As Lawrence Lessig explains in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It (TWELVE, 383 pp., $26.99), the disastrous nibble for American democracy was the change in the relationship between money and power. It may not have been a fall from Eden, but it was a headlong descent from the post-World War II democracy that was as close as we have come to economic and social stability (ignoring, of course, the very late recognition that women and minorities deserved their place in the American quarter-century). For a set of reasons, we were thrown from this idealized Garden of democracy and prosperity into the lake of fire that Spectator contributor Thomas Ferguson has characterized as “coin-operated” government.
Harvard Law School professor Lessig builds his case around a sophisticated analysis of what he calls “dependence corruption.” This is not individual corruption by bad actors, nor is it the old quid pro quo as practiced in 1989 by Texas chicken tycoon Bo Pilgrim, who handed out $10,000 checks to Texas lawmakers on the Texas Senate floor in exchange for a vote on workers’ compensation laws.
Instead, Lessig describes this corruption as a shift in the focus of government from the will of the people to the will of the moneyed, who “secure their wealth through the manipulation of government and politicians.” He goes on to discuss the elements of the corrupting influence of money in politics, particularly as it affects congressional action and inaction. A prime example: deregulation of the financial industry. “I find it impossible to believe,” writes Lessig, “that our government would have been this stupid had Congressmen from both sides of the aisles not been so desperate for the more than $1 billion in campaign contributions given by individuals and groups affiliated with these firms, and the $2.7 billion spent by them lobbying.”
These elements include reams of special-interest-sponsored studies and the nattering public relations machines designed to mold debate — a phenomenon Raghuram Rajan, whom Lessig cites, calls “cognitive capture.” With the need to feed the increasing costs and escalating technologies of campaigns, even the most decent politicians develop an addiction to nonstop funding. Increasingly, the easiest way to amass campaign dollars was from single-interest groups, polarizing political debate. Congress is distracted from key legislation crucial to the republic by marginal issues important to special interests. The role of lobbyist as fixer grows and depends on developing a sense of reciprocity in the office-holder. And the lobbyist’s income creates the aspirational revolving door for many congresspeople and their staffers.
More interesting, Lessig identifies congressional stalemates as the ends many politicians and lobbyists seek. How better to collect contributions, wield temporary power, and bulk up lobbying firms than to war endlessly over sometimes key and sometimes marginal legislation? And the moderate core of the electorate disengages. As a result, we have increasing income disparity, insignificant financial and environmental regulation, watered-down healthcare reform, and public trust in government at a low watermark.
Unfortunately, Lessig ends the book with a solution that even he admits has little chance of being successful. He calls for the funding of elections through citizen vouchers, bolstered by regulated contributions by voters. It sounds nice, even Edenic. But good intentions may not be enough, and a sudden interest in the common good by the most powerful interests would be quite a stretch. If the people with the power to change the rules have already bitten the apple, giving them another shot at free will doesn’t seem like a promising path. They are, after all, the fallen angels. “They themselves ordain’d their fall.”
Geoff Rips is a former editor of The Texas Observer.