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March 14, 2012 9:00 AM Lessig: Occupy Americans Elect

By Colin Woodard

In recent years, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has taken up the struggle against what is perhaps the root problem of American dysfunction: money’s corrosive effects on our political system. His recent book, Republic, Lost, outlined the systemic nature of the problem, its horrific cost both to the health of our society and to the political goals of both the left and the right, and just how daunting it will be to fix it. He offered detailed solutions as well, though he admits each has only a small chance of succeeding.

Now he’s issued a new call to action: an omni-partisan campaign to seize control of Americans Elect and use it to strike a powerful blow for reform of our entire political financing process. If it succeeds, the project promises to pull the rug out from under Democrats and Republicans alike, forcing both to reckon with issues that have remained well off the radar screen throughout this election cycle.

For those unfamiliar with Lessig’s recent work, his argument boils down to this: our Congressional representatives are no longer “dependent on the people alone” (as James Madison insisted they must be) but rather on deep-pocketed campaign and super PAC donors. This dependency on campaign money - or the fear of having it deployed against them - and the role of lobbyists in bundling it and in providing lucrative careers to retired legislators, provide every incentive for our representatives to keep their patrons happy, even at their constituents’ expense. This situation has perverted everything from the regulation of financial services (both before and after 2008), the national response to global warming, our (loophole-laden) tax code, and complex regulatory system (“that just can’t resist one more regulation (and hence one more target for congressional extortion)”), as Lessig puts it.)

He argues that fixing this will be enormously difficult because if we did so, large individual and corporate donors would lose a considerable degree of their political influence, incumbents on Capitol Hill would be anxious about their electoral success under a cleansed system, and lobbyists would see the value of their industry collapse. “If ‘Capitol Hill is a farm league for K Street,’” he wrote, “then imagine asking players on a baseball minor league team whether the salaries for professional baseball players should be capped, and you will quickly get the point.” He suggests laying the groundwork for a constitutional convention, running reform candidates for president, and deploying a small guerilla army of primary challengers against recalcitrant congressional incumbents in the hopes of manipulating them into taking up the reform banner as well.

But in his newly released e-book, One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic, Lessig identifies a new front in the war for the republic. Americans Elect, the Internet-driven “third party” nominating process created founded by Peter Ackerman, has, for the first time in modern U.S. history, created a path to the presidential ballot in every state that is not controlled by the two major parties. In what many expect to be a closely contested presidential contest, Lessig argues in the book, a credible Americans Elect candidate could “radically destabilize the plans of both major-party candidates, forcing both to account for the third in a way that makes the strategy of each different.” His goal: unite political outsiders from left, right, and center to nominate a candidate primarily focused on reforming the rules of the game.

“Americans Elect has been completely off the radar, but I think when Romney finally secures the nomination and is standing next to Obama, there will be two major party candidates, each with a base that is not excited about them,” Lessig told me when I spoke to him recently. “If there’s a candidate that is focused on the reform issue while the others are missing the point, it could make for a really interesting situation.”

Lessig isn’t a great fan of Americans Elect as conceived by its founders: a vehicle to put a moderate, post-partisan figure in the White House who can break the political logjam. He’s met Mr. Ackerman and his son, Elliott (who serves as AE’s chief operating officer), and heard their pitch; he wasn’t sold. “They have a theory of what is wrong with government that I don’t agree with,” he says. “They think the presidency is too polarized. I say, forget the presidency, its Congress that’s the issue, and the need to have a Congress that’s focused on the issues that Americans care about…. They want a president who represents the bipartisan middle, I want someone who will change the way the system works,” he adds. “I don’t think they will be happy if my sequence occurs.”

His sequence, as argued in the e-book, goes like this: concerned citizen outsiders become Americans Elect delegates, make reform their top issue, and work online to convince their fellow delegates that it should be their top issue too. Then they cast their electronic ballots for a candidate who has made reform their overriding issue. “Forget Democrat or Republican. Forget Left or Right. Forget mushy centrism,” he writes. “Vote for the candidate who could make change something other than a slogan.” If such a candidate emerges, they might have a reasonable chance of getting on the presidential debate stage, and at the very least force the big party nominees to “promise the stuff that reformers demand.” A reform-minded president could push, pull, and shame Congress into taking action.

Could it happen? Lessig thinks it’s not impossible. “Because it is virtual and all takes place online, the Americans Elect nomination process is a lot more manageable” than a conventional, on the ground effort across fifty states, he told us. “If a number of candidates enter the process, the victor is going to get some national attention, and if they do, they can get national support.” The most obvious contender is former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who has been a member of both major parties and has been seeking the AE nomination since November. But Lessig also expects there will be more surprises in store for AE.

