UPDATE: Thanks for the questions. It's 15:51, and I need to race to a meeting. I think I've answered everything asked so far. I'll check back later for more. And PLEASE join rootsrikers.org.

First: Please help fix our election system by supporting the Grassroots Democracy Act. We need citizen-funded elections.


And click here to watch my recent TED Talk on this subject:


The Supreme Court heard a case this week that, if decided in a way that I'm hopeful won't come to pass, could, unimaginably, deepen the corrupting influence that private money has over our political institutions. The court could eliminate aggregate caps on how much an individual may donate to different candidates during an election cycle; it might even decide to do away all limits on the size of donations to particular candidates. (Now at $2,600, donating the max is an opportunity taken by only .05% of Americans.)

Critics say such limits “abridge” their “freedom of speech.” But the court has recognized that preventing "corruption" is a "compelling interest" that can legitimate contributions caps.

I believe SCOTUS's decision will hinge on the justices' understanding of what "corruption" is: Corruption ought be understood to mean something grander than the petty quid pro quo, brown paper bag corruption that makes for an engaging episode of a TV drama. Rather, it must be taken to mean, as the framers understood it, the creation of an "improper dependence" -- such as the dependence on an extremely small, extremely moneyed, class of donors that substantially defines the operations of Congress today.

I filed a brief in McCutcheon, based on a review of the framers' understanding of the meaning of "corruption", which I described in the Daily Beast:


Indeed, the most common kind of institutional "corruption" that they discussed was an institution that developed an “improper dependence.” Fully 29 examples—almost five times the number of “quid pro quo” examples—were cases of “improper dependence.” Their concern was to craft a constitution that would avoid institutions becoming improperly dependent—as Parliament, for example, had become improperly dependent upon the king.

These conclusions should matter to the committed originalist. The Framers were pretty clear about the dependence they intended Congress to have. (Or at least the House of Representatives: the Senate was different at the founding, since it was appointed by state legislatures). As Madison put it in Federalist 52, the House was to be “dependent on the People alone.” But by “the People,” Madison meant all the People. “Not the rich,” as he wrote in Federalist 57, “more than the poor.” (OK, and not women or blacks at all, but later generations would fix --those errors).

But as reddit knows, today's campaign finance laws don't make for a panacea. Whether we win or lose McCutcheon, we must work to achieve citizen funded elections to return Congress to that proper dependence on the People alone: http://www.rootstrikers.org/#!/project/we-need-citizen-funded-elections

Proof: https://twitter.com/lessig/status/388725850759499776

Comments: 312 • Responses: 93  • Date: 

cheddar_grits_AMEN25 karma

Prof. Lessig -- I am a big fan and very much enjoyed Republic, Lost. I have three questions:

  1. Can you paint a picture, maybe 5-10 years down the road, in which McCutcheon has been decided in favor of deregulated campaign finance laws and Citizens United remains the law of the land? What is a possible worst case scenario we as a nation are looking at?

  2. I am always frustrated by the lack of exposure campaign finance receives; indeed, I see a lot of eyes glaze over at the concept because it doesn't have the same appeal as, say, climate change or same-sex marriage. Do you agree with the notion that it will have to take a huge scandal to get us on track toward reform, that it will have to get a whole lot worse before it gets better?

  3. What are the odds that Buckley v. Valeo is overturned, if not with this case, then soon if the current court remains with its members during the next few years?

Thank you, sir, and keep up the good fight!

lessig50 karma

  1. We will move from Lesterland (with about 140,000 relevant funders) to Sheldon City (with about 40,000 relevant funders).

  2. Stop calling it "campaign finance reform." That's like describing an alcoholic as someone with a "liquid intake problem." It is corruption. Our government is corrupt. Our Congress is addicted. They need an intervention.

  3. Next few years? 0%

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

BrianBoyko25 karma

Prof. Lessig, I've been so inspired by Rootstrikers I've A) Decided to run for office here in Texas, and B) Even if I lose, I'll continue to push for campaign finance reform.

My question, however is this - do you feel that if we had election reform that eliminated "safe seats" and gave every voter a say in the government, we could hold politicians who do put the private funders' interests above the public interest accountable? I believe this is the case myself, which is why I'm also pushing for adoption of a Single Transferable Vote system here in Texas.

Secondly, what we do within the party system to spread awareness of campaign finance as "the First Issue" and get people knowledgeable about how much money influences politics and what we can do about it. I decided to put my name out there as a candidate to give a face to the issue, and I'll be pushing the Texas Democratic Party to add campaign finance as a plank to their official platform.

Finally, I know Rootstrikers isn't able to endorse campaigns, but would YOU, personally, be willing to endorse my campaign? You can find out more at www.boykotx.org

(Oh, I may be switching races to another legislative seat - we've got three people in the HD136 primary and they ALL back campaign finance reform, but I still intend to run for one seat or the other, even if it would require me moving to an apartment in the next month in a new district.)

-- Brian Boyko -- Candidate, Democrat, Texas Lege

lessig20 karma

Thanks for running and making this an important issue. And when you're settled on a district, happy to consider endorsing (if that would help...).

Re the parties: We need to pressure them, as they won't change without it. And it might be that eliminating safe seats would help, but only if we also change the way elections are funded.

mediocre_sophist22 karma

Having read your book, watched all your videos, and previously asked you a question in another ama, I don't think I have any questions for you this time.

However, I still feel the need to post thanking you for your work on this, the most important issue facing our country.

Thank you. A thousand times, Thank you.

lessig12 karma

thanks for the help and kindness.

slipstream3719 karma

Do you think that the current Shutdown fiasco is directly linked to the influx of private money into the political system? Can you give us some examples of this?

Is the freedom to be corrupt an American idea?

lessig33 karma

The current shut down is a function of the extreme polarization of American politics.

