Can Democrats Get a New Party, Too?

The GOP isn't the only party in need of an overhaul. Liberals ought to be demanding big changes, too -- starting with campaign-finance reform.
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The 1992 election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore ushered in a electorally successful but ultimately unfulfilling era for the Democratic Party. (Reuters)

It's obvious to any sane Republican that the GOP needs to remake itself. The brand "rich, white, and male" may be fine for a fraternity (in 1953). It's not so great for a political party today. If anything is certain about 2016, it is that the Republicans will survive only if the GOP becomes something more. Its followers, in other words, are about to get a new party.

But with Hillary Clinton seemingly poised to run for president and resume the Clinton dynasty's reign, here's the question Democrats need to ask: Can we get a new party too?

Our problem isn't the Republicans' -- we're not too exclusive. It's the opposite: We are wildly too inclusive. The Democrats are indeed a rainbow coalition, courting every hue of American society. But the leaders of the party believe that at our core, there must be a dark shade of green. For at least 20 years, conventional Democratic wisdom has been that we can do nothing unless we give pride of place to large-dollar funders of Democratic campaigns. This money, most Democrats would concede, may well be evil, but it is a necessary evil. And the trick, we've been told again and again, is to pass as much policy as we can, subject to the constraints of raising big money.

This position has never been completely uncontested. Indeed, as Mike Lux describes in his book, The Progressive Revolution, at the very birth of the (first) Clinton Administration, there were some who pressed the president to pursue campaign-finance reform before he tried health-care reform. That advice was rejected, and America got neither.

Instead the Democrats got rich. The Clinton Administration bent over backward to convince Wall Street that its populist rhetoric was just that -- rhetoric -- and that Democrats could bargain away sane financial regulations as quickly as Republicans. The result: a boom in Wall Street giving. And soon the same strategy was replicated across the big-money spectrum. Everyone understood there are things that Democrats had to say. But everyone who mattered understood that rhetoric notwithstanding, there were things that even Democrats would never do.

The consequence is a pattern of reform, or as we call it in the 21st century, "change," that is completely predictable. "Change" is stuff that either makes big money happy or that big money doesn't care to block. Welfare reform (how much do the poor give?), NAFTA (how much did the steel workers give, compared to the corporations supporting NAFTA?), or a "health-care reform" bill that passed only because of a $250 billion gift, as The New Republic estimated it, to big pharma and insurance companies.

This way of thinking about the "necessities" of modern political life is so obvious to mainstream Democrats that it follows the party whether it is in power or not. The Center for American Progress, for example, is the Democratic Party's most important Washington think tank. Its researchers have produced an incredible range of valuable work, mapping a progressive agenda for the party to follow. There is no better home for left-thinking policy wonks in D.C., and no more than a handful of institutions that have ever produced better left-leaning work.

Or at least, and possibly, depending upon whether it pays. For, as investigative journalists Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams have documented in a series of recent articles, CAP's agenda is potentially vulnerable to a long list of undisclosed corporate funders. According to Silverstein, CAP staffers are "very clearly instructed to check with the think tank's development team before writing anything that might upset contributors." (CAP disputes Silverstein's portrayal.) In at least one case, CAP has acted as an undisclosed lobbyist for a corporate contributor. (Disclosure: Silverstein and Williams's work on think tanks has been funded in part by a research center I run.)

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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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