Of course, there are plenty of dangers. A reform candidate might draw more votes from Obama than from (presumed GOP nominee) Romney, which raises the specter of a Nader-like spoiler who, in championing reform, throws the election to the major party candidate least likely to enact it. (Lessig concedes this possibility, but says that given the current mix of candidates, the reform challenger might well be to the right of Obama, making it easier for him to protect his base.)

And is an Ivy league law school professor really going to be able to rally a citizen army to save the republic? He’s founded an online campaign - rootstrikers.org - which is now a project of an anti-corporate lobbyist group, United Republic (whose president, Nick Penniman, was once publisher of this magazine.) Still, it seems a longshot, and Lessig himself says he isn’t confident there’s an army to rally. If it’s to work, he says, the key moment still lies ahead. “Outsider politics is like bodysurfing: wait for the wave,” he says. “Once the GOP nomination is clear, the AE process will become more prominent.”

And what of Congress? Aren’t they addicted? “In Republic, Lost I used this metaphor of alcohol addiction, but I think a better one would have been smoking,” he says. “With every smoker, if you sat them down and asked ‘do you really want to be smoking?’ they would say no, it’s hurting myself and my family,” he says. “But if you ask them to take the steps to stop, the vast majority can’t. It’s a similar situation with Congress.” If the leader of the free world were bullying them from the pulpit, maybe they’d be shamed into cleaning up their institution’s act, or be replaced by someone who would.

Maybe, but Lessig’s strategy requires completing three very long shots in a row: rallying a grassroots army around a reform candidate, pushing that candidate into the Oval Office, or near enough to influence whoever winds up there, then having said president out-bully the combined forces of K Street, the donor class, and corporate America. When the time comes, there had better be one very large wave headed for the beachhead.

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Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.
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Comments

  • JM917 on March 13, 2012 4:46 PM:

    Too dangerous. First, "Americans Elect" is an effort by big-buck mugwumps, who hold their noses at the prospect of Romney and the Tea Party controling the GOP, to run someone like Jon Huntsman for the presidency. But only effect would be to siphon away from Obama enough disaffected liberals to result in Romney's election.

    Second, any talk of a constitutional convention raises the specter of a run-away body dominated by the Right that would have the power to throw out the Constitution as it now stands and institute some kind of a Christianist theocracy, false-facing for the Koch Brothers. Don't kid yourselves: such a "reformed" constitution wouldn't have that much trouble getting ratified by an uncomfortably large number of Red states. Don't even think of going there.

    We've got to find other ways to fight Citizens United and all the evil that lurks behind it.

  • John Lumea on March 13, 2012 6:13 PM:

    Colin,

    You write that

    Lessig isn’t a great fan of Americans Elect as conceived by its founders: a vehicle to put a moderate, post-partisan figure in the White House who can break the political logjam. He’s met [Americans Elect founder and chairman Peter] Ackerman and his son, Elliott (who serves as AE’s chief operating officer), and heard their pitch; he wasn’t sold.

    Well, it appears that he was "sold" well enough to accept a spot on Americans Elect's Board of Advisors (see 'Leaders," here).

  • Colin Woodard on March 13, 2012 7:15 PM:

    John -

    Lessig discloses his unpaid AE advisory board membership in the new e-book (wherein he describes his failure to be "sold" on AE.) I don't think there's reason to doubt his account on this score; both his own and AE's positions on the problems facing the republic are well documented and as he describes them.

  • John Lumea on March 13, 2012 7:31 PM:

    Thanks for the clarification, Colin.

  • guster on March 14, 2012 4:36 PM:

    This is incredibly naive: "A reform-minded president could push, pull, and shame Congress into taking action."

    How?

  • Milton on March 15, 2012 11:03 AM:

    The basic concept is solid but the congress must be the target. One or two successful races can point the way to reform whereas the presidential race is far too complicated and expensive to be meaningful. In addition, the idea that "a reform-minded president could push, pull, and shame Congress into taking action" is foolish. Congress has no shame and it would tell said president to mind her/his own business. Thus you end up with four years of inaction.

  • wihntr on March 15, 2012 11:48 AM:

    I agree that the enormous amounts of money involved in the political system-- at all levels-- is to blame for much of the inattention to many important issues. I feel very strongly, however, that a third-party presidential campaign, especially one with the primary goal of getting money out of politics, would make matters worse. Especially in a post-Citizens United world, the GOP benefits far more from the status quo than the Democratic party does. This effort by Lessig would almost certainly harm the Democrats more than the Republicans because the sort of candidate he wants would bleed far more votes away from Obama than the GOP candidate. And those who, like the naifs who voted for Nader, maintain that there really is no difference between the parties simply aren't paying attention. Democrats at least believe that government can help cure some of the country's ills. Today's GOP believes that government of all forms (except for the military) is an unnecessary evil.
    I'm no great fan of Al gore, but can anyone serilously contend that had Nader not run in 2000 that we would have ALL of the problems we have now? Thanks for the thought, Prof. Lessig, but I'm not willing to take any chances on another Republican administration at this time!