The extreme polarization is a function of (in part, no single causes in real life) the way we fund campaigns.

No, the framers were keen to eliminate one "freedom": to be corrupt.

TheFightingFarsi16 karma

1.) You are wonderful. Thank you for existing!

2.) How would you recommend activists who want to do more than just click a mouse get involved?

lessig21 karma

1) I'll pass that on to my mom and dad. Thanks

2.) Organize a group of like-minded souls who are committed to solving the puzzle: how do we make this obvious and compelling to 100 million Americans. We'd be happy to help: Rootstrikers.org

andbrew12 karma

Hi Prof Lessig, Thanks for all the amazing work you've done over the years. How do you think we can further use technology to disrupt politics and help curb corruption?

lessig17 karma

We need technology to help organize the movement that will throw out the Congress not committed to corruption reform, and replace it with a Congress 100% committed to corruption reform. This was the sort of stuff Aaron was working on before the government decided it was more important to put him in jail than Wall Street bankers.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

blackplague19 karma

Big fan of publically financed elections. But struggling with some specifics....

Two questions:

  1. How exactly do we get to publically funded elections? It seems like the very people in office are those who got there without publically funded elections. How do we pressure them to change?

  2. How would funding levels be determined? What if we had a very popular candidate, and a very unpopular candidate? They'd receive the same amount of funding? How would an "unknown" candidate qualify for funding? How would we determine who is a "serious" candidate and who is just jumping into the campaign for the heck of it?

lessig17 karma

  1. Yes, getting them to change the system they depend on will be really hard. That's the challenge we have: building a strong enough outsider movement to make the pressure on them unavoidable.

  2. I support bottom up funding — like vouchers, or coupons — with each citizen given the same amount. See, e.g., http://represent.us and the American Anti-corruption Act or my Grant and Franklin project.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

tigerspente8 karma

Professor Lessig - I make political contributions; to individual candidates who support campaign finance reform like Sherrod Brown, but also to the DCCC, etc. And my Rep in Congress is terrible, so I contribute to whomever is running against him. At the same time, I agree that nothing else will get fixed until the corruption ends. Time is not something I can donate right now, just $. So, how do you suggest those of us who care about corruption handle donations? Don't make them? Only make them to certain organizations or people? Thanks.

lessig15 karma

Stay tuned: We're a couple weeks from launching a pledge site to enable candidates to pledge to fundamental reform. And then we'll be launching a donor strike — no money to any candidate who doesn't pledge to support fundamental reform.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org to follow both.

jefmes6 karma

Not to get completely off track, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about the partial shutdown and how you think it might (or might not) change the conversation.

lessig14 karma

I am hopeful it gets people to recognize that we have a completely, totally, failed government, and that fundamental reform is necessary. I saw a poll that said 60% of Americans think every member should be fired. Let's bundle that with only electing candidates who pledge to change the way campaigns are funded and we'd make real progress.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

jibbix6 karma

In RL you offer solutions for "buying back" Congress through many means -- direct elections, constitutional convention, presidential election, etc.

Is there a way to "buy back" SCOTUS, other than through the long-term process of presidential appointments?

lessig5 karma

The only way to buy them back is to remind them of the principles they themselves espouse.

cleavingtheether6 karma

I am a longtime follower and big fan of your work - also of the work of James Fishkin on deliberative polling. Awhile back you called for a series of citizen conventions using deliberative polling. I was always very compelled by the idea that these conventions could bring to light the views of truly ordinary citizens who have had time to educate themselves and think deeply about issues relating to the corrupting influence of money in politics. And hopefully their views would carry weight with the nation at large and bring attention to the importance of these issues.

Do you think these conventions are feasible? Do you think they would carry legitimacy in convincing the American people of the best solution to our campaign finance problems? Have you looked into how much it would cost to simply organize these privately? Have you considered pitching the idea as a sort of reality TV show to increase publicity?

Thank you and keep up all your great work!

lessig2 karma

I do, and Jim and I are hatching a plan to do a series of them.

HJivePalace6 karma

I don't see anything in the Constitution which requires Congressional Districts to be geographically defined areas with a single winner-take-all representative. Could we explore different ways of electing Congressional Representatives on a state-by-state basis without a constitutional amendment? Without a change to Federal law?

What would it take for a single state to switch to a system of electing representatives like this (as an example): 1.) State registers political parties. 2.) Political parties host primaries 3.) Political parties produce ordered lists of candidates based on primary results 4.) People vote for party lists in general election 5.) State seats are apportioned to parties based on proportional general election vote totals

lessig3 karma

The feds control that, though there is lots of room for the feds to experiment.

nomoneystillproblems5 karma

Mr. Lessig, thanks for doing this. What impact do you think allowing third parties to actually participate in national debates would have in our current political environment?

lessig3 karma

So long as we don't change the way we fund elections, not much. Or maybe better, not enough.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

Salacious-5 karma

It seems, though, that this case is just the logical outgrowth of Citizens United. That case said that it was the speech that mattered, not who the parties were. So, if that is the case, how can the court justify limiting donations to candidates, but allowing unlimited donations to shady, "unaffiliated" PACs that have almost no accountablility? Wouldn't it be better to just be open about who the money is going toward?

lessig5 karma

Transparency would be good, but this case isn't about transparency. Nor is it about what Citizens United is about — expenditures. This case is about contributions, which since Buckley v. Valeo, have been treated differently from expenditures.

Samatic4 karma

Professor, in your opinion who would like to see as president next term?

lessig2 karma

Someone who promised to make ending this corruption issue #1 — Dem or Rep.

vlad_didenko4 karma

Prof.Lessig, thank you for participating in this session.

  1. Is it fair to say that removing individual caps balances out very loose PACs caps in SCOTUS eyes?

  2. Would it be a better (but harder) first step from a political perspective to remove "corporation (or any organization) is a person" notion?

