occupy Wall Street?

LARRY LESSIG, POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND HARVARD LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR: Yeah. So my view is, you know, we have to learn to walk, chew gum, and Tweet at the same time. All these things have to be happening together. And just like the civil rights movement wasn’t just Dr. King and wasn’t just the techniques of Gandhi, so too this movement is going to win only if it can attract a wide range of support.

Now, in my view, we will only pass fundamental reform through the political system if it can appeal, if it can be heard by the wide range of participants in the political system. If it’s heard as something that denies the fundamental views of 40 percent of the American people, then it’s guaranteed to lose, you know, because, just to be very practical about it, if it takes constitutional change to bring about some of these reforms–like, for example, it’s possible–I don’t actually think it will be necessary, but it’s possible that to eliminate the super PAC will require constitutional amendments. You know, the Constitution says three-fourths of the states, 38 states, have to ratify any amendment.

HEDGES: Can you explain why that is? Because it wasn’t–aren’t the super PACs authorized through the judiciary?

LESSIG: Well, right, but if the Supreme Court upholds–you know, the Supreme Court didn’t create super PACs. It was the D.C. circuit. But if the Supreme Court says eventually that, yes, limits on independent political action committees are unconstitutional, the only way to address that is to change the Constitution. So to amend the Constitution requires 38 states. We live in a country where there are 27 double-red states, states controlled by–both houses are controlled by the Republican Party. So I don’t think there’s any way to imagine an amendment to the Constitution that the Republican Party identifies as anti-Republican, right, which–if you, you know, make this a movement about how–you know, some of the more extreme versions of what the progressive movement wants to talk about, that’s a sure way to guarantee it can’t pass.

But if you can begin to talk about this the way it’s developed in, for example, Montana, where after the Supreme Court of Montana tried to evade Citizens United and the Supreme Court of the United States slapped them down unceremoniously, without even allowing a hearing–they just sort of reversed the opinion of the Montana Supreme Court without any actual opportunity for it to be defended. In Montana there’s developed a very powerful cross-partisan–both Republicans and Democrats–movement supporting this kind of reform. And Montana’s legislature has passed a resolution, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, calling on Congress to pass an amendment to reverse Citizens United. So they’ve found a way to talk about it in Montana that doesn’t alienate Republicans or Democrats. And I think that’s–my view is I want to work on the strategy that tries to find a way to move this fundamental reform without guaranteeing its ultimate defection.

HEDGES: Does this discriminate against third parties? Because obviously you could have the Green Party supporting this in a three-way race, but you know from the polling that the chances of the Green Party taking a House or a Senate seat are almost nil. So what do you do? Do support two candidates? Do you support every candidate? How do you handle that?

LESSIG: Yes. Look, the American political system that forces people into these two parties is deeply problematic, and we’ve got to change that. And I think there are, like, you know, 15 things we’ve got to think about changing–the electoral college, the gerrymandering.

But in my view the question is: what is the change that we need to do first? What’s the sequence of reform? So, yeah, we will participate in this unjust two-party system to make it possible for us to bring about a more just way of funding elections. And I think that brings us to a place where we can think about the other reforms that’ll be really essential in order to get us to a democracy we can be proud of.

But certainly in 2014, you know, it’s possible we would support Larry Pressler, who is an independent political, you know, candidate in South Dakota. That would be, you know, non-two-party system.

HEDGES: Would that–when you say “support”, does that mean, then, in essence, running television advertisements on his behalf, basically?

LESSIG: Yeah, yeah, acting as an independent political action committee, coming in and showing why what he has done historically has been importantly tied to anticorruption work. He supports the idea of funding elections in a better way. I interviewed him for my book, and he had this wonderful line where he says, you know, the most striking thing about the Obamacare decision were the issues that were never even mentioned, the ideas that were never mentioned. He said, when I was in the Senate, even Republicans talked about the single-payer. Single-payer was an obvious solution to this problem. But notice how it was not even allowed to be talked about. And that’s because, Larry Pressler said, the lobbyists had made it clear: if you even raise this as an issue, we will destroy you.

HEDGES: Right. And when it was talked about, it was mischaracterized in an effort to demonize it.

LESSIG: Yes, absolutely.

HEDGES: And given the weight of forces you’re up against, if this has any traction, you can expect exactly the same.

LESSIG: Yes.

