"Once upon a time, there was a place called Lester Land," begins the TED talk of Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor who has devoted himself to the issue of campaign finance. Lessig's message is the most important one right now in American politics, and he has distilled down to 20 minutes with the best powerpoint I have ever seen (it's even better live!). The video is spreading quickly, and has been picked up by BoingBoing, an op-ed on CNN and countless blogs. Watch it. Preferably now.
Lessig's principle alegory is "Lester Land," named for Lessig's legal first name. In Lester Land, there are two elections, the citizen election and the Lester election, in which only people named Lester get to vote.
"In order to run in the general election, you have to do extremely well in the Lester election," Lessig explains, and that's a problem, because, "this dependence upon the Lesters will produce a subtle, understated, camoflauged bending toward the Lesters."
That is, if someone wants to win an election, it won't do just to have a message that appeals to the general public, one also must figure out what the Lesters want and tailor his or her message to them.
Lessig explains, of course, that Lester Land is not pure fiction:
"The United States is Lester Land. The United States also has two elections, one we call the citizens election, the other we can call the "money election." There are just as few relevant funders in USA-Land as there are Lesters in Lester Land."
Fundraising is a do or die proposition for any elected official now. It's what members of Congress do for about four hours a day (read that again), and as nice as it would be if they were calling their voters in the hopes of getting $50 at a time, that would be incredibly inefficient. Especially now that SuperPacs are legally enshrined by the Citizens United decision:
".000042% gave 60% of all SuperPac money," Lessig explains. That's 132 Americans in a country of 311 million. If you can appeal to a few of those 132, you have a much better chance of getting elected than appealing to a thousand small donors.
And what do these donors get? Influence, "Not on issues 1-10, but on issues 11-1,000." The American public only really has the patience with issues 1-10. How about something random, like whether corporations should be able to patent a specific process for diagnosing a category of diseases? If a million dollars for your reelection campaign was dangling on that question that no one else will notice your answer to, wouldn't you side with your funders?
Our dual democracy creates an improper dependency on the funders. Lessig offers a solution, but I'll make you watch to hear it. Lessig has been beating this drum for years now, and it seems he has finally broken through with this TED talk. If he has, there may just be hope yet for a true American democracy. And it's something you should care about if you care about anything else getting done in American politics:
"It's not the most important issue, it's the first issue, the issue we have to solve before we get to the issues you care about."