Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why Washington is corrupt

By Lawrence Lessig, Special to CNN
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Mon April 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lawrence Lessig: America's democracy is hobbled by the power of money in politics
  • A tiny slice of Americans provide funds that largely determine who wins primaries, he says
  • The funders of elections generally don't share most American's priorities, he says
  • Lessig: Congress should vote to fund campaigns through small contributions

Editor's note: (Lester) Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics. Lessig spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- We Americans are disgusted with our government. We ranked fixing "corruption in Washington" number 2 on Gallup's poll of top presidential priorities in 2012. Yet Washington doesn't seem to care. Neither President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney even mentioned "corruption" as an issue that their administration would address. And it will take a lot more work by us to get them to pay attention.

The first step, however, is to figure out how best to talk about the problem. People say the problem is "money in politics." That we need to "get money out." That "money is not speech." That "corporations are not people."

These are slogans, and they're quite effective at rallying at least some of us to the cause. But as slogans, they're likely to turn off most to the right of America's center. And in any case, they don't quite capture what's gone wrong with our political system today. They therefore don't point us to a plausible solution to the problem of our political system today.

Lawrence Lessig
Lawrence Lessig

So in my TED talk, I created Lesterland: Imagine a country like the United States, with just as many "Lesters" as the United States (about 150,000 out of a population of more than 300 million, or about 0.05%). And imagine those Lesters have a very special power: Each election cycle has two elections. In one, the general election, all citizens get to vote. In the other, the "Lester election," only "Lesters" get to vote.

But here's the catch: To be allowed to run in the general election, you must do extremely well in the Lester election. You don't necessarily need to win, but you must do extremely well.

TED.com: Why democracy matters

CNN Explains: TED

We all get what Lesterland would be like. Sure, as the Supreme Court said in Citizens United, "the People" of Lesterland would have the "ultimate influence" over elected officials. Ultimate, because in the final election, the people get to vote. But "the People" only get to vote for the candidates who have made "the Lesters" happy. And no doubt, that fact will produce a subtle, understated, somewhat camouflaged bending to keep those Lesters happy.

Once you see Lesterland, and the corruption it creates you understand USA-land, and the corruption we suffer. For the United States is Lesterland.

Like Lesterland, the United States also has two elections. One a voting election, where citizens get to select the candidates who will ultimately govern. But the other is a money election, where the candidates who wish to run in the voting election raise the money they need to compete. As in Lesterland, the candidates don't necessarily need to win the money election. But they must do extremely well.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



And here's the stunning fact that links the United States to Lesterland: there are just as few "relevant funders" in USA-land as there are Lesters in Lesterland.

TED.com: A Plan B for the Internet

Less than 0.05% of us — about 150,000 Americans — give enough money to be even noticed by the candidates desperate to fund their campaigns. Even that number is likely an exaggeration. The better number is probably closer to 50,000 Americans (just about the number of "Sheldons" in America) (Really)

Now that fact alone — that we fund campaigns from a tiny slice of us — doesn't necessarily create the corruption that is our Congress. What does that is how the money is raised from that tiny slice of us.

For members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money from this tiny, tiny slice of us. Think of a rat in a Skinner box, learning which buttons to push to get pellets of food, and you have a pretty good sense of the life of a congressman: a constant attention to what must be done to raise money, and to raise money not from all of us, but from the tiniest slice of the 1% of us.

And so what issues might that tiny, tiny slice of the 1% care about? Unemployment? Out-of-control health care costs? Actually reforming Wall Street? Obviously not. The issues that matter to this tiny fraction of the 1% are not the issues that matter to America.

This is the corruption of USA-land. And it will only ever change if we change the way we fund elections.

TED.com: Lawrence Lessig on laws that choke creativity

Members of Congress will always be dependent upon their funders. But if we adopted a system to fund campaigns like the one proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, The Grassroots Democracy Act, then "the funders" would be "the People." If members raised the funds they needed from small contributions only, then many more of us would be the "relevant funders." And thus when members were responsive to their "funders," they would thus be responsive to that many more of us.

That, after all, was the Framers' original design. James Madison promised us a Congress "dependent upon the people alone." "Alone." We've got instead a Congress dependent upon the people and dependent upon the Lesters.

We need to find a way back to Madison's original design, so that we can find a way to restore again a government that works. Leaving Lesterland is the critical first step. Congress could do that tomorrow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence Lessig.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT