Congressional Corruption and Lesterland (Guest Voice)
EDITOR’s NOTE: Did you know that the United States resembles “Lesterland” — a country that has a democracy but perhaps not as the word is generally understood. Here’s an excerpt from Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lissig’s new book Lesterland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It where he explains the realities of today’s politics — and corruption in Congress.
The United States as Lesterland
by Lawrence Lessig
Once upon a time, there was a place called “Lesterland.”
Lesterland was a lot like the United States. Like the United States, it had a population of about 311 million souls. Of that, like the United States, about 150,000 were named “Lester.”
Lesters in Lesterland had a very important power. There were two elections every election cycle in Lesterland — a general election, and a “Lester election.” In the general election, all citizens got to vote. In the Lester election, only the “Lesters” got to vote.
But here’s the catch: To run in the general election, you had to do extremely well in the Lester election. You didn’t necessarily have to win, but you had to do extremely well. Democracy in Lesterland was thus a two-step dance. The Lesters controlled the first step.
What can we say about “democracy” in Lesterland?
First, we could say, as the United States Supreme Court said in its remarkable ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, that “the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials” — for, after all, there is a general election. But the people have that influence only after the Lesters have had their way with the candidates who wish to run in that general election. The people’s influence is ultimate. But it is not exclusive. Instead, the field of possible candidates has been narrowed to the field of Lester-plausible candidates.
Second, and obviously, this primary dependence upon the Lesters would produce a subtle, understated, and somewhat camouflaged bending to keep the Lesters happy. For all candidates, both prospective and already successful, would know that they couldn’t gain or retain power without Lester support.
Lesterland is thus a democracy. But it is a democracy with two dependences: The first is a dependence upon the Lesters. The second is a dependence upon the citizens. Competing dependences, possibly conflicting dependences, depending upon who the Lesters are.
(1) The United States is Lesterland.
Like Lesterland, the United States also has 311 million souls. It also has about 150,000 people named “Lester.” And it also has two types of elections: One, the traditional “voting election,” where citizens cast ballots. The other, a distinctively modern “money election,” in which the relevant “funders” give money to afford candidates the chance to run effectively.
As in Lesterland, the money election and the voting election have a special relationship in U.S.A.-land too: To be able to run in the voting election, one must do extremely well in the money election.
And here is the key to the link between Lesterland and the United States: There are just as few relevant “Funders” in U.S.A.-land as there are “Lesters” in Lesterland.
“Really,” you say?
Yes, really. Here are the numbers from 2010:
In the two years that comprised that election cycle, 0.26 percent of Americans gave $200 or more to any congressional candidate. That’s 809,229 Americans, one-quarter of one percent of us.
But the number who gave at least the maximum amount of $2,400 to any federal candidate was just 0.05 percent — that’s one-twentieth of one percent, or one person in 2,000, or about 150,000 Americans.
It gets worse. Only 0.01 percent — the one percent of the one percent — gave $10,000 or more to any combination of federal candidates.
A mere 0.00024 percent — roughly 750 Americans — gave $100,000 or more to any combination of federal candidates.
And though my focus in this book is Congress, here’s just one statistic from the 2012 presidential election: 0.000032 percent — or 99 Americans — gave 60 percent of the individual SuperPAC money spent in the 2012 cycle.
So along this range — $200+ (0.26 percent), $2,400 (0.05 percent), $10,000 (0.01 percent) or $100,000 (0.00024 percent) — it’s hard to believe that someone giving just $200 is a “relevant funder.” It’s easy to believe that someone giving $100,000 is a “relevant funder.” But, conservatively, it is certainly fair to believe that a “relevant funder” is someone giving at least the maximum amount to at least one campaign. So that means 150,000 Americans, or 0.05 percent of America, or just about the same number of Americans as are named “Lester.” In this sense, “the Funders” in U.S.A.-land are the “Lesters” in Lesterland.
So what we can say about “democracy in the U.S.A.,” following the lines we drew describing “democracy in Lesterland”?
First, as in Lesterland, we can say, as the Supreme Court said in Citizens United, “the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials.” For again, there is a voting election. But “the people” have that influence only after “the Funders” have had their way with the candidates who wish to run in the voting election.
Second, again as in Lesterland, this primary dependence upon the Funders will produce a subtle, understated, and, we might expect, camouflaged bending to keep the Funders happy. Members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress or to get their party back into power.
30 percent to 70 percent.
Still, if you’re skeptical about academics’ estimates, then the Democrats have at least given us a fairly clear sense of the time that they expect at least the freshman class of the 2013 Congress to spend raising money. As the Huffington Post reported, in December 2012 the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave each freshman a “Model Daily Schedule” that they were to keep. Here is that slide:
“Call time” is fundraising time. So at the very least, these freshman members are told to spend 44 percent of their day raising money.
So let’s be conservative about this: Let’s round down to just 40 percent. Here, then, is the obvious question:
What does spending 40 percent of your day dialing for dollars from the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent do to human beings, or at least, members of Congress? As they develop, over months and months of experience, the skills necessary to flip an unknown Lester on the other end of a telephone to contribute $1,000, or $5,000, how does it change the way they view the world? Or, more important, how does it affect the relevant issues that they, as members of Congress, need to pursue?
As any of us would, members of Congress who spend hundreds of hours fundraising develop a sixth sense — a constant awareness of how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. They become, in the words of the X Files, shape-shifters, as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money. Not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000
The point is the effect that this life has on the character and the attitudes of the congresspeople we put into this fundraising maze: How are they sensitized by this constant need to raise money from the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? How are their judgments affected?
So here again, as with Lesterland, we have “a democracy.” As in Lesterland, the representatives within that democracy are dependent upon both “the People” and “the Funders.” A competing dependence, and possibly a conflicting dependence, depending upon who “the Funders” are.
And thus, point one: The United States is Lesterland.
Excerpted from Le$terland: The Corruption of Congress and How to End It, this has been reprinted with permission from TED Books (TED Books, 2013). For more information visit www.ted.com/tedbooks.
To learn more, check out Lawrence Lessig’s companion TED2013 Talk, “We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim”
We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim: