A longer version of this post first appeared on the MIT Civic Media Center blog.

Lawrence Lessig sees the American people, enthroned as sovereign of the nation by the U.S. Constitution, as a sleeping giant. It’s OK to sleep; in general, we’d all rather focus on things other than politics. But there are times when our political system is so broken, we must awaken and flex the powers granted to us by our Constitution. Lessig argues that now is one of those times.

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The first event in the spring Media Lab Conversations Series at MIT featured a conversation between Media Lab director Joi Ito and lawyer, professor, author and reformer Lawrence Lessig. Joi and Larry met in Japan in 2002, and their paths crossed a number of times over the following years as each took on campaigns for creative culture and against state corruption.

Lessig most recently shifted to focus entirely on fighting corruption, despite his fame in intellectual property. He began his talk with an apology for distracting us from our research. In an ideal world, he said, it’d be absurd for us to sit and listen to him. What’s happening here at the Media Lab is some of the most inspiring, creative work there is, and it’s absurd we should have to take time away from these pursuits to listen to a talk about politics.

But he was here to recruit us, to distract us from our machines for a moment, because it’s critical that people like us pay attention and contribute to the solution of an extraordinary problem. Every 100 years or so, society finds itself at a point where even the geniuses are forced to confront the messy world of politics. In Europe, the physicists working on atomic power and other wonders had to stop their work and confront fascism. Lessig said we’re at a similar place now, where the scientists must look up from our pure research and take action.

Rootstrikers

Lessig led with this Thoreau quote that inspired the name of his Rootstrikers campaign:

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“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

In July of last year, Rasmussen reported that 46 percent of Americans believe Congress is corrupt. The institution isn’t filled with Rod Blagojeviches. It’s filled with people who came to Washington for a public purpose. Richard Nixon said he wasn’t a crook, and so does Congress.

The framers of the Constitution gave us a republic, by which they meant a representative democracy, with a branch of government dependent upon the people alone. The model described in the Constitution places the people as the marionette, pulling the strings of Congress.

And yet it’s the campaign funders pulling the strings. Members of Congress spend 30-70 percent of their time raising money to get back into Congress, or to get their party back in power. They develop a sixth sense, as any of us would, of what will raise money, not on important issues 1 through 10, but on issues 11 through 1,000, where a questionable position will draw less attention.

The Funders are Not the People

  • 0.26% of Americans donate to political campaigns
  • 0.05% max out their Federal Election Commission limit
  • 0.0000063% of Americans gave 80% of the SuperPAC money so far in this election.

This is corruption. It’s not the corruption of cash in brown paper bags, or of Blagojevich selling access. It’s corruption of dependence, and a corruption of the framers’ intent that the Congress be dependent on the people.

Political scientists have trouble estimating the effect of money on policy, which people like former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith spin to suggest that there is no evidence of corruption. A lack of evidence does not suggest an absence of evidence, however.

Ask the public. Across party lines, Americans believe that money buys results in Congress (71-81 percent). ABC has recently found that 9 percent of Americans approve of Congress. More Americans supported the British Crown at the time of the American Revolution.

Rock the Vote has found that youth voting rates in 2010 were deflated by the expectation that a vote isn’t enough to make a difference in a corrupt system. The same reason is given by voters of all age groups. Regardless of the issue, from healthcare to global warming to financial reform, reform is essential. The system of government where the funders control Congress will systematically block change as long as it’s in place.

Lessig knows what rational creatures he’s speaking to at MIT. He beseeched us to realize that our current political system will block reason within the halls of Congress, no matter the issue. We are the 1 percent of people whose very occupation is the pursuit of reason, and we get to spend all day finding the right answer. When you recognize the privilege of living life in terms of doing what makes sense, and realize that our government never gets to ask that question, “What makes sense?”, you realize the responsibility you have to change the system.

Congress is fundamentally corrupt, and they are responsible for that corruption.

So what do we do?

If the problem is systemic, and not just a matter of some corrupt people, then the solution is to give Congress a way to fund their campaigns without Faust. They need a way to behave that doesn’t involve selling the country’s future each financial quarter.

Citizen-Funded Campaigns

Should citizens fund our campaigns? Or should foreign nationals and corporations fund our campaigns? The Constitution is pretty clear about how it feels about the latter arrangement.

As of now, a miniscule percentage of Americans privately funds our campaigns. While the framers of our Constitution worked extremely hard to make all voters equal on Election Day, our current system allows the tiniest slice of the wealthiest among us to gain the most influence.

One alternative is government-funded elections, where the government dispenses funds. But people complain that their money is used to subsidize speech they don’t believe in. And, like other government funding systems, it becomes bloated.

