Larry Lessig: Our Democracy No Longer Represents The People. Here’s How We Fix It at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Full transcript of Harvard professor Larry Lessig’s TEDx Talk: Our Democracy No Longer Represents The People. Here’s How We Fix It at TEDxMidAtlantic Conference.

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Larry Lessig – Harvard professor

So, it turns out exactly a year ago, right now, right this minute, a year ago in Hong Kong, an extraordinary protest began. Protest begun by students, literally, high school and college students, elementary school students, then their parents felt a little embarrassed that they had let their kids work so hard and then they showed up as well.

And the protest was about a law. And the law was proposed by China. The law was to determine how the Governor of Hong Kong would be selected. And the law said, “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

OK, so the idea was, there’s a two step process. The first step was nomination, and then the second step was an election. And the nominating committee would be comprised of about 1200 people which means out of 7 million people, that is 0.02% of Hong Kong. All right, now 0.02% as you can see is a really tiny number. Really, really small.

If you thought about it, relative to all the people in Hong Kong, it would look something like this, this tiny little corner is 0.02%.

So 0.02% get to pick the candidates, that the rest of Hong Kong gets to vote among. And the protest was because the fear was this filter would be a biased filter. The claim was that 0.02% would be dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite. So 99.98% would be excluded from this critical first step with the consequence, obviously, of producing a democracy responsive to China only.

OK, now, it turns out the Chinese stole this idea from an American. Don’t worry, there was no patent, no copyrights, there’s no IP violations going on here. But they stole the idea from an American. Maybe the greatest political philosopher in America — a man named Boss Tweed.

Boss Tweed had a Tammany Hall political party. He used to say, “I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating.” So, this conception, this kind of — conception of politics has an obvious logic to it, right, because, if you control the nomination, every candidate was going to worry what you, the nominator, think. So, you practically control the candidate, whether or not you control the ultimate election. We can call that genius theory — that genius theory for destroying democracy — Tweedism.

Any two-stage process where the Tweeds get to nominate and then the rest get to select is Tweedism. And the consequence of Tweedism, obviously, is producing a system responsive to Tweeds only.

Now, Tweedism was practiced not just in the North, not just in New York, it was practiced in the South too. Texas in 1923 practiced Tweedism by a law. In 1923 Texas passed statute that said, “In the Democratic primary only whites could vote.” Only whites could vote. Blacks could vote in a General Election, if of course they could get registered, given all the barriers to registration.

But only whites could vote in a democratic Primary. And of course, back then, hard to imagine, but back then the only party that mattered was the Democratic Party in Texas.

So, in this two-stage process, blacks were excluded from the first stage. 16% of Texas excluded from this critical first stage, with the consequence obviously of producing a democracy responsive to whites only.

Now, those cases are obvious to us. Everyone looks at that and says, there is something obviously wrong with those so called democracies to set up their structure in that way.

So why don’t we see it here? We take it for granted in the United States, that campaigns will be privately funded. But we need to recognize funding is its own contest, funding is its own Primary. We have the voting system, where people vote, but in the first stage to that there is a Money Primary that determines which candidates are allowed to run in those voting elections.

Now, that Money Primary takes time. Members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time dialing for — this is an old telephone, you might not recognize this — but dialing for dollars. Calling people all across the country to get the money they need to run their campaigns, or to get their party back into power. B. F. Skinner gave us this wonderful image of the skinner box where any stupid animal could learn which buttons it needed to push for its sustenance. This is the picture of the life of the modern American Congress person — as the modern American Congress person — comes to learn which buttons he or she needs to push to get the sustenance he or she needs to make his or her campaign successful. This is their life, and it has an effect.

Each of them, as they do this, 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 “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 1000. Leslie Byrne, a Democrat from Virginia, describes that when she went to Congress she was told by a colleague, “Always lean to the green.” And to clarify, she went on, “You know, he was not an environmentalist.”

So this obviously is a Primary too. It is the Money Primary. It’s not the White Primary, it’s the Green Primary. It’s the first stage in a multistage process to select the candidates who will represent us. So, if this is the structure, we should interrogate who are the funders. Or we can think about who the biggest funders are.

In 2014, the top 100 gave as much as the bottom 4.75 million funders to congressional campaigns. In this election cycle so far, 400 families have given half the money in the election contributions and contributions to Super PAC, so far. Four hundred families! That is not American democracy. That is Banana Republic democracy.

And then we can think not just about the biggest funders but think about the relevant funders. Of course the people giving millions of dollars have the attention of the members of Congress.

But how much do you need to give to be relevant? How much do you need to give to be big enough to matter to those Congress people as they are dialing for dollars to raise money from you?