Big Campaign Spending: Government by the 1%

By Lawrence Lessig

Big donors are a big threat to American democracy. Why we need campaign finance reform.


Here's what we must come to see: America has lost the capacity to govern. On a wide range of critical issues -- from global warming to tax reform, from effective financial regulation to real health-care change, from the deficit to defense spending -- we have lost the capacity to do anything other than suffer through a miserable status quo. If there is a ship of state, its rudder has been lost. We are drifting. We can't change course. And eventually, and with absolute certainty, in waters such as these, a drifting ship will sink.

The cause of this drift is clear, and it is not "polarization." Polarization -- of the political class at least -- is real. In Congress, it is worse than at any time since the Civil War.

But polarization is just a symptom of a more fundamental disease. It is fueled by this more fundamental disease. But it is this disease we must understand -- and cure -- if we're ever to restore this Republic.

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That disease is just this: because of the way we fund the campaigns that determine our elections, we give the tiniest fraction of America the power to veto any meaningful policy change. Not just change on the left but also change on the right. Because of the structure of influence that we have allowed to develop, the tiniest fraction of the one percent have the effective power to block reform desired by the 99-plus percent.

Yet by "the tiniest fraction of the one percent" I don't necessarily mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest. That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming legislation. But the key is that under the system we've allowed to evolve, a tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don't like.

A tiny number of Americans -- .26 percent -- give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent -- 196 Americans -- have given more than 80 percent of the individual super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don't exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.

The only way to cure this disease is to spread the power to fund elections more broadly. Just as democracy spreads the vote among the millions it calls citizens, representative democracy in America must spread the power to fund elections among a group larger than those named "Lester." We need a world were at least 30 million must band together to block the reform of 300 million -- not this world, where 30,000 can assure that no sensible reform can happen.

There are many ways to diffuse the power to fund elections. I've proposed a system of democracy vouchers, which would give every voter a stake in funding congressional campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act would have established a system of matching funds, which would have generally amplified the power of small-dollar contributions. Either system would dramatically broaden the range of effective funders of congressional campaigns, and thereby weaken the opportunity for rent-seeking.

Not eliminate. But weaken. "Eliminate" is not possible in a world governed by the logic of Mancur Olson. But by funding elections as we do, we have made Olson's problem fatal. It isn't just regarding issues at the margin that concentrated interests beat diffuse interests, efficiency notwithstanding. It is on practically every issue that matters. A nation that can't resolve sensibly every issue that matters is a nation that will fail.

We must come to see this. Soon. 

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