The Last Best Chance for Campaign Finance Reform: Americans Elect

The corrupting influence of money in politics is the most serious issue the country currently faces. Should we continue to allow a handful of people to control the fate of our elections?

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The current top three declared candidates on Americans Elect: Buddy Roemer, Rocky Anderson, and Laurence Kotlikoff / Wikipedia & Boston University

There are some who believe, as CurrentTV host Cenk Uygur put it at Netroots Nation last year, "[t]here is only one issue in this country: Campaign finance reform."

Some who believe this are, like me, on the left, and see every issue that we care about -- from financial reform, to climate change, to health-care reform, to sensible Internet policy -- blocked by the corrupting influence of money.

Some who believe this are on the right, and see every issue that they care about -- from financial reform, to a smaller government, to simpler taxes, to the end of crony capitalism -- blocked by the corrupting influence of money.

But whether from the left or the right, we who believe with Uygur believe that none of the substantive issues that any of us care about will be addressed sensibly until we end this corruption.

Yet there's a significant chance that this, for us, the most important issue in American politics today, won't even get mentioned in this presidential campaign. For it is almost certain that neither side will see campaign finance reform as helping their short term political objectives.

Former governor Romney sees no problem with things as they are. Why would he? Having outspent his rivals by more than four to one, all that gold just glitters in his eyes. And President Obama no doubt wishes for a world where money didn't corrupt our government. But after doing nothing more than wish for the last three years, it would be too embarrassing to raise that issue again. A conspiracy of silence thus pushes off stage what we who believe with Uygur believe is the most important issue facing the Republic.

This places those like us into a difficult position. If it is almost certain that the next president will be either Romney or Obama, does it make sense to jeopardize the chances of the candidate on our side -- from the left, Obama, from the right, Romney -- by pushing this issue back into the debate? Is the issue that important? Or should we just accept that this isn't our year, and wait for a new political cycle to raise it again?

This is not an easy question to answer. There is "more than a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties' candidates. It would be disastrous, each side no doubt believes, to lose the chance to control the White House. And that risk feels particularly urgent to those of us on the left: Even if the stalemate that is Washington were to continue throughout Obama's second term, the chance to avoid the further unraveling of the Supreme Court seems reason enough to fight like hell to assure that Romneys are only ever governors.

But we who believe with Uygur must recognize that waiting is not costless either. The nature of campaign spending in the two elections since Citizens United has changed American politics fundamentally. After this election, that change will seem normal. The outrage that now courses through this Republic -- on the left and at least the silenced right (squashed by four to one spending) -- will fade. The idea that 196 Americans -- the .0000063 percent -- can contribute close to 80 percent of super PAC expenditures will seem ordinary. The tiniest slice of the 1 percent will then gladly accept the role of funding America's elections, in exchange for the continued acquiescence by the rest of us -- acquiescence in its dominant role in American politics, and because that role has been privately, not publicly focused, the continued plundering of our children's futures.

If we let this issue go unremarked now, we could well pass a point of no return. The new normal is too profitable for those who control our government. Lobbyists can now promise clients triple digit returns on lobbying investments -- what rational CEO would invest in a better mousetrap when more lobbyists on Capitol Hill promise more profit? And when the average salary increase for moving from the Hill to K St. is 1,452 percent, what rational congressperson is going to make it her cause to end the corruption that is this system?

We cannot afford this silence now. We can't afford to wait. We must find a way to put this issue into the center of this presidential campaign. And the only way to do that just now is the most misunderstood movement in this election cycle so far -- Americans Elect.

AMERICANS ELECT: THE OPPORTUNITY

For the first time in modern history, there will be a candidate on every presidential ballot in November who is not the nominee of either major party. That candidate will have been selected by voters from across the country who register at AmericansElect.com, become delegates, and who reveal, through a series of questions, their own position on a wide range of issues. Those delegates will then narrow the field of possible candidates through a series of online caucuses. The final six nominees will then select a Vice President not from his or her party. Those six then continue to an online convention which, through online caucuses, will select the Americans Elect nominee. (Disclosure: I serve on a noncompensatory board of advisors for Americans Elect.) Thousands of delegates have already registered for this process. In two weeks, the first round of candidates will have been filtered from the rest. And soon after that, the biggest wildcard in a presidential campaign since Ross Perot could be on the field -- except this time, because also on the ballot of every state, this wildcard could also have a chance to win.

Presented by

Lawrence Lessig is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and founder of Rootstrikers, an activist network opposed to corruption in government. More

Lessig's books include Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It, One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republicand the recent Le$terland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It. He serves on the Board of Creative Commons, MapLight, Brave New Film Foundation, The American Academy, Berlin, AXA Research Fund and iCommons.org, and on the advisory board of the Sunlight Foundation. Lessig holds a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale. Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school's Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

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