HEDGES: So any victory in 2014 is Pyrrhic, in the sense that you send (if you focus on five races) in people who are willing to cosponsor a bill, but of course the vast majority of elected officials in the House and the Senate are not, you know, and given that number, you know, it may never leave committee. I mean, that may be the best that you can hope for.

LESSIG: Well, the objective in 2014 is to convince people who right now think there’s no way to win this issue that there actually is a way to win this issue. You know, think about it as a kind of business model. We’ve got investors out there, investors who would be willing to invest in bringing about a better democracy. Right now they say there’s no way to achieve that. But if we in 2014 can show, look, we spent this money, we moved the dial–you know, we do polling before and after–we moved the dial this way in the way people talked about it. We actually won in these particular races. Take that same analysis and now extend it to the 50 or 60 different races you’d have to imagine being in in order to get a Congress that would bring about fundamental reform. Now you’ve given them something; they can begin to say, okay, I think there’s a reason to invest in this as a strategy for bringing about fundamental reform.

Now, of course, people inside of Washington will not, you know, necessarily believe it’s going to be possible, and the pundits will tell you it can’t be done, but, you know, how many of them predicted Eric Cantor was going to go down? I don’t care, really, what the insiders think about the way in which this can happen. What I care [about] is getting real data that shows that it can happen, and then recruiting the kind of resources necessary to make it possible.

HEDGES: What about the press? I mean, as you have begun this campaign, we have a press that is controlled by roughly a half-dozen corporations–Viacom. I mean, how have you found trying to get your message out through commercial media?

LESSIG: You know, in some sense the problem with American politics is mirrored with the problem of the American press, in the sense that the business model of polarization is profitable for both politics and the press. And what that means is if you’re trying to move an idea which in its core should not be polarized, it’s not attractive to anybody, right?

So, you know, the particular remedies that I’m talking about–changing the way we fund elections–are not necessarily ones that the press would be upset about. You know, if you were talking about cutting the cost of political campaigns in half, limiting expenditures to 50 percent of their last year’s amount, then the press would be very upset, ’cause they make so much money off of political campaigns and the ads that are spent–that are bought in political campaigns. But if you’re talking about just funding it differently, what do they care? They get their money either way. So there’s no economic reason why they should be against this. What there will be is a desire, a strong desire to polarize it one way or the other. I mean, both sides–neither side really cares which way it’s polarized. It’s just polarized, and then they get to play the opposite. And so the hardest problem for us is to figure out how to move this in a way that resists that.

But, again, I don’t see the press as a leading indicator of where American politics is going. It’s very reactive. And, you know, it’s one of the striking features of American politics today that when you sit down with strategists and you talk about an idea like this and you say, where do we have to be in order to win, they don’t say, you’ve got to be on ABC News, they don’t say you need to be on CNN or on Fox or on MSNBC. They say you’ve got to get onto Comedy Central, you’ve got to be on Comedy Central if you want an idea like this to have a chance at winning. Now, what does it say about America that the place you’ve got to be to bring about a fundamental change in the political system is Comedy Central?

HEDGES: What’s Hillary Clinton’s position on campaign finance? Do you know?

LESSIG: Well, I knew where she was in 2008, you know, because Obama clearly saw this was the way to hit her. Both he and Edwards took up this issue of fundamental reform as a way to attack her. And, you know, in 2008, she was, you know, deeply impatient with this whole argument. And, you know, she had this gaff where at the yearly of the Yearly Kos conference–which wasn’t called that then, but whatever it was called, it was that conference–she made that comment about how, you know, lobbyists are people too and they represent ordinary people too, and it was kind of the laughingstock which then fueled Obama in his attack on her.

But I think, you know, the mature view of what Clinton was saying might ultimately be correct–I hope it isn’t, but might ultimately be correct, which was, look, there’s no way a president can take this issue up, because this issue is an issue about attacking Congress. And if you as a president make it your campaign to attack Congress, you basically guarantee you get nothing through Congress. And if you get nothing through Congress, then the business model of the American presidency, which is to run, get reelected, and then become a kind of, you know, nobility for the rest of your life, will fail. You will not get reelected. So no president could rationally make this the object of his or her administration, and therefore I won’t either.

