Politics Q&A: Lawrence Lessig on the 2012 Primaries

The Harvard professor and campaign-finance-reform advocate reflects on the corrupting influence of money in American politics.

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Larry Lessig, the renowned Harvard Law School professor and political activist, was known until recently as a champion of the open Internet. Although he hasn't stopped caring about causes like reforming intellectual-property law, he has recently turned his attention to the political system itself, and what he sees as the legalized corruption of campaign contributions and lobbying. He's out to persuade all Americans what so many already believe: that money is distorting our politics, and that major reforms are needed. He chatted with me about his cause and whether or not the presidential race has made him rethink any of his ideas about how our politics works.
You've recently written at book, Republic Lost, and an e-book, One Way Forward, about the corrupting influence of money in American politics. And as you've been talking about this issue, there's been a Republican primary to observe. Does this campaign fit your thesis?

The most depressing fact is that the issue of money in politics is not going to be allowed to surface in this campaign. There was an opportunity for it to be at the center of the Republican campaign, had the most qualified candidate, Buddy Roemer, been allowed to be on stage in the debates. This is the guy who had more experience in government than anybody else on that stage. He also had 20 years in the private sector building a bank, so he was kind of Herman Cain plus Newt Gingrich. But he was not permitted on the debate stage. And that was directly tied to the money issue.

How so?

They first said to him that he had to have 1 percent national name recognition. He said, "I've been in politics for 20 years, it's strange to make that a qualifier from the beginning." But when he achieved it, they said 2 percent. And when he achieved that, they said you have to have raised half a million dollars in the prior six weeks. He said, "My whole campaign is about money in politics. How can you say I have to compromise that to be out on stage?" But that was the rule. So the issue couldn't surface through him. And it couldn't surface through any of the other candidates because it would be deep hypocrisy for anyone on the Republican or Democratic side to say money is the problem. On the inside of American politics this issue is invisible. For Americans it isn't invisible. It's essential. But there's no way for it to be channeled through the process. 

Why do you think Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson were mostly excluded from the debates, sometimes even after they met the previously articulated qualifications for participating?

The most charitable interpretation is that the media sits down and says, "Who is going to be a plausible candidate?" A bunch of people we can't be sure about, even if they're crazy, like Cain and some of the other Tea Party types. So they couldn't exclude them. They're plausible. But Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson were not plausible Republicans, not because Roemer's issue wouldn't resonate with Republicans, but because anyone who tied his hands behind his back and said I'm not going to take more than $100 from anybody was going to be a hard person at least in terms of conventional politics to prevail. And Gary Johnson had views that would play well in certain parts of the country but could not win over Republicans nationally. So the media made that sort of crass judgment, and then said. "Okay, what are the rules so these people can't get in?" 

A more sinister view is that there's a lot of negotiation between political parties and the outlets that put on debates. Who is going to be allowed to have them? What are they going to look like? The party doesn't want to be embarrassed by Gary Johnson being on stage or somebody talking about the corrupting influence of money. So that's plausible. I don't know which of those theories accounts for it.

But those are the two I'd point to.

I've seen the argument that super PACs are actually a boon this year because they've helped candidates with less wealth than Mitt Romney to compete. Others argue that they're a bad thing, that they just permit too much money to be funneled into the political system. What do you think?

I clearly come down against them. They've increased the corruption of the system. In my view, you've got to start by recognizing that politicians are going to be responsive to their funders. In our system, the funders of campaigns are not the people. At the congressional level, .26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. Just .05 percent give the maximum amount to a presidential campaign. It's only the 1 percent of the 1 percent that give more than $10,000 in a cycle. If you look at the super PACs, there's a great piece in The Nation that says just .000063 percent of the population gave 80 percent of the money that's been spent in super PACs. The tiniest sliver of the 1 percent is funding things. It was already bad before the super PACs.

Now it's outrageous.

We're talking about 196 people in the United States who've given 80 percent of the money in super PACs. So a country that is supposed to be responsible to the people has got to be ashamed of a system where 196 people are having so much effect in how these campaigns develop.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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