Lawrence Lessig’s view on American Campaign Finance: Republic Lost Version 2.0

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Professor Lawrence Lessig analyzed corruption in the presidential campaign process as part of Smith’s Presidential Colloquium series.  

Sunnie Yi Ning '18 Assistant News Editor

Last week, Harvard Law professor, political activist and former Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig gave a talk on equal citizenship in Weinstein Auditorium. This lecture was a part of Smith’s Presidential Colloquium series, which features influential speakers throughout the school year.

In his talk, Lawrence Lessig analyzed the tangled political corruption in the U.S. election system that undermines American democracy. He believes that campaign finance in its current structure has made it so that the elected official is no longer responsive to the people who elected him or her, but rather to the funders who give financial support to the campaign.

Lessig began by identifying a multi-stage election process that successfully escapes the punishment of the laws and promotes inequality. He used the deprivation of African-Americans’ voting rights in Democratic primaries in Texas in 1933 as an example. The use of partisan primaries applies a filter before the general election, to make sure that all candidates nominated will be devoted to the interest groups who nominate them instead of the general public who electe them.

The current structure for campaign funding also applies a filter for nominees before the general election, further contributing to inequality. Lessig dubbed this phenomenon “Tweedism.” Congressmen devote 30 percent to 70 percent of their time to raising funds for their campaigns, and this ultimately urges them to shift their stances on issues based on what will make them the most money.

In 2014, only 0.02 percent of Americans gave the maximum individual amount you can give to a campaign: $5,200. According to Lessig, this means that only 0.02 percent of Americans have a significant impact on the political agenda of the candidates.

According to a study from Princeton University, as the percentage of relevant donors favoring a proposed policy increases, the likelihood of that policy being implemented also increases. In contrast, the average citizen’s preferences do not have an effect on the policy changes. Since most voters are unable to donate these high amounts of money,and thus have less of a say in what policies may be implemented, the U.S. has failed democracy.

Lessig stresses that these inequalities “matter most to youth,” because they will have to deal with these irresponsible policies sponsored by wealthy donors in the long term. He used the example of careless policies on climate change that are brought about by wealthy donors in the fossil fuels industry to illustrate his point.

Lessig noted that many Americans realize the corruption of the election system, but few believe that it is possible to fix. In order to inject the corruption of campaign finance into the debate in the 2016 election year, he decided to run as a presidential candidate for the Democratic party. Although the overwhelming response to his decision was disbelief, he wanted to show his “commitment and obligation to fight, as so many before us have done.”

An audience member asked him, “What is your plan for now?” Lessig responded by saying he will ”do whatever [he] can.”  He sees the new encouragement for student participation in the political process, as a “really social, powerful movement.” As the lecture ended, Lessig said, “We need to find a way back to democracy.”

Responses from students were mixed. “His talk was inspiring, and I am interested in the feasible solutions that might help us solve this problem,” said Vega Zhang ’18. Others thought that he ignored other types of institutional inequalities.

“In order to have his message resonate with a wider audience, he needed to include more intersectional narratives and have a plan after the initial referendum to fight for full equality, beyond removing disproportionate money from politics,” said Maddy McDonnell ’18.