  3. Actually, is that "corporation (or any organization) is a person" notion negatively impacting politics, or is it an urban myth?

lessig11 karma

It has long been my view that the "corporations are persons" issue is not a critical issue to the corruption debate. It has been important to other questions about how or whether Congress can regulate corporations. I agree with critics about those court decisions. But if all we got was a declaration that corporations are not persons, that would do little to end the corruption that is our government. To do that, we much change the way we fund elections.

And btw: join rootstrikers.org?

Bacon_Throwdown4 karma

What was it like to be fictionalized in the West Wing? Did you have any say into how your character was portrayed?

lessig5 karma

Weird and fun. I had no say, but I was given a chance to correct gross mischaracterizations. It was based on a true story — loosely.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

boatagainstcurrent3 karma

In what specific ways has Citizens United changed elections since it was upheld by the Supreme Court?

lessig3 karma

A radical increase in superpac spending. See the GREAT report by Demos

calvinsloan3 karma

Hi Prof Lessig,

Quick question about solutions...

In Connecticut – a small state with a robust grant-based public financing program – there have been instances where publicly financed candidates have lost elections because for-profit corporations have expended large sums on independent expenditure campaigns, targeting those candidates for pursuing commonsense reforms. Undoubtedly, at the federal level where the “money game” is exponentially greater, if public financing were adopted that trend would worsen.

With states and Congress lacking the constitutional authority to enact expenditure limits, or at the least limits on contributions made to outside spending entities, how can candidates participating in public financing programs compete with privately financed campaigns and/or outside spenders?

lessig3 karma

I wish Connecticut would pass a law limiting the contributions to superpacs. That law is, in my view, constitutional, and I'd be happy to defend it for free. The problem is that it hasn't been framed in the right way and with the right arguments. If it were, there's a 10% chance we could win it — and every chance we have we need to take.

BaronVonCrunch3 karma

This case would not put a cap on how much an individual could donate. It would only limit how much they could donate to an individual candidate. Like previous campaign finance reform laws, the effect would be to increase the amount of money in politics by making it more expensive for the donors to do what they want to do. The only people CFR has helped are campaign finance lawyers and non-profit activists who get the money that isn't going to official campaigns and campaign committees.

Increasing the size of the exclusion zone only increases the size of the border where money is allowed. This is why we not only have SuperPACs, but also c3 and c4 organizations whose activities (journalism, issue activism, organizing, etc) are clearly designed to have a political and electoral impact. Rootstrikers and United Republic, for example.

No proposed CFR changes that dynamic, nor could one do so without undeniably violating speech rights. Even your own proposal to have politicians voluntarily accept public financing would simply create an arms race between public (campaign) financing and private (independent expenditure) financing.

Why would this time be different?

lessig2 karma

Similar changes changed politics in Arizona, Maine, and (for a time) Connecticut. We should build on what those examples teach us.

dpmoak3 karma

Hi Professor, thank you for your work and for fielding our questions. I'm a 2L, and I would appreciate your thoughts on 1) the US model of legal education (i.e., six-figure debt) and/or 2) the young lawyer's role in fighting corruption and getting our country back on track.

lessig1 karma

I'm a skeptic about the universal need for a 3 year law school. I'm a firm believer about the critical role that lawyers can play in this movement. The law is the rare profession where people are trained to be embarrassed about their breach with the public good. That's not enough to stop them, always or even mostly. But it is important.

poinmonster2 karma

Hi Larry, thanks for doing this. I've been toying with the idea of a pledge of sorts for elected officials. It would state that 1) the official agrees that the structure of our elections produces skewed results. 2) campaign finance laws need to be changed 3) district-drawing ought to be taken out of the hands of the legislature and move to an apolitical method 4) if at least 50% of the official's house has signed the pledge they agree to pursue legislation to work on these problems.

Do you think something like that could be a good driver of change? I know everyone hates the Norquist pledge, but that puts an absolute where there shouldn't be one. This is much more basic and agreeable than never raising taxes.

lessig2 karma

We're working on something like this. Follow us at Rootstrikers.org and let me know if you want to help?

democracymatt2 karma

Hello Professor Lessig,

Thanks for doing this and everything else to save the promise of democracy.

[I am part of Root Strikers in Albany and the MOP Democracy Project]

Will your "money bomb" idea include a ground campaign (face to face interactions with voters) or only an air campaign (media advertising and mailers)? The reason I'm asking is because as an undergraduate, nine years ago, I rounded up a group of my friends to go lobby for Clean Elections (Maine style campaign-finance reform pre Bennett). We got all dressed up and hit the road for our capital: Albany, NY. Still believing we lived in some semblance of a democracy we were very excited to make rational arguments to try to persuade the politicians to support this exceedingly popular and simultaneously revolutionary reform.

And then reality set in as the politician basically laughed in our faces, he was like: "you kids want to get money out of politics isn't that nice, good for you, I love seeing young people involved, keep fighting!" And then proceeded to not support the legislation.

After this wake up call it all made perfect sense to us. Of course incumbent politicians don't want to support legislation that will provide adequate funding for potential challengers. They're IN office because they probably CAN raise more money than the next guy; the last thing they want is well-funded challengers aka more competitive elections.

From that point onward our small group of 18-23 yr olds vowed to never talk to another politician about getting money out of politics until we had the power to unseat them. We started going door-to-door in his district building up a money out of politics (MOP) voter bloc, a list of voters who said they cared deeply about MOP and wanted to know where candidates in their district stood on MOP before they voted each election.

We went to festivals, farmers markets, Door by door, block by block until the number of people in our MOP voter bloc was comparable to the margin of victory. Finally, in 2008, we were able to unseat that politician and replaced him with a candidate who supported clean elections! (By 12 votes) Buoyed by this success we did it successfully again in a tight state senate race in Queens in 2010 with the election of state senator Tony Avella ( by 500 votes) and then again in 2012 with the election of Cecelia Tkacyk (by 18 votes).