Lessig proposed a mix between private and government funding. It’s a mix we see in some states, where small donations are amplified by public matching funds. Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have such systems in place.

In 2010, the House came close to passing the Fair Elections Now Act. Lessig is proposing what he calls the Grant & Franklin plan. It’s based on the fact that each of us contributes at least $50 (the bill featuring Ulysses S. Grant) to the federal treasury. If we rebated that $50 in form of a democracy voucher, candidates could run entirely on these funds. We could match democracy vouchers with another $50 (making it $100, featuring Benjamin Franklin).

This would amount to a campaign funding system funded with $7 billion, multiple times the $1.8 billion spent in private donations in 2010. Such a plan would remove a source of incessant cynicism.

Would that be enough, given the SuperPACs out there?

We’ve entered the age of the SuperPAC, with the Tony Soprano model of influence. Evan Bayh, retired senator from Indiana, described the impact of the Citizens United case: Every incumbent is now terrified that, 30 days before their election, some Super PAC will come in and drop millions of dollars in advertising against them.

Candidates feel that they need some form of Super PAC insurance, so that when a (money) bomb is dropped on one side, another (money) bomb gets dropped to neutralize it. You get insurance by paying premiums in advance. Super PACs have succeeded in aligning votes with mere promises of insurance — they actually call members of Congress with scripts saying things like, “We need you to support us 80 percent of the time for us to support you.”

A plan like Lessig’s wouldn’t ban independent political expenditures, but it would limit them within 90 days of an election. If we had these two features, it’d make trust in our institutions possible again.

But is all of this possible? It’s easy to see a problem, and not so difficult to see a solution, but it can be quite difficult to enact a solution.

Congressman Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, described Capitol Hill as “a farm league for K Street.” Many in Congress are focused on their lives after government, as lobbyists. Fifty percent of the Senate and 42 percent of the House left to become lobbyists and cash in on their contacts and experience.

Insiders vs. Outsiders

Lessig just published “One Way Forward“ to chart the course ahead. He sees the primary divide in American politics not between left and right, but between inside and outside. Outsiders have become so disgusted with how things are, they’ve put aside their lives for a moment to try and find an answer. The year 1998 saw Americans rally behind MoveOn.org. In 2009, the Tea Party took the spotlight, followed by Occupy in 2011.

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These waves are building over time. The challenge, Lessig argues, is for these waves to have some awareness of their combined potential, of their latent power. Right now, they’re extremely passionate, but also polarized. We should look at each of these waves and see the cross-partisan potential they have to move and act together, even if right now there’s very low recognition of that potential. That’s what we need to change.

This giant — the people — is sleeping most of the time. It must be awakened. Think of the Allied Forces against Naziism. We must stand on common ground, not because we have a common end, but to recognize the common enemy of corruption.

Lessig doesn’t try to predict the complete arch of this movement. But we do need to engage more ordinary citizens in the practice of teaching. Rootstrikers.org is recruiting citizens who will teach fellow citizens about the connection between the things they care about and the root of it, corruption. If Thoreau’s math found that there are 1,000 striking at the branches for every 1 hitting the root, we’ll need 311,000 teachers for all 3.11 million Americans. That’s their goal.

There’s corruption happening around the world, and around the world, people are rising up in fury against it. Lessig’s asking people to pledge to end corruption, and to specify how they’ll do so. The branding resembles the various Creative Commons licenses.

We Are All Enablers

Lessig played the audio from the Exxon Valdez’s return transmission alerting the dispatcher of the collision and ensuing oil leak. It was clear to everyone listening that the pilot was intoxicated. The captain escaped conviction, but there was little doubt to observers that he was drunk.

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There was no doubt, however, that he had a problem with alcohol. His own mother testified, and there are records of his license being revoked for DUIs. At the time he capsized a supertanker, he was not allowed to drive a VW Beetle on the highway. But consider everyone else around him: all the people who did nothing while a drunk was driving a supertanker. We are those people.

We have many problems today. And yet our institutions are distracted, too busy to focus. And so are we, too busy doing the real work that produces value and contributes to the world, too busy to focus on this critical problem and give it the serious attention it needs. So who’s to blame?

It’s too easy to point to the evil people. They have their share of responsibility. It’s the good people, the decent people, the most privileged, who have the obligation to fix this. Corruption is permitted by the passivity of the privileged.

A republic depends on the people alone. We have lost our republic, and it’s time for all of us to act to get it back.

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Lawrence Lessig photo courtesy of Joi Ito and used under the Creative Commons license.