News & Politics

Lawrence Lessig Tells Chris Hedges About His Project to Seize Control of Politics from Corporations

It's an uphill climb for the campaign finance reform activist.

Lawrence Lessig
Photo Credit: The Real News Network

All three videos featuring Chris Hedges' interview with Lawrence Lessig are embedded at the bottom of this post.

CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: So let's begin with your work on campaign finance, and maybe you can explain a little bit about what you're doing. But also, if you could, explicate what you have targeted as the mechanism or the levers of change by which, you know, this reform might be made possible.

LARRY LESSIG, POLITICAL ACTIVIST AND HARVARD LAW SCHOOL PROFESSOR: Yeah. I think there are three moving parts. And one is the president, the second is Congress, and the third is a part of the Constitution people like to ignore, which is the convention clause in the amending provision. And the work that I'm doing right now with this thing called the Mayday PAC--where "Mayday" comes from the distress call mayday, a mayday on this democracy--is to build, really, a super PAC that will engage in the election cycle of 2014 and in 2016 with the ultimate objective of getting a Congress in 2016 committed to fundamental reform.

And this project we began by basically hiring a firm a couple of years ago to make a calculation: what would it cost to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform? And the most important insight they had was that we had to run a campaign in 2014 that basically terrified Congress by winning in at least five seats on this issue in a way that made it clear that if you raised this issue before the American people, they would act on it. So that's what we're in the middle of right now.

And we did this Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million in 30 days, and we crossed that line in 13 days. And now we're in a second campaign, a much more--maybe much too much more ambitious campaign of raising $5 million in 30 days. And with that and some matches, we'll have the funds necessary to hire the firms to run these campaigns.

HEDGES: So how would you envision allocating, using this money, deploying this money?

LESSIG: So this is a super PAC. It's an evil super PAC, right? And we're sort of embracing the irony of using a super PAC for the purpose, ultimately, of ending all super PACs. So as a super PAC we have to act independently of campaigns. So, basically, we're going to hire campaign shops, ideally in the Democratic side and on the Republican side, that will get into races and run campaigns, run a ground operation if that made sense--basically, do whatever makes sense to win.

Now, we're eager to begin to push the development of new technologies that bring new people into politics. That's going to be an essential part of winning here. But in the short term, for 2014, the objective is to win. And if we can win in a dramatic way in at least five of these seats, then I think we set ourselves up for a much bigger impact in 2016.

HEDGES: And when you say win, that would be supporting candidates who promise, once they get to Congress, to institute public financing of campaigns?

LESSIG: Who have committed to cosponsor what we call fundamental reform. But all of the things we've pointed to are basically different versions of small-dollar public-funded campaigns. And it's critical, of course, to build the base in the Democratic Party. But even more importantly, we've got to find a way to get Republicans on this side of the fight, because this kind of reform is so fundamental that it cannot happen if it's partisan. If it's partisan, it will be certain to be defeated.

HEDGES: Right. Given that relatively small amount of money that you have compared with the kinds of super PACs that the Koch brothers and others can fund, don't you worry that--you know, I mean, the last election cycle was $2.5 billion--that in terms of the percentage of money spent, it's relatively insignificant?

LESSIG: Yeah. So in 2014 we're in five races. We hope to have about $2 million in each race. That's a pretty significant amount of money in those races.

HEDGES: Which races?

LESSIG: We haven't announced them yet. We have determined been finally yet. It'll be a function of where the numbers sit.

HEDGES: Are these Senate or House?

LESSIG: House.

HEDGES: House.

LESSIG: Mainly House. We're toying with the idea.

There are two very interesting Senate races. South Dakota: Larry Pressler, who was a Republican but now is running as an independent. And he's famous, of course, because he was the one member of Congress who blew the whistle on the Abscam scandal. And so he's a very interesting candidate to think about supporting.

And in New Hampshire there's a really wonderful Republican who openly embraces public funding, who's running against Scott Brown. And that might be another interesting race to get into at the Senate level.