All this to say, that with extremely limited resources, and an all volunteer effort, a group of kids have nearly swung the balance of power in Albany in favor of getting money out of politics using ground campaign tactics. (Yes I realize causation is tricky when looking at election results, but at the very least we were one of many "but for" causes of those three upsets given the size of MOP Voter Bloc in those districts.)

Indeed, the political science literature on the matter shows that there is no more effective means of persuasion in elections than face-to-face communications, yet well funded MOP heroes like Soros and Eldridge, still go for what's easy: the big media buys. Further, at the end of each election cycle we were left with an asset: a huge list that could be used for direct actions, fundraising and most importantly: for future elections. If we lost, ok, well we have a huge head start for the next election to double or triple the MOP Voter Bloc. If we win, we have the power to hold that politician accountable with their constituents.

The big media buys are great, while they last, but then 2 years later you're left with vague impressions on the minds of voters in the united states of amnesia. Its a short term vs long term investment decision and let’s be honest with ourselves, and use that honesty to create a strategic advantage: meaningful campaign finance reform is not passing in the short term. If this is going to pass we need a movement not just a media blitz. Don't get me wrong, there's a place for air campaigns as well, but I think the current ratio of ground to air campaign is malapportioned and would encourage you to consider launching a ground campaign, as well.

So what do ya say?

lessig2 karma

I'm with you. The revolution won't come from TV ads. It will come from citizens who ask other citizens to act like citizens.

abbakoala2 karma

MPAA and RIAA are now saying how their efforts to combat copyright piracy is uncovering terrorist organizations (per USC Entertainment Law conference last Saturday). Copyright, privacy, freedom of speech, elections, politics - all one big hairball?

lessig6 karma

As so many smart souls (Benkler, Boyle, Zittrain, EFF) have been saying they would say for a long time now...

DiegoVonCosmo2 karma

At this point, is there any reason to believe it's still possible for campaign funding restrictions to go back to pre-Citizen's United levels through legislative or judicial means, or have we passed a metaphorical point of no return?

lessig3 karma

If the Court recognizes "dependence corruption" in McCutcheon, it can eliminate superpacs without overturning Citizen United. That is the best hope.

2tizzle2 karma

Will you be filing an amicus brief to the court?

lessig2 karma

I did. Read it here.

Talarot2 karma

How does it feel to be fighting the plutocracy? don't you think any territory you take will just be taken back in the future?

lessig3 karma

not if we can get people engaged; certainly if we can't.

ducky062 karma

Hi Prof. Lessig--

The more I've learned about politics, the less I'm interested in using my undergrad & Master's degrees (Geology). I try to stay informed, sign petitions, contact my representatives- but that's only a part-time job. Something has to pay the bills, and I would really like that something to be consistent with my value system. Can you recommend a particular path to getting involved in the fight to end corruption in the US?

Thank you for all you've done and are doing. You've gotten my attention and many others'.

lessig3 karma

Join us. There's a long list of things we'll be doing between now and 2016. And in my view, we need to win this by 2016, or bust.


Abel_G_Collins2 karma

Thank you for your activism. I just had the pleasure of interviewing Noam Chomsky on Tuesday, and I asked him the following question that I would also like for you to answer.

Is there any possibility that we might see a unified plan of radical reform from the likes of change agents like yourself, Chomsky, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, etc, who come at the challenges we face from different angles and diverse parts of the political spectrum?

I ask because we (activists like those of us in Occupy, among others) could really use some visible leadership to push back against the likes of ALEC, as well as other status quo think tanks. It seems to me that just about every major reformer out there is committed to at least getting money out of politics. Can we start here and build a well organized movement that draws all of us progressives (I use the word in its literal sense) together?

lessig3 karma

we need a way to move that doesn't depend upon a central command. I think it's possible. I hopeful we can help build it.

PucksNBeer2 karma

Professor thanks for taking the time. What do you think of this proposal for improving the election process and removing corruption:

  1. compel "compact" congressional districts that must, as closely as possible, conform to county and city (town, village) limits

    • creed, race, etc "blind"
    • created by an independent citizens board
  2. compel photo ID or fingerprint to prove residency in the political jurisdiction

  3. compel "total elected limits" (I like 18 years of total elected office from dogcatcher to President)

  4. compel removal of Party affiliation from ballots

  5. compel spending limits of $1 per registered voter in the political jurisdiction (President = $400 million since 400 million in country, dogcatcher = maybe 3,000) ... regardless of source

  6. compel complete transparency of the individuals behind a donation (regardless of front organization)

    • must be human (anti-Citizen's United people should love that)
    • must be citizens of the political jurisdiction (e.g. all State election money must come from citizens of the State)
    • must be disclosed in public media by recipient within 5 days of receipt or by election day whichever is earliest
    • any donations received that do not meet the above requirements go immediately to the US Treasury
  7. compel "pro-rata" EC splits in ALL States

lessig2 karma

If I can add an item 0 (which for geeks is the first number): "Publicly fund public elections" then I'd be happy to consider the others.

p1392 karma

I love that Benedict Cumberbatch's AMA is at the exact same time as this one and it's 20 times as popular.

lessig2 karma

seems appropriate.

claymaker2 karma

With the dysfunction in government now the #1 issue to most Americans (gallup poll), do you think Americans are finally ready for bold solutions, like holding a constitutional convention to propose a 28th Amendment to fix it?

I've seen you suggest it in a few places, and you even had a group working on this for awhile, but what's the best way to actually make something like this happen and what groups are working on it right now?

