The book is a non-fiction book which discusses what the author sees as the primary issue with all American politics: the confluence of money and politics. It should be noted that Lessig doesn’t feel like this is the most important problem in the world, but simply the problem from which all other problems spring from. In that vein, he thinks that legitimately reforming how politicians and lobbyists interact would make it much easier to solve a host of other problems, both for politicians on the right and the left.
He points to the failure of Barack Obama to affect any type of meaningful change as an example of how the system has become debilitated. Despite promising sweeping reform and to change “how the system works” Lessig asserts that Obama has simply been unable to work around the corruption that is now an inherent part of politics.
What Exactly is This Problem?
As Lessing describes it, the federal government has been completely hamstrung by the lobbying industry. Congressmen today spend anywhere from 30-70 percent of their time raising funds for their next campaign. Obviously that is a wide range, but even if that is at the lower end that is still an exorbitant amount of time where they are not actually doing the job they were elected to do, i.e. governing.
So where do the lobbyists come in? Well, in order to get the funds necessary to stay in office, the lobbyists and the politicians establish a quid pro quo relationship. The lobbyist from whatever firm will offer money to the politician, who will gladly accept it. In exchange, the politician is expected to support whatever cause the lobbyist is behind, be it gun control, global warming, etc.
To Lessing, pretending that these relationships have no impact on the congressperson’s ability to vote fairly is asinine. Clearly, they are being swayed by large special interest groups to vote a certain way. This creates a problem, because the United States is supposedly a republic, where the people decide how the country should run, not just the wealthy. The current system we have is far closer to an oligarchy; government of the elite.
What is the Solution to This Problem
Lessing offers four possible alternatives, but the one he swings hardest for is called the Grant and Franklin Project. Essentially this plan would take 50 dollars from every American. They could spend the 50 dollars on any number of candidates. They could give 50 to one, 10 dollars to 5, etc. Candidates who agree to participate in this will only accept money from these “democracy vouchers.” They will refuse to accept any money from lobbyists or PACs.
If the voucher isn’t used, it goes to whatever political party the citizen is affiliated with. If they are not affiliated with a part, it simply goes to pay for the machinery of democracy (voting booths, etc.). The idea behind this plan is that the candidates would not be losing out on the money (as 50 dollars from every citizen would be roughly equivalent to what they currently bring in today). However, it would cut down drastically on the amount of time congress people would have to spend gathering funds for their next campaign. AND, most importantly, it would eliminate the serpentine relationship between lobbyists and politicians that is so crippling to the democratic process. Finally, it gives every person some “skin in the game” so to speak: if they have money invested, the theory goes, they may be more likely to participate in politics.
To me, the most interesting idea to emerge from this book, even though Lessing didn’t seem to give it too much thought, was of anonymous campaign contributions. The idea behind this was that there was a period where voting wasn’t anonymous and what happened was that people would “sell” their vote to the highest bidder. Once they made it secret, no one was willing to buy votes, because you had no assurance that the person whose vote you had just bought would actually follow through.
So how does that apply to campaign contributions? You simply make all campaign donations to candidates completely anonymous. It’s actually brilliant in its (relative) simplicity. Some type of organization is set up that is dedicated to handling the actual donations, which are then filtered out in smaller amounts over time (so someone couldn’t say “I just donated 5,000 dollars to your campaign, check it out!). Again, this eliminates the comfortable partnership between these lobbyists and the politicians. The politicians are not going to feel beholden to them because they don’t know for sure if they are actually getting the money.
Analysis of the Book Overall
This was an interesting book. it’s part economics, part history lesson, and part political tome. Lessig is obviously a super liberal guy, but the arguments he made (to me anyway) transcended political lines. He pointed to one exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, typically mortal enemies, where they both agreed that money was corrupting politics. If those two agree on this, I think we can all agree.
Browsing some of the other reviews online, many people called the book overly pessimistic, which wasn’t my view at all. Lessing was presenting truth, which can often be depressing but he never struck me as hopelessly cynical, just as someone with a vivid understanding of a significant problem. I also liked that he offered actual solutions to this problem. Even though I don’t think many of these solutions are practical, I did feel inspired by his words to research the issue a little further on my own and see if there is some way I can help.
Overall, if you are interested in contemporary American politics, this is a must read.