But the main races we've been looking at are at the House level. And so that's a significant amount of money in a House race. And I think what we've seen, for example, in the Eric Cantor surprise is that if the message is right and it resonates with people in a way that I think this message does, it's not actually going to take a lot of money to begin to line up people on the right side of this issue.

HEDGES: How do you handle candidates like Barack Obama who did talk about public financing in 2008, along with many other issues, including closing Guantanamo and revisiting NAFTA, etc., etc., protecting--rolling back the egregious violations of civil liberties under Bush, and then, once he got into office, these turned out to be, you know, essentially lies, public relations gimmicks in order to win an election, but he had no intention, we know, because he immediately brought in Larry Summers and others? How do you deal with the fact that so often in an election cycle, because of the polling, because they take the pulse of the American public, because they're very good at feeding back to us what they know we want to hear, that as soon as they get into Congress they do the bidding of corporate lobbyists?

LESSIG: Yeah, maybe that's what would happen. But I don't see the alternative to electing people who have committed to a pretty simple task--I mean simple in the sense it's clear whether they do it or not. I'm not talking about people committing to voting for something. They are committing to cosponsoring something. So that's about sending a letter on the first day to the sponsor of the bill and say, please join me to your bill. And if we can build a majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate who've committed to this kind of reform, then I think we have a real shot of pushing it.

Now, obviously, five races in 2014 isn't going to create the political movement to do it. But we believe that if we can demonstrate why this issue is so salient and we can show how we've moved the dial in an election, then when we get to 2016, there'll be a lot of people, both small-dollar contributors and big-dollar contributors, who are interested in trying to support the effort to finally get this change through a Congress, 'cause I think what both sides are increasingly recognizing is that the way we fund elections can't help but corrupt their own side against what they want. I mean, you know, we on the left see that in a thousand contexts.

But what's interesting in particular, again, about the Eric Cantor fight is that the thing that was so powerful in what Brat was saying against Eric Cantor is that he'd become a crony capitalist, he'd given in to the crony capitalists. You know, I don't like Eric Cantor's politics, but the idea that Eric Cantor becomes a crony capitalist has got to be the clearest testimony to the fact that money is an impossible force to resist inside of the current system. And if both sides begin to say, look, we just can't get what we want so long as this is the lever of control inside the system, we might begin to build the kind of cross-partisan support this will take.

HEDGES: Let's look at the debate over the public option, because we had significant numbers in the House, I believe around 60: the Black Caucus supported it; we had Bernie Sanders support it; Dennis Kucinich, when he was in the House, was very outspoken in support of it. And yet through the Baucus hearings, they managed to utterly silence what would have been a rational discussion of health care by bringing up the public option. And the corporate state used very heavy-handed tactics to turn all of these people who had cosponsored this legislation, who had--I don't know if they got it out of committee, but who had supported a public option, so that even Bernie Sanders and, finally, Dennis Kucinich supported Obamacare and didn't fight for it. How do you envision confronting that monolith?

LESSIG: Yeah, I mean, the public option's a perfect example of the way in which the threat of money is enough to stop a party from pushing for something, 'cause they basically said, you know, we're going to defeat the Democratic majority if you don't give us relief on the public option.

I think the difference with that, though, and the issue that we're pushing here is that though it's perfectly clear that if we change the way you fund elections it would radically weaken the power of lobbyists and these type of interests inside of Washington, it's a hard thing to rally those interests against, right? You know, for example, think about the climate change debate, which--you know, I'm as committed to the idea of the need for climate change legislation as anybody. But I also believe there's actually two sides to the debate--not the science debate; there's not two sides to that debate. But if you go into a district, one side can stand up and say, yeah, yeah, I get the climate problem, but we have jobs, we need--there are people who need jobs, and you start doing this, you'll destroy the economy. And that creates two sides to the debate, whether there should be or not. That produces it. But on this issue it's hard to imagine what the other side of the debate says. Like, you know, it's important the Koch brothers or that Soros, George Soros, has this extraordinary influence in our political system? I mean, what do people say?