Thank you for being awesome. Please keep doing that.

lessig9 karma

America needs to recognize link between disfunction and corruption, because they are intimately linked. And when we succeed in making that link clear, they will be open to the most likely solution. My view is that Congress is not going to pass any useful amendment to the states. The only constitutional remedy is an Article V convention. I support that movement, and especially the great orgs like Wolf-PAC who are pushing it.

cantdownvoteuenough2 karma

So if I understand this correctly, the best case scenario for this decision isn't that things will suck less, but that they won't suck more than they already do?

lessig5 karma

Too early to speak about probabilities. Best case in my view is that the Court looks more carefully at what the word "corruption" should mean to them. And if they get that right, there's a real chance they have a way eventually to end superpacs.

NicholasDewar2 karma

Your Amicus Curiae brief was a really interesting angle. How much discussion about it was there in the SCOTUS hearing?

lessig2 karma

None. Sadly.

Scipio_Africanus2 karma

Hi professor Lessig!

I don't have a question. I just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the interesting debate you put on in Sweden not too long ago and I hope you found your stay worthwhile.

Thanks for an interesting evening.

lessig2 karma

Please find a way to get me back to Sweden. That's an amazing place.

Samatic2 karma

I also think we should destroy the two party system that has a strangle hold on this country. The Dems and Repukes need to go look at what they do when they can't agree. There should be no party lines drawn when it comes to elections. This would make the voter an informative voter and not just a party line voter.

lessig2 karma

So thought General Washington.

moviemaniac2262 karma

Thank you for taking time to do this again. Republic Lost completely changed my perspective of politics. I'm also a big fan of the American Anti-Corruption Act, but one provision of it raises the thresholds for lobbying firms' registration. Why is this? Wouldn't this create less transparency and accountability if a greater number of lobbyists can conduct activities without supervision?

lessig2 karma

That wasn't my corner of that great proposal. Maybe we should get Jack Abramoff to do an AMA (I think he helped with that part).

davidmanheim2 karma

Prof. Lessig,

Big fan. You mentioned last time you did an AMA that you'd love to tour/speak with Jack Abramoff. Have you been in touch with him? It sounds like a great combination.

lessig3 karma

Yes. We're trying to find a way to fund it. As he's learning, this is not the right side of the corruption debate to be on if one wants to make a bunch of money...

clibassi1 karma

Hi Professor Lessing,

One question I've always had about the Grants and Franklins project is that I imagine the $50 tax voucher really does cost money - it's not just a notional $50 of your tax money that gets transferred to candidates, it's a real $50. How does that cost affect the political feasibility of a federal program such as that? Does the Grassroots Democracy plan avoid that problem (if I am in fact diagnosing a real problem) in any way?

lessig4 karma

Cato estimates that the federal government spends close to $90 billion per year on corporate welfare. If the Grant and Franklin project could reduce that by 10%, it would totally pay for itself 3 times over. So yes, it is an investment — like fixing a whole in your roof is an investment.

shaokingkong1 karma

How important is the Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett case from 2011?

In my view, the decision to overturn the Clean Election law in this case was far worse than Citizens United.

By ending the speech subsidies for outspent candidates and saying that a right to respond went against the 1st amendment, the Court seemed to have created a doctrine of "freedom FROM speech" for the rich.

The voucher system you're proposing will give money directly to candidates...but I'm afraid that this won't work unless candidates can ONLY spend vouchers. Unfortunately, the court has opposed limiting candidate spending in the interest of "fairness" since Buckley. They also think that "corruption" isn't related to spending, only campaign donations .

The Court has been controlling campaign finance reform since Buckley in 1976. Maybe as their decisions get increasingly worse they will cause a response from the general public. So, hey, maybe there's an upside to (inevitable?) bad decision that we'll see with McCutcheon. I gotta hope!

Anyway, thanks for all your work! You inspired me to learn about this very serious and fundamental problem with our democracy.

lessig2 karma

That decision was bad, but I don't think it destroys the possibility of effective bottom-up public funding. Sarbanes bill, or the American Anti-Corruption Act are perfectly constitutional, and would radically change the economy of influence in DC.

bleeinternets1 karma

At what point can we turn people's dislike of the influence on money in politics into action?

Also, when do the players in the government reform movement get on the same page about what should be done? (playing an inside game with rules reform; pushing for a constitutional amendment; legislative changes; etc) Sometimes I feel like the different players are pushing in different directions and that ultimately that's one of the downfalls of the progressive/government reform "coalition."

lessig2 karma

The diversity here is good. This isn't a movement that will ever have a single leader, and nor should it. We need to bring together people from every part of the political spectrum. No one, save Colbert, could do that.

noprotein1 karma

I'm so glad to have participated in many events and activities along with Rootstrikers campaigns and love that the new site is going live. Along with many others, our major worry or source of frustration is this:

How do we get the large majority of our voting public onto a similar page once again with where we are today as a society? We need to unionize, get money out of politics, break away from TV/media/celebrity and stupid crap to get back to our roots and a working country. I know you're one of the most qualified to share your views on how we can come together now in 2013 after Occupy and other groundswells have failed to garnish enough support to cause a real change.

Thanks for everything, you're the man!

lessig2 karma

Thanks for the rootstrikers support.

I still believe (as I said during the Occupy movements): we need to focus on first steps first. Which changes will be generative. And asking that question again and again, I still believe attacking the corruption is step one. Everything else is easier once we do that.

iamgigamesh1 karma

Prof Lessig -- I am extremely eager to hear more about your "Money Bomb" idea mentioned in your Bill Moyers interview. When can we expect it to get off the ground?

lessig1 karma

top secret.

lessigama1 karma


Big fan, thank you for doing everything you can to shine light into the dark corners of our system.

As a parent, I'm extremely concerned about the country I'm going to leave to my children. I believe inaction is decisive and if I die without having tried everything to right this ship, I bear as much blame as those who've run it aground.

