The genius US manifesto idea we need here
This headline caught my eye from the US website Salon:
I have to confess that I didn’t know that Lessig – a law professor at Harvard Law School and political activist with a particular interest in technology – was even running for President. But he is, in a way.
Salon’s article is a (credited) rip-off of an interview that Lessig did with the Huffington Post (‘Larry Lessig Believes Democracy Is Screwed. So He’s Running For President To Save It’ – so there’s definitely a style to American clickbait headline writing).
Lessig has a long interest in how technology can change politics, and the conflicts between progress in the former and the lack of progress in the latter. Last year he launched a crowd-funded political action committee, Mayday PAC, whose aim was to help elect candidates to Congress who would pass campaign finance reform. He’s also a founding board member of Creative Commons, and a former board member of the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (if you’re interested, he also turns up in a great documentary on Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer, entrepreneur and political organiser who died tragically young).
Anyway, back to Lessig’s idea. To quote from the HuffPo piece, it’s to pass a single piece of legislation, namely:
“[T]he Citizen Equality Act, which includes campaign finance reform, an end to partisan gerrymandering, and a vast expansion of voting access that would make Election Day a national holiday. Should he win and lead the passage of that agenda, Lessig said he’ll promptly quit, handing the office to his vice president, whoever that may be.”
You can watch Lessig’s announcement video here, where he talks about the need to address not just economic and racial inequality but first and foremost the inequality of citizenship, which is to say the influence of money in politics and how this corrupts everything else, including helping to drive down voter turnout, so ensuring the continuance of corporate power determining political decision-making.
Last year’s Mayday PAC didn’t work, but Lessig has learned lessons from this experience, especially that the fundamental barrier to change is whether people believe that change is possible (guess who benefits when we don’t think it is?)
To Lessig’s thinking, it’s less a single issue campaign, more an uber issue one: unless Americans can find a way to confront the influence of money in politics then nothing else can get done, particularly anything progressive. It’s also a tactical one, since the idea is to raise $1 million (a pretty small amount in US politics of course) via small donations by Labor Day (the first Monday in September), then build a campaign structure and figure out how to share a stage with fellow Democratic Presidential candidates in order to get them to adopt the same policies.
US politics is of course notoriously saturated and directed by big money. But British politics has its own money problem. As the Electoral Reform Society has stated: “British politics is being polluted by big money. Scandal after scandal reveals an ever growing arms race, where voters often appear to come second to big donors. Left to themselves the big parties have failed to find a solution.”
The Society’s own polling has found that:
- 75% of the public believe that big donors have too much influence on political parties
- 65% believe that party donors can effectively buy knighthoods and other honours
- 61% believe that the system of party funding is corrupt and should be changed.
The Electoral Reform Society has proposed three main solutions (all of which have been recommended by previous committees looking into party funding):
- A cap on the amount that anyone can donate to a party
- Increased public funding for parties, bringing the UK into line with other advanced democracies
- A cap on the amount that parties are allowed to spend, to end the ‘arms race’.
Moreover, what Lawrence Lessig’s campaign points to is how big money effectively closes down what the public thinks is possible from politics, whoever they might vote for – the most plausible single explanation I can think of for why public opinion surveys often suggest popular support for some progressive policies (though this has declined since the financial crisis), yet the Tories keep getting elected and the political agenda seems to move ever rightwards.
As a result, the first job of any progressive politician must be to persuade the public of the opposite, and that surely depends on setting out a few big bold proposals for how to get money out of politics. Another way of putting it: Labour’s much-discussed problem with ‘economic credibility’ is really second to a deeper and more fundamental problem with political credibility.
Lessig knows his campaign is a long shot, but says he thinks there’s a chance that even a failing campaign could call attention to an issue that the public will rally around:
“What you’ve got to do is intervene in a way that gets them away from the resignation that nothing is possible …This is a campaign about how we need to intervene to make democracy possible again.”
Nothing matters more than that, really.
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