By Elizabeth Lindquist
Prior to the 2011 publication of Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, the movement to decrease the power of money in politics spoke of “campaign finance reform,” and on a popular level was largely limited to the political left.
Republic, Lost changed all that. In it, Lessig makes a logical argument for the idea that the way money moves in politics is not just wrong or unfair, but that it is a corruption. He argues that the way we fund campaigns has resulted in a shift, or corruption, in the dependence of Congress; a shift from dependence upon the people alone (as James Madison described in Federalist Paper No. 52) to dependence on the funders of campaigns, and the funders are not the people. The funders are a tiny fraction of the top 1 percent. What has resulted is an institutional corruption of Congress.
He argues this systemic, institutional corruption foils the goals of both the left and the right equally. When Congress is focused on providing the return on investment for its campaign donors, it is unable to balance the budget, simplify the tax code, or save the environment. What we now have is a Congress that primarily represents their funders, instead of their constituents. Yes, we still have elections, but the funders have their way with the candidates long before we ever see them on the ballot.
Prior to Republic, Lost, we had moderates and liberals working on campaign finance reform to accomplish left-leaning goals like acting to avert climate change. As a result of Lessig’s work, we now have people from across the political spectrum realizing that Congress is institutionally corrupt, not by design, but by default, and it must be reformed to save representative democracy in the United States. Our very republic is at stake.
Lessig has not stopped there. He has continued his research into institutional corruption, both as it applies to Congress and now to other subjects as well. Lessig was chosen to give the inaugural lectures for the Berlin Family Lecture Series at the University of Chicago. The lecture series is titled “America: Compromised — Studies in Institutional Corruption.” The five-lecture series began Oct. 16 and runs every Thursday evening at 5 p.m. at the university though Nov. 13. The first lecture, “The Paradigm Case: Congress,” was a synthesis of the arguments developed in Republic, Lost and the research he has put forth in public lectures since then. The remaining lectures focus on the institutions of finance, media and the academy. A discussion of remedies will round out the series. This material will be new to most listeners and will be followed by a new book to be published by the University of Chicago, examining the lecture topics in more depth.
Public trust in our institutions is very low, undermining their effectiveness. Lessig’s ideas regarding the institutional corruption of Congress and remedies for it have energized many into working for reform. Perhaps a shift in our concept of corruption would benefit reform in other areas as well.
The Berlin Family Lecture Series is free and open to the public, but RSVP is required. For information and to RSVP, go to http://berlinfamilylectures.uchicago.edu/.
From the Oct. 22-28, 2014, issue