How to Make Americans Care About Money Corrupting Politics

A walk across New Hampshire showed that citizens don't just hate the current system—they're willing to act. The trick is creating a true grassroots movement.
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The New Hampshire Rebellion march took inspiration from Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the country to call for reform in 1999 and 2000. (Associated Press)

As we started the 185-mile trek from Dixville Notch to Nashua, there were certain things that I knew.

I knew that our system of government had become corrupt. That the system—not necessarily any individuals, but all the individuals together—had been contorted into a shape that makes it impossible for government to address even the most fundamental and important issues sensibly.

I knew this in the way that any academic knows anything: I had studied it, across history and in its current form. I had seen numbers that captured its contours. I had spoken to people who had participated in it, both now and before it had metastasized. I knew it and believed it, and believed passionately that we have to find a way to bring more people into a movement to end it.

For seven years, I’ve been speaking about it. In lectures across the country and across the world, some small, some very large, I’ve been developing a way to explain it, using slides and stories that aim to bring people of all sorts to this view: that this corruption may not be the most important issue. But it is the first issue that we, as a nation, have to solve. And that until we solve it, we will solve nothing else, sensibly.

Yet throughout these years, a nagging truth has haunted me: Americans just don’t seem to care that much. Even though 96 percent of America believes it is “important” to “reduce the influence of money in our politics,” the reality, as any political pundit will tell you, is that it is almost impossible to translate that belief into any meaningful political action.

This puzzle only increased for me over the first few days of the walk, a march across the Granite State that we were calling the New Hampshire Rebellion. People knew who we were. New Hampshire is a small state with a limited media market. The one major television station had covered our walk extensively. We were on a few popular radio shows. We’d done a good job promoting the walk on the web.

So as we walked, the people of New Hampshire reacted—wildly. They honked their horns, they came out in their pajamas, a woman painted a sign and put it on the front of her lawn. When we met them—at stores, on the street, or going door to door—they almost screamed their frustration with the current system. Indeed, one person did scream. Many were overjoyed that “someone was trying to do something about this.” Many remembered fondly the woman who had inspired us, Doris Haddock, aka “Granny D,” who 15 years before had begun a 13-month walk from Los Angeles to Washington with a single sign on her chest: “Campaign Finance Reform.” They were eager to see the movement that she started continue. 

So why is it that face to face, people can be so passionate about this issue, but forget it in the voting booth? What would lead them to honk their horns, lean their bodies out from their cars, stop, to give their thumbs up, chant as we walked, and yet allow them to give politicians a free pass?

As I walked more, and thought about this apparent contradiction a lot more, a second number from that same poll became increasingly salient: While 96 percent of Americans do believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics, 91 percent believe it is essentially not possible. It's like flying as Superman does, or traveling through time as starships in Star Trek did, or curing the incurable disease: Of course we all want that, but we’re mature, we’re adults, we know what we can’t have, and so we don’t waste our time pushing for things we can’t have. We are resigned, as a people, to the corruption of this government. We have learned to accept a fate that seems unavoidable.

But here’s the obvious fact: We may not be able to fly like Superman or travel like the Starship Enterprise, but we actually can end the system of corruption that has destroyed the capacity of our government to govern. Even without a constitutional amendment to deal with the mess that Citizens United created, we can radically change the economy of influence inside Washington, and undermine the economy of corruption that has overtaken it. A single statute could remake D.C., if only we could build the political pressure to force Washington to adopt it.

For political pressure comes in a currency that the people still hold: the vote. And a very small number of votes in New Hampshire could well set the direction of the 2016 presidential campaign. If just 50,000 New Hampshirites made this issue central—if they weaved a briar patch throughout the state, making it impossible for any presidential hopeful to avoid answering this single question: How are YOU going to end the system of corruption in D.C.?—then New Hampshire could create the conditions for a leader to take this issue on, credibly. And if a candidate could make reform credible—if she could somehow convince the voters that unlike every president promising change before, this time, this will be different—then that candidate could begin to thaw the enormous potential political energy frozen in an issue that 96 percent of America believes must be solved.

That tantalizing hope is what our walk seemed to trigger. We weren’t politicians promising “CHANGE.” We were ordinary citizens from across the country, putting our feet first. As Granny D had, we were presenting a case in a respectful if physically demanding way. People saw us. They heard us. And they began to echo us, as they knew again the reform that we as a nation must achieve.

And here is where I learned the most important lesson of this walk: the lesson of the we, not the one.

What was striking about Granny D was this lone and aged soul walking across a country for a cause. Of course, people joined her along the way for at least part of the walk. But the image that survives is of a single soul suffering an incredible burden to make a critically important point.

Our walk was not about a person. It was about a team. Though when I announced the plan to walk across New Hampshire, from north to south, in January, I was not certain, or even confident, that anyone would join me, in fact hundreds did for part of the way and just about twenty did for the full 185 miles.

As we did this, we did this. We did it together. The days were filled with conversations that bound us forever. As soldiers in a platoon (and three of our walkers were former soldiers), we knew our purpose, and showed our resolve, through freezing rain and heavy snow, across some of the most beautiful mountains in America. And through the calm but determined action of walking in a physically demanding context, we gave others a reason to listen, and gave at least some the inspiration that dedication rightly evokes.

Granny D walked 3,200 miles. It took her 13 months. Together, we walked 6,400 miles. It took us two weeks. And if we imagine 3,200 miles as a unit of measurement—call it one “GD”—then there may be a way that this model of activism could scale.

Now imagine that we multiply the teams of walkers—say 16 walkers, and four support staff, per unit. And imagine we multiply the routes, synchronizing each so that they all end up at the same place—Concord, Des Moines, Columbia—at the same time. Anyone could join the walk along the way, but each unit would commit to walking the full distance within an allotted time.

As we increase the number of teams walking, we would increase the number of “GDs” walked in the name of reform. Let’s say 2,016 GDs by 2016. All across the country, but especially in the early primary states, these walkers would raise awareness of this cause, and evince a movement much more powerful than the clicktivism of online organizing. And rather than “the top down tendencies of online political organizing” that TechPresident’s Micah Sifry recently lamented, these literal feet on the ground are units of activism that will convince other citizens of the seriousness and commitment this movement can inspire.

And then maybe it will trigger the same kind of recognition that we saw again and again in New Hampshire—a look of hope and surprise, as one citizen shows another that maybe, just this once, the game could be changed. That we still have that power, at least if thousands of us show them the right determination.

Twenty miles into the walk, you feel that determination. A hundred miles into the walk, you can’t help but show it. And 185 miles later, there’s the seed of an issue planted in New Hampshire, which with the right care, may finally allow this democracy to grow.

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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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