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.)

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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