Citizen-Funded Campaigns

Citizen-Funded Campaigns

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Political Reforms

Dr. Lessig proposes a legislative solution to the campaign contribution problem. Here’s how we can enact his campaign contribution solution. 

In the The Campaign Contribution Problem, I summarize Dr. Lessig’s brilliant summary of the problem we face in America — the disenfranchisement of 99.98% of the voting population, by virtue of a “money primary” filter in which .02% of the electorate selects the candidates that everyone else votes on. Here, I examine his proposed solution — and I argue that a voting advice system is a necessary first step to achieving that goal.

The Campaign Contribution Problem

Dr. Lessig called the problem Tweedism. Named after Boss Tweed, the problem is simply that a when a minority selects the candidates that everyone else votes on, there is only a pretense of democracy — because it is the minority who are served by that government. In America, currently, that minority is comprised of the .02% of the population who make major campaign contributions.

He puts the problem most succinctly when he states, “Tweedism = Corruption”. He uses that term not for it’s negative connotations, but simply in the interest of accuracy — because, as he goes on to say, “Tweedism is a corruption of the design of our representative democracy.”

Corruption of the Representative Design

Not stopping there, Lessig goes on to describe the intent and design of our system of government:

  • James Madison (in conjunction with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton) gave us our system of democracy.
  • That system is described in 85 articles and essays known as The Federalist Papers.
  • In Federalist No. 52, they argue that Congress should not be dependant on the states because, “that branch of the federal government ought to be dependent on the people alone.” (6th sentence)
  • In Federalist No. 57, they clarify “the people” to mean, “not the rich more than the poor”, and “not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.” (about 1/3 of the way down the page)

But clearly, that is not the system we have. In the system we have, representatives depend on the economic elite first, and on the average citizen not at all. (See the previous article for the Princeton study that proved the views of average Americans have zero impact on government policy, even when the percentage of people holding those views approaches 100%!)

In Federalist #57 they also say:

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers (those) who possess (the) most wisdom to discern, and (the) most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.”
“And in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

Pretty clearly, the latter standard that is no longer in effect in 2017, most especially at the Presidential level. But I digress… Next, let’s consider the legislative solution that Dr. Lessig proposes.

A Legislative Campaign Contribution Solution

To solve that problem, Dr. Lessig proposes The Citizen Equality Act, which has multiple prongs:

  1. Citizen Funded Campaigns
    Public funding of congressional campaigns, so they are financed by all of us, rather than by a few, as proposed by the The American Anti-Corruption Act or John Sarbane’s Government By The People Act
  2. Equal Representation
    Essentially, using a FairVote proposal to eliminate gerrymandering, which (as he mentions) has been described as “crimes against geography”. In yet another typically brilliant insight, he describes the situation as “a system in which the politicians are picking the voters,” rather than the other way around. So in our Congress today:

    • 90 Congressional seats are competitive.
    • The other 345 are safe seats, where everyone who might vote against the incumbent has been consigned to a small number of legislative “districts” whose boundaries bear no resemblance to any geographical feature on any map.
    • As a result of the disenfranchisement, 89 million Americans are not represented in this system.
  3. Equal Freedom to Vote
    Make it simple and easy to register. Eliminate obstacles to voting, including Bernie Sanders’ proposal to hold elections on a holiday, so people who can’t afford to take time off work or who can’t get childcare can still vote — because such obstacles are tantamount to a “poll tax” that act to suppress the vote.

The FIRST Problem to Solve

Dr. Lessig then explains why The Citizens Equality Act is at the top of his agenda — not because it is the most important problem to solve, but because it is the first problem that needs to be solved, in order to solve the many other pressing problems we face.

As he says, “We will get nothing from this government until we get this.” He lists these primary areas in which we desperately need action, but will not get it, so long as our current system continues in operation:

  • Climate change
  • Real social security — for everyone
  • Student debt
  • and many more…

Personally, I could not agree more. The only question is, “What are the chances for success?” And for that, I believe that social media-based voting advice system is a necessary requirement for his legislation to be enacted. I would be quite happy to be wrong about that. Ecstatic, in fact. But next let’s discuss the obstacles that stand in the path of progress.

The Prerequisite: Social-Media Voting Advice

Now then, as much as I applaud Dr. Lessig’s proposal, and as much as I support he reforms he advocates (in addition to many other Political Reforms), I am brought up short by the observation that has stymied, and continues to stymie, any such proposal: Why would those who run the current system allow themselves to be disenfranchised? Click To Tweet

They answer, of course, is that they won’t. And history makes clear that they never have and they never will! So while I will be first in line to vote for those proposals, when and if they arrive on the ballot, I suggest that the chances of getting the proposal ratified in a Congress that responds only to donors is somewhere between “slim” and “fat chance”.

Even if passed, the publically-funded elections at the national Congressional level would not solve the problem of campaign contributions in local and state elections. (And state elections determine who draws the boundaries of electoral districts, which leads to the problem of Gerrymandering.)

There is a way around those obstacle, however. Using filtered social media, we can create a voting advice system that allows voters to inform each other, and lets them get advice from organizations they trust — easily and conveniently.

When that system goes online, the impact of campaign contributions will be slightly reduced. As it becomes more widespread, the impact will grow ever larger. At the point that it goes “viral”, it will have a dramatic impact — so dramatic, that campaigns with deep pockets will find themselves failing with increasing frequency. Taking the progression to its inevitable end, that system will eventually make contributions irrelevant to elections. As the #VotingAdvice system goes viral, even campaigns with DEEP POCKETS will begin to fail.… Click To Tweet

The Moral Imperative for Equality

After tweaking Dr. Lessig’s proposal to circumvent the problem of campaign contributions, in order to allow for the fundamental change that will solve the problem, we are once again on the same page as he goes on to cite what can only be described as a moral imperative for championing equality in society.

As he says, while it is important to solve the (campaign contribution) problem for pragmatic reasons (in that it makes other solutions possible), there is also a moral dimension — because today, four hundred years after slavery came to these shores, It's time we had a peaceful fight for equality. Click To Tweet

Or as he goes on,

It’s time to have a national campaign….It is finally time that we stand up for this idea equality. It is an embarrassment to our tradition that in 2015 we have movements that need to assert that black lives matter. How could that possibly be?

But it is that way because, “We have a political system that doesn’t count us equally. We have a political system that counts some more than others. We have a political system that betrays the fundamental idea of a representative democracy.” 

At 18:48 he concludes:

As Martin Luther King Jr said, “America is essentially a dream….founded on the idea that all are created equal.” But the reality is we are not equal in America today. The reality is we do have second-class citizens in America today. And the reality is that until we confront the fact that this ideal is a fantasy in America today, we will not begin to have a democracy that represents us.
We need to learn from those who fought for equality in the past, and from our brothers and sisters around the world who are fighting for equality now. We need to learn to love equality, and to sacrifice for equality. Because if we don’t, how will we look at our children and explain how we squandered our inheritance — a nation with the potential to be the greatest democracy in the world, when we have allowed that potential to die.

Learn More

  • See the Voting Advice System for ways in which social media can dramatically reduce the impact of campaign contributions in the near term and, in time, make campaign contributions completely irrelevant to elections.
  • See Dr. Lessig’s complete Tedx talk, below. (The first 10 minutes brilliantly summarize the problem. The next 10 describe his legislative solution).

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