Can Democrats Get a New Party, Too?

My point is not that these are bad people pushing bad policy. My point instead is just this: Democrats must recognize that we don't actually get very much from this bargain. Sure, we'll win some elections, including the presidency, and so a regular mix of not-right-leaning souls will have this democratic royalty bestowed upon them. But we won't get much actual policy. Or policy consistent with the principles of this party, if indeed there are any principles not yet auctioned off to big money.

The reason for all this should be obvious. In the 20 years since Clinton came to office, the nature of Congress has changed. Bill Clinton didn't do this on his own; Newt Gingrich was more directly responsible, by shortening Congress's work week to three days a week and sending members "home" (a.k.a. on the road to raise money) the rest of the time. But once Newt set the standard, Democrats followed very quickly. The work of a congressman shifted from governing to fundraising. The important fight was not to enact policy; the battle was to raise more money for the next war over the control of Congress. Indeed, just this year, Democratic leadership instructed incoming freshman congressmen that at least 44 percent of a nine-hour day was to be devoted to fundraising -- the largest chunk of their schedule by far, and that doesn't even count the fundraisers in the evening.

But as these members dial for dollars, they're not calling America. They're calling instead the tiniest slice of the 1 percent of America. Less than 100,000 people gave the maximum amount to even one congressional candidate from either party in 2012. That means less than 0.05 percent of us are even in the class of relevant "funders" for these congressional campaigns. And as Congress thus becomes dependent upon this tiny slice of us, it gives an even smaller slice an extraordinary power: It becomes trivially easy to collect enough relevant funders to block almost any change in government policy. The "economy of 'no'" quickly becomes the most effective economy to raise campaign funds. It thus in turn becomes the dominant economy of D.C.

So how do we Democrats ever win anything that we really care about, from climate-change legislation, to real financial reform, to health care designed to actually heal people rather than subsidize drug companies or protect insurance companies? These core Democratic objectives are off the table so long as big money funds campaigns. And any Democrat who tells you otherwise either thinks that you're a fool or is a fool himself.

You don't get to heaven by sleeping with the devil. And you don't get to govern by handing the keys to the republic over to interests who have no actual interest in governing. We need a party that stands for ideas. And first among those ideas must be to banish big money from center stage. A credible and unbendable commitment to changing the way campaigns are funded would not only inspire millions to join the party. It would also, and more importantly, make governing possible again.

There's no need to rehash the past. Maybe compromise was necessary. Who knows? What's clear today is that this compromise now gets us nothing. The aim of our party must be more than the regular coronation of democratic royalty. It must instead be to do something real. And nothing real will happen so long as big money funds our campaigns.

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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