How Money Took Over Politics – And What Larry Lessig Wants to Do About It

Byliner's newest Original is an urgent manifesto for reform, aimed at a system that benefits insiders and hurts everyone else.
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For years, Lawrence Lessig dedicated himself to reforming intellectual property law, hoping to facilitate the open culture so suited to the Internet era. As a founding board member of Creative Commons and a former board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he has done as much as anyone to advance that cause. In recent years, however, the renowned Harvard Law School professor, political activist, and author of the bestselling “Republic, Lost,” has turned the bulk of his attention to a broader problem: a broken political system that no longer serves most citizens.

In "One Way Forward," he builds on his recent campaign-finance-reform themed book to present a clear-eyed, bipartisan manifesto for revolution just when we need it the most. Available now as a Byliner Original, it is a rousing, eloquent, and ultimately optimistic call to action for Americans of all political persuasions. Notable in these viciously partisan times, Lessig pitches his address equally to Occupy Wall Streeters, Tea Party Patriots, independents, anarchists, and baffled citizens of the American middle, all of whom are ill-served by the status quo. Despite serious political differences, he argues, we can—and must—change the system for the better, for at the core of our government, he says, is “a legal corruption.” In other words: money. The job of politics has been left to a tiny slice of Americans who dominate campaign finance and exert a disproportionate influence on lawgivers as a result. This, he writes, “is a dynamic that would be obvious to Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone but that is sometimes obscure to political scientists: a protection racket that flourishes while our Republic burns.”

“We don’t need to destroy wealth,” Lessig declares. “We need to destroy the ability of wealth to corrupt our politics.” With the common-sense idealism of his hero, Henry David Thoreau, Lessig shows how Americans can take back their country, and he provides a concrete and surprisingly practical set of instructions for doing it.

Read an excerpt here – and buy it here for $1.99.

On several occasions, Lessig has written about reforming government at magazine length. In 2009 he questioned whether we've taken transparency too far. "How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse," he writes. "And I fear that the inevitable success of this movement--if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness--will inspire not reform, but disgust. The "naked transparency movement," as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff."

In 2010 he tried to pinpoint where hope and change went wrong. "A year into the presidency of Barack Obama, it is already clear that this administration is an opportunity missed. Not because it is too conservative. Not because it is too liberal. But because it is too conventional. Obama has given up the rhetoric of his early campaign--a campaign that promised to 'challenge the broken system in Washington' and to 'fundamentally change the way Washington works.' Indeed, 'fundamental change' is no longer even a hint," he wrote. "Instead, we are now seeing the consequences of a decision made at the most vulnerable point of Obama's campaign--just when it seemed that he might really have beaten the party's presumed nominee. For at that moment, Obama handed the architecture of his new administration over to a team that thought what America needed most was another Bill Clinton."

Robert G. Kaiser wrote the definitive article on the rise of lobbying in Washington, D.C. "Cassidy & Associates became the biggest lobbying firm in town. Its success contributed to an explosion of lobbying as imitators tried to copy the Cassidy method," he noted. "Lobbyists became important sources of cash for the politicians they lobbied, and as campaigns became ever more expensive, lobbyists' contributions became ever more important. Over time, the rise of lobbying helped create a new culture of wealth in the nation's capital. And Gerald Cassidy himself amassed a fortune of more than $100 million."

Andrew Ferguson told the story of how Jack Abramoff signaled the end of the Republican revolution that brought that party to power. And Nicholas Confessore also writes about "how the GOP disciplined K Street and made Bush supreme."

One Way Forward (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from the Byliner Original “One Way Forward,” the bestselling Lawrence Lessig considers the history of open source and “read-write” culture, and argues for the promise of a political equivalent to such movements.

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From the December 20, 2004 issue: Jack Abramoff and the end of the Republican Revolution.