That said, I'm considering leaving the life I've worked to establish as an executive at a top 5 financial services company, moving my family to Boston to attend HKS for an MC/MPA (you have to know the rules before you change them) and joining this fight in earnest.

Any thoughts or advice on my plan?

lessig3 karma

Send me an email and let's talk?

erikswedberg1 karma

Not having read the book, what is a typical example of election campaign donations leading to corrupt acts?

Has the moratorium on congressional earmarks changed how congressional corruption happens?

lessig1 karma

I don't believe there's any interesting example of quid pro quo. I'm pointing to the corruption of an institution — which I can't begin to understand how anyone denies.

The loss of earmarks makes it harder for leaders to lead. I wouldn't oppose earmarks, if we had a different way to fund campaigns.

hithisishal1 karma

How do you vote in presidential elections? Do you vote for a major candidate or a third party? I saw one of your early talks on campaign finance (at Penn in 2008 or 2009), and it seemed like you were hopeful that Obama would be different and not let corrupting influences effect him as much as other politicians. What was your opinion in 2012?

lessig8 karma

My votes my votes — though I was the youngest member of a delegation in the 1980 convention, and I did campaign for Obama in 2008. But certainly, Obama has not been the reformer he promised to be. He hasn't even tried. So that has been a source of endless disappointment.

alwaysdoit1 karma

Do you think that a crowdfunding approach could allow groups of people to compete with corporations and special interests in the lobbying/campaign finance arenas?

lessig1 karma

Under the current rules, no.

seniorfancypants1 karma

Assuming the worst, what do you think will happen if the Court disagrees with your brief? Are there any mitigating steps?

lessig3 karma

The same steps regardless of what they do: Build the movement that convinces America to demand of Congress that it radically change the way elections are funded.

Roninspoon1 karma

I've spoken to my friends for years, with varying degrees of seriousness and cynicism, that I believe the only way to fix campaign finance is to eliminate it entirely and adopt a lottery system for all public offices. Random selection with mandatory service and strict term limits seems to me, depending on how drunk and garrulous I am at the time of speaking, the only (and perhaps best) way to get a true representation of constituencies in national legislation.

How wrong am I?

lessig3 karma

Not wrong. People should see the incredible documentary by Eileen Jerrett — Blueberry Soup — about the Iceland constitution drafting process. Lots of random participation in that. I am a big supporter of trying more of this here.

nonviolence61 karma

Professor Lessig,

I'm a Boston resident whose interested in taking a course taught by you. Are you teaching any relevant classes this Spring at Harvard? Have you thought about offering a Public (in-person) and/or MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) to educate concerned citizens and activists?

lessig3 karma

Teaching undergrads a course in Institutional Corruption. That may turn into a MOOC next year.

Chuck_Zlatkin1 karma

Professor Lessig, I have been a supporter of yours, but there is a question that I feel needs to be answered. How can you justify participating in the secret Bilderberg meeting this year?

lessig8 karma

What is there to justify? I heard views I hadn't heard before. They heard views (mine) they hadn't heard before. No money changes hands. No decisions are made (or at least none with me). There are so many obvious corruptions causing real harm in this society; this didn't seem high on that list.

gcarroll1 karma

First off, love your work; your TED talk has been a constant inspiration for my political activism, and I can't thank you enough for what you do to increase awareness for such a pressing issue.

I know you frequently get asked how to get involved from a perspective of a citizen, but I'm curious if you think that there is an entrepreneurial way of disrupting the campaign finance system.

Do you think there is room for a startup to have an impact on this fight, or will the legislation inevitably have to come first?

lessig1 karma

A startup will be essential to build the political support to force Congress to act.

captainAwesomePants1 karma

Hi, Professor Lessig. I'm a huge fan of the Rootstrikers, but I'm also somewhat pessimistic about our chances. What do you think our chances are of making any big improvements to the money in politics problem in the next 20 years? Is it a 10% chance of success? A 20% chance?

lessig6 karma

So you're standing on a beach, and you notice, 300 yards out, a 50 foot tall wave. A tsunami. You look around, and 100 feet away, is a tall, concrete, poll, with rungs as a ladder. Do you stand there and ask, "what is the chance I could make that poll before the wave hits the land?" Or do you just run.

I say run. There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing is done.

tootie1 karma

If we lose on McCutcheon, what is the legislative fallback? And same question for Citizen's United. Is there an option beyond rewriting the 1st amendment? Could EFF/ACLU/whoever just sue again when the composition of SCOTUS changes and get them flipped back?

lessig3 karma

Pass a bill like the Sarbanes bill, establishing bottom-up public funding of elections.

thebagman101 karma

What made you stop pursuing the States-call-for-a-convention method in favor of the "Franklin/Grant" type federal laws?

lessig3 karma

I haven't stopped. I still support an Article V convention. It's just hard to keep everything on the radar screen (while also teaching, and writing, and directing a center, and fathering...)

poinmonster1 karma

Hi Lawrence, big fan. Is the most we can do about McCutcheon to make a lot of noise and hope this influences Kennedy, Roberts and other members of the SCOTUS? Maybe try to get the case into mainstream sources so that SCOTUS gets that people are watching? It seems like Roberts' concern for the Court's image is one of the only points of leverage here.

lessig2 karma

As I said before: I am not convinced pressuring the Court directly helps.

bradtastik1 karma

Huge supporter. Reading your books is one of the reasons I've decided to move into technology and law.

lessig1 karma

Welcome and thanks.

dfuse1 karma

I have a few questions professor:

1) Because the plaintiff in McCutcheon v. FEC wants to make contributions in non-corrupting amounts (the base limits), how is this corrupting?

