Why a Democratic Tea Party Is the Best Hope for Fixing Corrupt Government

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The solution must come from the grassroots -- it can't be imposed from above by reform-minded members of Congress.

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At a talk at UCLA last month, I said that America's growing anti-corruption movement needs to think big, not puny. That we need a fundamental change in the way America funds its campaigns, and that it will take a cross-partisan grassroots movement of outsiders to get the insiders in D.C. to embrace that change.

To kickstart that grassroots movement, I said, Congress needs a chance to innovate. This should be a time when different ideas are encouraged and tested. Which ideas will spark the energy of citizens across the country? Which can speak to citizens from across the political spectrum?

We've already seen a wide range of important new proposals. The Brennan Center and Democracy 21, led by the dean of campaign finance reform, Fred Wertheimer, has proposed a 5-to-1 match for contributions up to $250, now introduced as a bill by Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland). In 2010, the Democratic House came close to passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which was in effect a 9 to 1 match. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Maryland) has proposed a much more ambitious 10-to-1 match for grassroots-funded candidates, plus a tax credit to inspire even more small-dollar contributors. And just last month, Represent.US launched the American Anti-Corruption Act, crafted by Stephen Colbert's super PAC lawyer, Trevor Potter. If passed, the act would be the most ambitious political-reform proposal in a century.

Any of these proposals would be better than the system we have now. Obviously. But it should be equally obvious that the only way any of these proposals can ever hope to pass this Congress is if one of them inspires Americans from outside the beltway to stand up and demand change.

We Americans are not easily inspired. Forty years of reform have left us more cynical, not less -- and not just about Congress but also about the very idea of "reform." Eighty percent of Americans surveyed by Clarus believe that the reforms Congress has passed "have been designed more to help current members of Congress get re-elected [than] to improve the system." The biggest challenge for the next reform is not just substance but also believability: It must convince America that it, finally, offers real change.

While no one doubts that corruption is symmetrical -- Democrats are just as dependent as Republicans on the 1 percent -- the reform movement is not.

This is why it is a mistake, as some have recommended, for reformers in Congress to fix on any single plan just now. It would be an even graver mistake if they did so and and that plan struck most Americans as very weak tea. Instead, the reformers should encourage innovation among members of both parties, and watch for the ideas that actually catch. Congress must aim high -- both to get America's attention and to inspire the country that this reform might work.

For there is a nation here that could be inspired. Across the political spectrum, America is outraged at the corruption of this government. Eighty-seven percent of us named ending government corruption a top issue for the next administration -- number two on that list, chosen by just as many Republicans as Democrats. And thousands have followed the leadership of groups such as Common Cause, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, the Coffee Party, and MovetoAmend.org to get millions to demand that Congress address the outrage that is Citizens United. Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike hate this system -- at least the ones who don't count on a future on K Street. Any reform movement that hopes to win must give that incredible movement the respect it deserves.

Respect begins with listening. It is fed by open debate. And it is encouraged by the belief that the hard work of organizing -- the work that produced almost 2 million signatures demanding real change -- will be at least as important in this process as the favors of insiders.

Democrats have a real chance here. While no one doubts that the corruption of this current system is symmetrical -- Democrats are just as dependent as Republicans on funding from the tiniest slice of the 1 percent -- the reform movement is not symmetrical. The GOP has become the anti-reform party (unless by "reform" you mean increasing the corruption of a system in which the tiniest slice of the 1 percent fund America's campaigns). Only Democrats are talking about ideas that might actually end that corruption.

It is time for Democrats finally to steal a move from the Republican's playbook: Boldness inspires. If there's going to be a Tea Party for Reform, Democrats must start talking about ideas that give people a real reason to get excited.

The change we need is unlike anything America has attempted in more than a century. None of us have done this before. Or better, what has been done before is not this. There are no experts here. There is no one with a track record. All there is is the most important reform challenge that any of us will ever know -- a very slim chance that we can meet it. 

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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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