Editorial: Where Lessig walks, nation should follow

Last modified: 1/9/2015 12:22:50 AM
It’s easy to see Lawrence Lessig as Don Quixote.

End the corrupting influence of money in American politics? Sounds great, but it will never happen. March through New Hampshire in January to spread the word? Knock yourself out, but you’re wasting your time.

See? It’s easy.

But like many things in life that are easy, dismissing Lessig is also lazy. Because it takes only a little effort to see that he’s right.

Many people believe climate change is the most important issue in America. Others say tax reform, securing the border, reducing the size of the government, refinancing student debt or boosting the economy should be Job One for elected officials. But whatever issue you hold above all others, Lessig has something he needs to tell you: Your issue is certainly important, but it’s not the first issue. His is.

And he’s right.

Lessig isn’t arrogant – in fact, he’s far from it. He is soft-spoken, highly intelligent, passionate about what this nation can and should be, and firmly entrenched in reality – all of that was clear when he sat down with the Monitor’s editorial board this week. He also understands something that too few voters grasp: The government of the United States won’t accomplish anything of substance until it beheads the beast that is money in politics.

His message is simple: Wherever you are on the political spectrum – far right or far left – you are at the mercy of one-twentieth of 1 percent of Americans. Those 150,000 people, whom Lessig calls the “relevant funders of congressional campaigns,” are the invisible hand on the American rudder. That is why Lessig’s Mayday PAC didn’t choose candidates to support based on their political ideology but rather their commitment to helping America become the republic the Founding Fathers intended it to be – that is, a truly representative democracy. America cannot achieve that ideal until campaigns are financed by the many, not the few.

Encouragingly, most Americans agree with Lessig. They don’t like the idea of the very wealthy having so much influence over those elected to serve everybody. But nor do they see a simple solution to the problem.

Lessig does, and he calls it the Grant and Franklin Project.

Under the plan, voters pay a minimum of $50 to the U.S. Treasury, which is then rebated to the voter in the form of a “democracy voucher” to be given to any candidate for Congress (provided that candidate agrees to fund his or her campaign only through vouchers and contributions from citizens, with a cap of $100). If the voucher is not used, it “reverts to the party to which the voter is registered” or to a “fund to support democracy in America.”

Lessig feels good about his proposal, but he also believes there are others that would work just as well. The statute, he says, is the easy part. The problem is the politics. How can corruption that is so widespread and runs so deep be eradicated?

The answer, it would seem, is one step at a time. That’s the only way America has ever achieved the impossible, whether building a new nation, storming Normandy or landing on the moon. And so beginning Sunday, Lessig and other members of the New Hampshire Rebellion will walk along frozen roads to rouse the people from their long slumber and ask them to do nothing less than save their country.

Through bleary eyes, it may appear that Lessig is tilting at windmills. But if you wipe away the sleep, you will see that those aren’t windmills at all. They are piles of money that represent the real enemy of the American system of government. It’s time to saddle up – and rebel.

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