2) How realistic were the scenarios offered by Justices Kagan and Breyer regarding PACs funneling contributions to other campaigns? If a contributor knew it was going to another campaign, it would be earmarked and go against the contributor's limit. If the contributor didn't know, wouldn't it be odd that a PAC was soliciting contributions and then funneling all those amounts to another campaign. It just didn't seem realistic to me but maybe you have another take.

3) What do you make of Prof. Rick Hasen's critique of your originalist argument regarding the original construction of "corruption"?

lessig1 karma

1): It is not "quid pro quo" corrupting; it is corrupting of the dependence intended by the framers. See the brief or The Atlantic essay. 2) I think the effort to show this is quid pro quo corruption is not useful. 3) Hasen hasn't criticized the substance of the argument — namely that the framers used the word "corruption" as our research says. He has criticized the strategy. He doesn't believe the originalists will be guided by an originalist argument if it produces liberal results. He's wrong about that historically. I don't know if he'll be wrong about that here.

cbones9101 karma

Thank you for your tireless efforts striking at the root. My question is about the apparent lack of awareness the SCOTUS has about their Citizens United decision. Are they not as thoughtful as you? Are they somehow also corrupt?

lessig1 karma

They're not corrupt. But they're also not really connected. I fear they stay too long.

kodozoku1 karma

Prof. Lessig-

Can you provide a brief history of private money in public elections? While many people know that this is an issue, it seems to me that a lot of people don't understand how radically this has changed in recent years.

Thanks very much.

lessig2 karma

One hour and 36 minutes into this AMA, I'm afraid my fingers won't type all that. Here's a short version: The history of American democracy has been a history of different ways that influence has been used to corrupt democracy. The Gilded Age was the most corrupt, in the old-fashioned quid pro quo sense. But the corruption of the current age is much worse. It isn't a crime. It isn't even unethical. But the dependence it has produced makes it impossible for Congress to address ANY important issue sensibly.

nonviolence61 karma

Any plans for a movie about this subject, much like Robert Reich has done with "Inequality for All" ?

lessig2 karma

dreams, no plans.

jmblock21 karma

Any plans to go on TYT again? Keep doing what you're doing!

lessig2 karma

Everytime they ask.

davidmanheim1 karma

To what extent is the partisan divide over the issue making it harder to sell the idea of money in politics as corruption?

How can it be sold more clearly to the Republican base that made much the same claim in the original Tea Party Rallies that were subverted by big businesses and the part mainstream?

lessig1 karma

The shallow thinking that lives on cable TV does seem to find it hard to recognize how the two are linked. More work for us.

hzane1 karma

Professor I have often considered what effective fund raisers politicians are and the huge fortune collectively amassed annually from donations. How interesting it would be if these funds were used to supplement national revenue specifically targeted into the programs and initiatives the candidate ran upon. Not only as a relief to the tax payer but also incentive to maximize the efficiency of government spending. I was hoping you might comment on the policy impact and consequences of a fantasy hypothetical like this becoming popular and standard practice. Thank you for your contribution to the American people!

lessig1 karma

but what about candidates eager not to fund projects, but to change the way gov't works. E.g., what if I want to cut the size of the defense budget. Or eliminate the department of agriculture?

phaeidaeux1 karma

Prof. Lessig, (btw, thanks!) Is it possible we've exploited this form of government beyond its own usefulness (as exploitation seems to be the one constant in human nature)? I agree wholeheartedly with your verdict on funding, but I'm also worried that we no longer have an "informed citizenry" able to decide much of anything that's not distilled down to 140 characters or a 30 second soundbite. Thoughts?

lessig1 karma

I think you're underselling ordinary citizens. Put them in the right context with the right mix of fellow citizens (a couple hundred, randomly selected) and give them the materials they need to understand the issues. and they'll do 1000% better than any elected gov't. And if you doubt that, then at least, let's try it once.

arnold19611 karma

I agree with you 100%

lessig1 karma

That's more than I do!

10101110001 karma

LL, just want to say you are the #1, I am a fan. You are an inspiration, important to anyone who cares about principled government of any kind. Thank you, and please keep up the original ideas and ethical demands. Thank YOU.

lessig2 karma

will do. thanks for the kindness.

wordserious1 karma

Prof. Lessig, thank you for all that you do. One question only: do you think there is hope?

lessig2 karma

Don't know.

But there's Tess. She's four. And there's Teo. He's 6. And there's Willem. He just turned 10.

That's all I need to know.

Shahid-Buttar1 karma

LL -- your areas of academic scholarship have focused on constitutional law, freedom of information, and public sector corruption. What are your thoughts on the contemporary controversy surrounding NSA spying, and what actions do you recommend to grassroots observers concerned about the digital dragnet who want to raise their voices?

lessig1 karma

I have never been more afraid and I am not sure what we should do. I think it is time for free software security sorts to meet and take stock.

rhott1 karma

Can we start calling 'campaign contributions' bribery? I feel this term is more accurate when more time is spent by politicians acquiring money from donors than doing their job.

lessig1 karma

What about "corruption". The system is corrupt.

esf2481 karma

Do you think experience with existing public matching funds systems--like in NYC--shows that they are a good safeguard against corruption and the concentration of influence brought on by Citizens United and (possibly) McCutcheon?

lessig1 karma

Matching funds are great. Vouchers/coupons are better.

pardonmyfranton1 karma

Professor, why throw your support behind the Grassroots Democracy Act instead of the American Anti-Corruption Act?

Is one a better piece of legislation than the other?

lessig2 karma

I love both, and they are different. The AA Act is the most ambitious reform proposal in a century. The Sarbanes bill tackles one part of the reform — the funding of elections.

ComeOnYouYanks1 karma

Are you surprised by the lack of influence business has had in ending the current CR/debt limit fiasco.

lessig6 karma

No more surprised than I was when reading how Victor Frankenstein couldn't control Frankenstein.

aaronjorbin1 karma

What can we as common citizens do to make sure that McCutcheon is decided in a way that doesn't take more power out of our hands and give it to the more well off members of society?