Now, we know that sometimes people think--something that turns out to be completely idiotic, but they think, you know, it's a good thing that the rich people have all this power, 'cause they're the smart people. You know, that's totally ridiculous in its way in which it plays out. But, anyway, they think that. But you can't say that. You can't run ads that sort of--that say that in any direct way. So I actually think there's--it's not that it's an impossible thing to fight, but it's a fight which is strongly on this side.

So, yeah, there's going to be an enormous battle necessary to ultimately win this, because when K Street recognizes that 40 percent of the value of K Street is going to disappear if this type of reform gets passed, they're going to fight it like hell, which is why we've got to find a way to build the biggest army possible of people saying, finally, let's get this done so we can get back to what ordinary politics is supposed to be--you get your gang and I get my gang and we figure out who gets the most votes.

HEDGES: Well, they'll fight it the way they always fight it, which is to lie, the swift-boat deal. I mean, they will mis---as they did with the public option: death panels, you can't choose your own doctor. And they have such a huge megaphone that they can create false perceptions. That's what they're quite skillful at.

LESSIG: Yeah, they will do all that. But it don't think we have the option to just sit back and say, okay, so therefore let's not try it. We've got to try it. We've got to step up and do whatever the hell we can, because the consequences of not fixing this problem are too great. There isn't a single problem you and I care or a single problem that people on the right care about that can be addressed sensibly so long as we have this system. So, you know, we might lose. You know, it might be likely that we're going to lose. But that's no excuse for not doing absolutely everything we can to [crosstalk]

HEDGES: How do you handle the courts, which have, especially at the Supreme Court, become wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate power?

LESSIG: Actually, the kinds of reform that we're pushing are totally fine, even with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has been, you know, activist in striking down reforms that try to silence people. And they had this ridiculous decision where a public funding statute basically put more money into a race if private money was being spent on the other side. And the court struck that down, which was, you know, just a ridiculous interpretation of the First Amendment. But even that court has consistently affirmed the idea that you can create, basically, public funding schemes. And this public funding scheme is the least problematic, because rather than, you know, the model of, for example, presidential public funding, where the government decides how much money people get to run their campaigns, this is give every voter the power to facilitate public funding by either matching their small dollar contributions or giving them a voucher they can use to support small-dollar candidates. Those are completely constitutional, even with this Supreme Court.

Now, they could make up a whole new, you know, theory, but I actually don't think that's what they would do. I think that as long as it were voluntary, at least in the way it was structured, they would uphold this.

HEDGES: And how would public financing look to you, of the campaigns?

LESSIG: So, in my ideal vision of public financing, you basically give every voter a voucher and you say candidates can take those vouchers if they agree to take only those vouchers plus maybe small contributions of up to $100. So, in my book I described a $50 voucher. You know, and $50 per voter is $7 billion, which is about three times the amount raised and spent in the last congressional election. So it's real money. But the critical thing is it's real money that's spread out across all the voters, because in my view the central problem to the current system is that we have outsourced the funding of campaigns to the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent. You know, it's basically 150,000 Americans who are the relevant funders of campaigns. It's the same number of people that are named Lester in United States. So the Lesters basically are the funders of campaigns. But funding the campaign is an essential step on the way to getting elected, right? So we've created this two-stage election where this tiny, tiny fraction determines the first stage, which then gets you to the second stage. So, you know, unlike--you know, very much like the white primary in the Old South, we've created a green primary in the new America. But the difference between the white primary is in the white primary, at least the majority got to vote. In the green primary, it's the tiniest, tiniest fraction of the one percent that get to vote.

So the only way to address that problem, in my view, is to find a way to spread out the funder influence so it's no longer the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent, it's the vast majority or, you know, maybe it's 20 percent or 40 percent that are the relevant funders of campaigns. And the way to do that is to facilitate this kind of funding that a wider range of Americans participate in.

HEDGES: And one would assume that eventually the goal is to abolish super PACs altogether.

LESSIG: Yeah. And by super PACs--you know, I mean that very precisely. I don't have any problem with independent political action committees, so long as contributions to them are limited, right? So, you know, if AARP or Planned Parenthood or the ACLU or the NRA wants to get their members to support an independent political action committee, that's democracy, in my view.