Now, Obama, you know, I mean, sounded to me–you know, and he was a friend. I knew him at Chicago. We were on the faculty together. I really believed it–stupidly, perhaps, but I really believed it. It sounded to me like he was going to take this issue up. But it’s pretty clear once Hillary Clinton was no longer a rival it disappeared from his rhetoric in the campaign, and he literally did not one thing to bring about–even propose a change that would affect this problem in any fundamental way. And he went back on the promise (to reinforce your point about what politicians will do) to introduce changes to public funding for the presidential election.

You know, we forget this really important fact that until Obama, every president after Nixon got elected with public funding. Indeed, the person who benefited the most from public funding was Ronald Reagan, who would never have been President Reagan but for public funding. He would never had had a chance to run in 1976 had there not been a way for him to get money for his elections, because the Republican Party was not about to give money to this, quote, right-winger named Ronald Reagan. But because of public funding, he was a viable candidate in ’76. He became the winning candidate in 1980. And in 1984, he attended four–well, it depends how you count. Let’s be conservative. He attended eight fundraisers. Barack Obama in his reelection campaign attended 229 fundraisers. Right?

So the radical difference that Barack Obama brought about by basically giving up public funding and therefore saying that it’s never going to be a part–is to completely change the way in which a presidential candidate goes about doing the job of getting elected for the presidency. And, you know, I would have thought a moral obligation, at least, after he did that would have been to come forward with an alternative to the presidential funding system that at least got us back to where we were before 2008. But he didn’t even do that. And so, you know, this is the great challenge we have in the context of thinking about the presidency.

HEDGES: I mean, don’t you worry that given the cynicism of figures like Obama, you’re very easily bled dry? They can do what the Clintons have done, what Obama has done in two election cycles, which is, you know, especially in 2008, make the kinds of promises and commitments that he knows most Americans want. And in a way, he’s not–there’s no way to hold a politician like that accountable. I mean, for you to raise one or two million dollars is, you know, Herculean. I mean, it’s amazing and it’s fantastic. But it’s nothing to these figures.

LESSIG: Well, if our super PAC works, we will have raised $12 million in 2014. And we’re going to raise–you know, the numbers [incompr.] our calculations are anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion that it’ll take to win in 2016. So those are not insignificant numbers.

But you’re right. I mean, the fundamental problem we have is that the political system for the presidency is–again, in the mature view of what Clinton was doing–is against this kind of reform, which is why, you know, in my book I sort of mapped out a different way to think about a candidate for the presidency. You know, so I said, imagine a kind of regent president or a kind of president, as in bankruptcy judge president, who runs and says, look, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to get elected. I’m going to hold Congress hostage until they pass this reform. And once they pass this reform, I’m going to resign, and my vice president will become president. It could take a day, it could take a week. Could it take two years? I don’t know how long it’ll take, but this is the one thing I’m going to do. And you know that if I’m elected, I’m going to do it, because, you know, I would be a complete failure if I then said, no, no, no, that’s not what I’m going to do; I’m going to do these other things. So it’s credible. And it’s also irresistible from Congress’s standpoint, because if a person were elected who said that, then the people have spoken. You know, the thing Obama could say is that, yeah, some people thought I was for campaign finance, some thought I was for climate change, some thought I was for labor rights. You know, everybody thought that they knew who Obama was. But he was everybody. But here, here it is, I’m just this–so that it becomes the kind of transformative presidency that is self-limiting, because it’s like, this is all I’m going to do. And the candidate then could fight the war in a way that no normal-presidency president could, because he’s not caring about reelection, he’s not caring about keeping the Democratic Party or the Republican Party happy; all he or she is concerned about is doing the thing that brings about the kind of reform.

Now, you know, if you think about the way that strategy plays out, imagine somebody took the lead doing that on one side of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Quickly, if this became popular, it would have to be matched on the other side. You know, so if the Democrat took the lead and said, this is how I’m going to run, but then Republicans are like, oh my God, we need a reform candidate too, so then quickly the election would become about the vice presidential candidates. Yeah, I’m going to have, you know, so-and-so as my vice presidential candidate. And then you’d be thinking about, well, what’s the long-term going to look like and what’s the short term going to be? And plausibly, if it gets enough support, they just want to get this done as quickly as they possibly can. So first day in office, there it is, the bill you sign. You don’t even move into the White House.

Now, this is the kind of strategy, I think, that, you know, begins to break the paralysis of the current way in which normal presidencies work. But, of course, it requires a certain kind of figure, a certain kind of candidate to be able to credibly take this on.

End

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