EDIT: a word

lessig3 karma

My experience is that activism directed at the Court is self-defeating. The arguments have been made. The decision will come soon enough. Regardless of what they do, we have lots of work to do to bring about the real change that is needed here.

misdirectSean1 karma

What about the current state of the mainstream media? Technically we may have a free press and free speech, but the country's attention is owned by a minority of media executives. How can we expect the public to be informed with the overwhelming misinformation found in state and party sponsored propaganda?

lessig2 karma

We'll need to build a network, that allows people who aren't being paid to say what they're saying to speak, and systems on that network that help elevate the useful and constructive speech, above the din of the mainstream blather. Something like ... oh wait, you did that already. Never mind.

And btw: join Rootstrikers.org

kurthompson1 karma

Prof Lessig,

Thus far you have maintained a totally non-political stance. As the gap between the interests of the people and the interests of the Washington Political Elite (Republicans and Democrats both) widens, do you see yourself and the Rootstrikers/Campaign finance reformists taking up a third party initiative? When will you give up on these two failed parties and begin the fight for something better which represents the interests of the American people at large?

lessig2 karma

I'm not a bi-partisan. I'm not a 3d-party-ian. I am a cross-partisan: I don't care what your political views are, you must (imho) agree with me that this system is corrupt and we must change it.

UnclaEnzo1 karma

Mr. Lessig,

I do not have a question for you today.

I would like to let you know that I'm a member of rootstrikers and have been I believe since the beginning.

I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for all you do and for your willingness to be on the right side of law.

Cheers, Sir!

lessig1 karma


saute1 karma

The evidence seems to be that things like Citizens United serve only to change how money is spent and not how much is spent. Given that, how is this doing anything other than rearranging deck chairs? In fact, how is candidate campaigns getting the money directly not better than it getting funneled through a PAC? Don't candidate campaigns have stricter disclosure requirements?

More fundamentally, though, what is your evidence that this is even the right battle to be fighting? Republicans were able to win 54% of House seats last year with 47% of the vote. It's a similar story at the state level in some places. Michiganders voted 53%-46% for Democrats for their state House last year, yet 54% of seats went to...Republicans. None of this is the fault of campaign finance rules, it's the fault of the single-member-district voting system and the distortions (willful or otherwise) it allows.

I realize that campaign finance is a sexy issue because it involves money and everyone loves moralizing about money, but how are the structural issues with our voting systems--namely, single-member districts, low-turnout partisan primaries, and the specter of vote-splitting--not the more serious problem? And why aren't more of your and other people's resources directed towards fixing them? Especially given that there is no constitutional obstacle to many of the solutions as there appears to be with things like Citizens United. Many states could implement ranked-choice voting for congressional elections through a ballot initiative, for instance.

lessig1 karma

I don't believe the problem is how much money is spent. The problem is how the money gets raised. Change the way you raise the money, and you change the incentives of representatives in the system.

hbarnick1 karma

Thank you for your fantastic leadership on this front (and remix culture). I'd really like to take action by starting a Rootstrikers team at UCLA. I've tried contacting Rootstrikers through the website but I haven't received any responses.
Are campus action teams still part of the Rootstrikers strategy? Are there plans for a 2014 Rootstrikers convention in the works.

lessig1 karma

Send me an email at lessig at rootstrikers dot org

OneSingleMonad1 karma

Prof. Lessig - Thank you in advance for doing this AMA.

Citizens United raises a question of the equal footing (or lack thereof) between ordinary citizens and large corporations with respect to influencing politics. On a broader level, does the government have a role, or a duty, to act as a defender, or an equalizer, of ordinary citizens to protect them from unfair advantage taking by large corporations? How do you see that role (if it exists) playing out in the near future, ideally and in reality?

lessig1 karma

I'm not an equalizer. I am a corruption fighter. The objection of the government should not be to level the playing field. Who even knows what that would mean? The objective of the government should be to eliminate corruption. We do that by re-creating the dependence the framers meant Congress to have — on the People, and not on the Lesters.

Blurry_Bigfoot1 karma

Hi Prof Lessig,

Thanks for doing this! I am an entrepreneur working on a project that will serve as a platform for third party and independent candidates to convey their opinions and reach new audiences to get their messages out. You've spoken out against the 2 party system before, so I am wondering what you think of this type of approach? How can we use the internet to fight the 2 party system?

We are still developing the platform, but I am really excited about the project.


lessig1 karma

Happy to look at it when it's ready.

robertj100 karma

Once we've achieved publicly financed elections, how would we deal with the distorting impacts of corporate media's biased coverage on public opinion?

Would you ban issue ads that allow agents of specific candidates (parties, interest groups) to buy off or unduly influence the mainstream (and not so mainstream) media's readership?

Or is the remedy to (bought) speech more speech?

lessig2 karma

When we achieve bottom-up citizen funded elections, I'm taking a long vacation...

dupontcircle0 karma

Who is leading the effort to fix this problem -- and Citizen United via constitutional amendment authorizing Congress and the states greater control over the regulation of money in elections? It seems like that solution that would have bipartisan grassroots support and could limit many of the first amendment challenges to these laws. The amendment, of course, wouldn't need to entrench any policy, it just needs to empower Congress and the states by clariflying that regulation aimed solely at contribution limits or reporting doesn't implicate the first amendment.

lessig2 karma

There are many leaders, as there needs to be.

Dontaskthat0 karma

What do you think of the idea of calling together a constitution convention to take big money out of politics? Would the convention fall under the influence of big money?

lessig2 karma

Not if we randomly selected delegates (which I and Sandy Levinson think we must).

houseofrko0 karma

You are wonderful. I think what you do is really amaizing job.

What was it like to be fictionalized in the West Wing?

lessig2 karma