Big Dollar, Little Democracy

Republic Lost:
How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It

by Lawrence Lessig
Twelve, 2011, 381 pp.

Money talks. It is also a conversation stopper. Almost any discussion among progressives of what is really needed to solve the nation’s multiple crises typically ends in despair when someone says, “But they will not accept that,” they being the corporate rich and powerful, what a Texas friend of mine used to call Big Dollar.

Wall Street will not accept re-regulation. Health insurance corporations will not accept a public option, much less single payer. Energy companies will not accept a serious effort to reduce global warming. And so it goes. With the exception of social movements about which Big Dollar is indifferent (same-sex marriage) or mildly supportive (liberalizing immigration), progressive politics is on the defensive.

Money corrupts politicians through many channels: the hint of a future job or lobbyist contract when you leave office, invitations to exclusive dinner parties where you can network with the rich, a hedge fund internship for your daughter, a stock market tip. But, as Lawrence Lessig points out in this important book, all of this depends on your remaining in power, so nothing matches the importance of raising enough money to get yourself reelected. And nothing makes you more responsive to a lobbyist than the knowledge that he or she speaks for a potentially large donor to your next campaign.

Nowhere is the enfeeblement of the liberal vision more striking than in the issue of money in politics itself. The January 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has set off a tsunami of “super PAC” election spending protected by a fig leaf rationale that it be formally independent of a candidate’s campaign.

The decision is a dagger at the throat of what is left of the Democratic Party’s function as the progressive alternative in our two-party system. Yet the party leadership’s response has been pathetic—a tepid and unsuccessful proposal by Senator Charles Schumer of New York, himself a huge beneficiary of Wall Street contributions, to require that super PACs disclose the identity of their contributors.

Lessig, who teaches at Harvard Law School, is justifiably alarmed that campaign spending is destroying democracy, and he has written a sharp and accessible brief for radical reform. Although he falls just short of a credible solution, he moves us far enough along so that we can take the final steps on our own.

Money has always been important in American elections. Among its many manifestations, vote-buying at the polls and in the Congress and state legislatures was common in the nineteenth century, and, in some places, well into the twentieth. The result was a government that openly and shamelessly sided with capital against labor, until Franklin Roosevelt’s election.

The New D...

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