Lessig's One Way Forward

Lawrence Lessig's new ebook One Way Forward is one of the most exciting documents I've read since I first found The Federalist Papers. One Way Forward is more of a long pamphlet than a book. It's tempting to call it a "manifesto," except that it's so darned reasonable, and that's not a word that comes readily to mind when one hears "manifesto."

At the core of Lessig's reasonable manifesto is the corrupting influence of money in politics, a corruption that predates the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court case. Lessig ascribes to this corruption the outrage that mobilizes both Occupy and the Tea Party, and he believes that the corruption can't be ended until both the left and right realize that though they don't have a common goal, they do share a common enemy, and unite to defeat it.

To this end, Lessig has a series of extremely practical suggestions, legislative proposals that, individually, strike at the root of the corruption, and, collectively, could kill it. Most of these don't require any kind of constitutional amendment. All are designed to be passed through the nonpartisan action of activists of all political stripes, working together on ideals that neither should find fundamentally objectionable.

Indeed, the steps laid out in One Way Forward remind of nothing so much as Creative Commons, in that they constitute a set of principles and actions that we can undertake individually, but which grows into a movement the more of us join in, and that are designed to reside in a sweet spot that does not violate any dogma or ideology. This is Lessig's special gift, the ability to design movements around legal and social principles that use a series of attainable, independent goals to build towards larger, more powerful solutions.

A mere 62 pages, plus a few more pages of model legislative language and end-notes, One Way Forward is an hour's read and a lifetime's work. If you want to get a sense of what this is all about, visit TheAntiCorruptionPledge.org (a pledge for civilians and politicians alike to take against corruption), AmericansElect.org (a project to put a third, reform-oriented candidate on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, with the goal of making reform into a national issue in the 2014 election); and CallAConvention.org, a dress-rehearsal for a series of citizens' constitutional amendment conventions that may some day change Citizens United forever. For a broader outline, see Lessig's own oneway.lessig.org, and the organization he founded, RootStrikers.

We must first build a system to fund campaigns in which all of us, or at least the vast majority of us, become the effective funders. Not through a system that forces one side to subsidize the speech of the other, or that empowers Washington bureaucrats to decide how much money each side has to run its campaigns. That’s the awful connotation that typically comes with the term “publicly funded elections,” and it’s not what I mean here.

Instead, through a system that incentivizes candidates to raise campaign funds from all of us, in small dollar chunks, and that effectively spreads its influence to all of us. Here’s just one example: Imagine a system that rebated the first $50 of tax revenue paid by each of us, in the form of a voucher—call it a “democracy voucher.”39 Voters could allocate that voucher (or any part of it) to any candidate for Congress who agrees to fund his or her campaign only with “democracy vouchers” and contributions from citizens of up to $100 per election. Vouchers not used would get returned to the political party of the voter—or, if the voter is an independent or chooses differently, to some other democracy-supporting fund. At $50 per voter, this system would put at least $7 billion into elections each year, more than three times the total raised in congressional elections in 2010.

Call this the Grant and Franklin Project. As a system, it would easily and adequately fund congressional elections. But it would be us, not the you-pick-your-fraction-of-the- top-1-percent of Americans, who would be funding these elections. And, sure, the money to fund this system would be “the public’s”—in the sense that the Treasury would write the checks to back the democracy vouchers. But as with everything in the Treasury, the Treasury got this bit of the “public” from us first. This system just rebates what the people have given the government, in a form that allows the People to make Congress responsive to them.

One Way Forward