Lessig: Democrats' policies are up for auction to highest bidder, too

Writing in The Atlantic, Larry Lessig reminds supporters of the Democratic Party that corruption isn't limited to the Republicans. The Dems, too, have a party where policy is driven by campaign donations rather than principle, evidence or even ideology.

This way of thinking about the "necessities" of modern political life is so obvious to mainstream Democrats that it follows the party whether it is in power or not. The Center for American Progress, for example, is the Democratic Party's most important Washington think tank. Its researchers have produced an incredible range of valuable work, mapping a progressive agenda for the party to follow. There is no better home for left-thinking policy wonks in D.C., and no more than a handful of institutions that have ever produced better left-leaning work.

Or at least, and possibly, depending upon whether it pays. For, as investigative journalists Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams have documented in a series of recent articles, CAP's agenda is potentially vulnerable to a long list of undisclosed corporate funders. According to Silverstein, CAP staffers are "very clearly instructed to check with the think tank's development team before writing anything that might upset contributors." (CAP disputes Silverstein's portrayal.) In at least one case, CAP has acted as an undisclosed lobbyist for a corporate contributor. (Disclosure: Silverstein and Williams's work on think tanks has been funded in part by a research center I run.)

My point is not that these are bad people pushing bad policy. My point instead is just this: Democrats must recognize that we don't actually get very much from this bargain. Sure, we'll win some elections, including the presidency, and so a regular mix of not-right-leaning souls will have this democratic royalty bestowed upon them. But we won't get much actual policy. Or policy consistent with the principles of this party, if indeed there are any principles not yet auctioned off to big money.

Can Democrats Get a New Party, Too?



    Ahhhh, whew!  Sorry.  This kind of caught me off guard.   There’s no way this revelation JUST occurred to this guy.  Thanks, The Atlantic. Consider my day made.

  2. I’m feeling cynical today, but the bad guys have won. They completely won when Citizen’s United passed. I don’t even think things will change. It’ll just get worse and worse until the country falls apart. This is kinda like the article that should have been written before people started talking about money equaling speech.. The population keeps changing in every way, becoming more urban, more diverse etc. etc. and the right wing (democrats and republicans) and elite business just keep subverting the will of the people and moving and moving the goalposts to win elections and extract more wealth to the top. They won’t stop till it’s all gone, or they get people climbing over their walls.

    1. Citizens United was exactly the right decision for the court to make; they didn’t really have an alternative.  If you can censor whiny right-wingers for making a whiny movie about The Evil Hillary Clinton, you can censor whiny liberal Michael Moore for making an important movie about The Evil Bush Family.  If you can censor Monsanto for producing politically opinionated media content about agribusiness policy, you can censor MSNBC and Fox News for producing politically opinionated media content about anything political. 

      The First Amendment isn’t just about protecting porn on the Internet; it’s also very much about protecting political speech.  (And if you’re one of those pro-censorship people who’s about to whine about “money isn’t speech”, Press is very much made of money.)

      Being a corporation is a favor the state does for businesses.  If Congress wants to mandate serious transparency as part of the cost of that favor, they can.  (That doesn’t stop the Koch Brothers from using corporations to get personally rich and then spending their personal money funding politics, but it can reduce the influence Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Baseball have by making their payments visible.)

      1. The First Amendment isn’t just about protecting porn on the Internet; it’s also very much about protecting political speech.

        Money is not speech any more than shooting people is speech.

      2. No one is advocating stopping anyone from posting comments on the internet or standing on street corners ranting and handing out pamphlets, that’s your free speech right there. Speech isn’t free if you have to pay for it. Money is not speech, if anything, it’s an amplifier of speech that enables those with the most of it to drown out the voices of everyone else. This is what was intended by Citizens United, and as is perfectly obvious, it’s working like a charm.

        1. So if you own a printing press you shouldn’t be able to hire anyone to run it? If you have an “OPEN HOUSE CONDOS” sign you should have to stand on a streetcorner twirling it yourself? Did you pay for the internet connection you used to post your comment?

          The effects of the CU decision are bad, but the avenue for mitigation is legislative, not judicial. Good luck with that, sincerely.

  3. I think Lessig’s writing on the Internet is great, but he totally misses the forest for the trees on Congressional corruption. His solution is campaign finance reform, which would require action by the very people he is accusing of being corrupt. It isn’t going to happen. Progressives are not going to wrest control of the Democratic party from corporatists, and even if they did, they’d be stymied by corporatist Republicans on any reform.

    Meanwhile, Lessig could be using his considerable voice and resources to make real change happen through state-level popular referenda opening the electoral process up to party competition. It’s not like two is a natural or optimal number of parties for the American system, and if you want a party free of corruption, the best way to get that is build it from the ground up. State-level rules determine who gets elected to Federal office, so the place to look for reform in Congress is the states, not Congress.

    1.  to be clear though, a two party system is the natural number for first-past-the-post voting system.
      if we want to change voting at the state level we need to change it to a system like mixed member proportional or alternative vote,
      some states have already switched to these systems and are reporting good results(more positive campaign ads, fewer attack ads for starters)

      1.  Yes, exactly — sorry for phrasing it poorly. I should have used ‘electorate’ instead of ‘system’. Our redistricting system also tends towards two parties. Which states have the AV and proportional representation?

        1.  not sure about mixed member, i dont think any states use that (since it involves adding a whole bunch more seats and isn’t as easy to drop in place as AV) but a few jurisdictions in the US use AV (san francisco, oakland, mineanapolis, and saint paul according to wikipedia, though nothing statewide)

          id like to see MMPR used for congressional and senate votes with AV used for presidential
          but even AV all over would be an improvement.

    2. What difference does it make how many parties we have so long as they’re dependent on money to win elections? It’s the money that wins in the end no matter the party label. 

      1. A lower bar to entry for third parties would increase the likelihood that a non-corrupt party could win office(s). Right now, voters who are disgusted with Democratic corruption can choose… nothing, really. That prevents would-be pro-honesty voters from bailing on the party, which means the party faces no pressure to change. Money is the proximate cause of corruption in our system; the two-party system is the ultimate cause. You can’t fix the money problem within the two-party system.

  4. we don’t have parties anymore, we have brands. two brands, one company, the illusion of choice.

  5. I think we learned in this last election that money isn’t all that important. A tidal wave of the stuff washed over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and apparently didn’t move a single vote.

    Having said that, I agree the politicians “think* money is the most important thing. I have no illusions about the Democrats. I’m well aware the principle difference between them and Republicans is that Democrats are not insane. Beyond that, it is one of those least worse kind of things.

  6. Campaign donations are really a sideshow to distract us from the real corruption.  At least legal donations have to be used on campaigns and ads to reach real voters.  

    What matters more are the many lucrative government linked jobs in the corporate sector for politician’s family members and themselves when they leave office.If you think someone like Chris Dodd wasn’t strongly influenced in his voting record by such factors you’re naive.

  7. I’ll admit that for some time I’ve felt like President Obama is acting more like a Republican than a Democrat.  Unless we can somehow limit any individual or corporation to donating no more than $50.00 to any political candidate. we’re just going to continue to see things go downhill.

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