  • bdop4 on March 15, 2012 12:58 PM:

    I think it's a good idea just to keep conservatives from hijacking the concept.

    Somehow, this issue has to become a primary focus for debate, or nothing will change. If AE actually can put someone on the debate stage, I'de rather he was someone who can shake up the usual menu of topics.

    As for a third party hurting Dems or Repubs more, I'de say that moderate Republicans have a lot more reason to flee their party than Democrats.

    I'm going to at least start participating just to shake things up.

  • Mitch on March 15, 2012 1:20 PM:

    The Dems may often be disappointing, but the Repugs are just dangerous. Particularly now that the GOP has been taken over by ultra-plutocrats and mega-theocrats.

    It is far too dangerous to toy with a Third Party. Especially one bankrolled by

    I especially disagree with sentiments like this: "If the leader of the free world were bullying them from the pulpit, maybe they’d be shamed into cleaning up their institution’s act, or be replaced by someone who would."

    Please. That's idealistic nonsense. If the worst offenders were capable of shame, then they wouldn't be as blatant and extreme as they are now.

    The fact of the matter is that the only way to "break the logjam" in Congress is either to give the GOP everything that it wants, or to shrink them to such a minority in Congress that they have no power to continually block everything as they do now.

    Our only real hope is that Congress passes legislation that helps take the unlimited flow of cash out of politics. Of course, that's as much of a pipe dream as a mythical Third Party.

    Maybe I am just cynical, but right now I don't see any way to fix the system. If the population were more thoughtful and informed, if the media were more responsible and honest, if politicians weren't more focused with winning elections than doing their jobs ... if all of these things were different, then maybe we could begin the process of fixing things.

    If wishes were horses, of course.

    The simple answer is there are no simple answers. There is no magical fix; especially not from a Third Party.

  • Joy Jacques on March 15, 2012 1:21 PM:

    Agreed. Way too dangerous.

    As someone who remembers all too well the Nader "Bore/Gush" construct I am EXTREMELY wary of someone who can so glibly claim that that "probably wouldn't happen." And that any challenger would be to "Obama's right."

    Look, I agree that money/politics is killing our democracy, but this strikes me as being in the "cure is worse than the disease" category.

  • Mitch on March 15, 2012 2:22 PM:

    @bdop4

    "As for a third party hurting Dems or Repubs more, I'de say that moderate Republicans have a lot more reason to flee their party than Democrats."

    I tend to disagree with that. Liberals/Progressives have always been more inclined to independent action, and we tend to crucify our heroes when they aren't perfect. Look at how people on the left often trash-talk both Obama and Clinton, even though both did much better jobs than any Republican President since Ike.

    Conservatives tend to vote lock-step more often. Sure, the GOP has grown more extreme since 2008; Tea Baggers and Theocrats are saying things they could never have gotten away with in the past, and there is not much room left for moderates among the Republicans. But as far as "party loyalty" is concerned, the GOP beats the Democratic Party hands down.

    Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. The dogmatism of the GOP is terrifying to me, and I could never ally myself with any party that has a "my way of the highway" view of the world.

    In my opinion a Third Party aimed at moderates will hurt Dems more than Repugs. If only because there are more moderates among Dems than in the GOP. With the GOP being as extreme as it is right now and the strong probability of multiple Supreme Court openings it's just too dangerous to support anything that may secure a victory for the GOP come November.

  • Snarki, child of Loki on March 15, 2012 9:46 PM:

    By all accounts, AE is trying to run a top-down organization, using the naive masses for legitimacy.

    For example, see the recent effort to have a funding rule-change by the top management overturned by by "members": something like 10k people have to vote against within 72 hours, with no way to get the word out. The mailing list is controlled by the top dogs.

    SO, sure, join...but what is really needed is an out-of-band communications channel between members that is NOT controlled by the top dogs at AE.

    This is old tech in internet terms, and Mr. Lessig should get on it PDQ: a AE members mail exploder, open to all.

    Then, perhaps, AE will be "of the people" instead of "for the elite".

  • dsimon on March 16, 2012 1:58 AM:

    Mitch: "Our only real hope is that Congress passes legislation that helps take the unlimited flow of cash out of politics. Of course, that's as much of a pipe dream as a mythical Third Party."

    Not so much of a pipe dream, actually. Pelosi has spoken very strongly in favor of public campaign financing and of reversing the Citizens United decision. A public campaign financing bill had over 160 cosponsors when Dems controlled the House, and some people thought it would have passed if brought to a vote. I know of several Senate candidates who also support the idea.

    So if we elect the right people, it can happen. But it will take a push to do so.