The corrupting dynamic that's been produced now, though, is that because they can take unlimited contributions, they've become the kind of laundering device for candidates who--for rich people, and also now corporations, who want to participate in the political process, because, you know, the thing that most of us--at least I certainly missed after Citizens United was that, you know, Citizens United just created the--or, according to the Court, affirmed the right of corporations and unions to spend whatever they want in political elections.

But, it turned out, corporations, like rich people after Buckley, were pretty shy. You know, there was a high cost to free speech, as Target found when it supported an anti-gay candidate for governor in Minnesota. So they don't want--they don't actually use the right to spend their own money. It was only after the D.C. circuit created the super PAC by saying that limits on independent political action committees also had to be abolished that they began to give their money to the independent political action committee, so that the independent political action committee becomes, the super PAC becomes the device that engages in political action. And because of the really outrageous transparency rules which the FEC has imposed here, corporations can now give their money to a C4, this nonprofit entity, and the C4 can give its money to the super PAC, and you have no idea who's actually giving the money to the super PACs.

So the dark money has risen dramatically in 2012. It'll be much higher in 2014. And that's because of the structure of the super PAC. So, yes, eliminate super PACs in the sense of [incompr.] can take unlimited contributions. But there's no problem with independent political action committees or any entity that can take small contributions as a way to facilitate democratic organization.

HEDGES: How much emphasis in terms of change, in terms of wresting back power from corporate hands, do you place or how much energy would you like people to place in campaigns like this and the electoral process? And how much energy should be placed in building mass movements that obstruct the mechanisms of corporate power, like Occupy Wall Street?

LESSIG: Yeah. So my view is, you know, we have to learn to walk, chew gum, and Tweet at the same time. All these things have to be happening together. And just like the civil rights movement wasn't just Dr. King and wasn't just the techniques of Gandhi, so too this movement is going to win only if it can attract a wide range of support.

Now, in my view, we will only pass fundamental reform through the political system if it can appeal, if it can be heard by the wide range of participants in the political system. If it's heard as something that denies the fundamental views of 40 percent of the American people, then it's guaranteed to lose, you know, because, just to be very practical about it, if it takes constitutional change to bring about some of these reforms--like, for example, it's possible--I don't actually think it will be necessary, but it's possible that to eliminate the super PAC will require constitutional amendments. You know, the Constitution says three-fourths of the states, 38 states, have to ratify any amendment.

HEDGES: Can you explain why that is? Because it wasn't--aren't the super PACs authorized through the judiciary?

LESSIG: Well, right, but if the Supreme Court upholds--you know, the Supreme Court didn't create super PACs. It was the D.C. circuit. But if the Supreme Court says eventually that, yes, limits on independent political action committees are unconstitutional, the only way to address that is to change the Constitution. So to amend the Constitution requires 38 states. We live in a country where there are 27 double-red states, states controlled by--both houses are controlled by the Republican Party. So I don't think there's any way to imagine an amendment to the Constitution that the Republican Party identifies as anti-Republican, right, which--if you, you know, make this a movement about how--you know, some of the more extreme versions of what the progressive movement wants to talk about, that's a sure way to guarantee it can't pass.

But if you can begin to talk about this the way it's developed in, for example, Montana, where after the Supreme Court of Montana tried to evade Citizens United and the Supreme Court of the United States slapped them down unceremoniously, without even allowing a hearing--they just sort of reversed the opinion of the Montana Supreme Court without any actual opportunity for it to be defended. In Montana there's developed a very powerful cross-partisan--both Republicans and Democrats--movement supporting this kind of reform. And Montana's legislature has passed a resolution, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, calling on Congress to pass an amendment to reverse Citizens United. So they've found a way to talk about it in Montana that doesn't alienate Republicans or Democrats. And I think that's--my view is I want to work on the strategy that tries to find a way to move this fundamental reform without guaranteeing its ultimate defection.

HEDGES: Does this discriminate against third parties? Because obviously you could have the Green Party supporting this in a three-way race, but you know from the polling that the chances of the Green Party taking a House or a Senate seat are almost nil. So what do you do? Do support two candidates? Do you support every candidate? How do you handle that?

LESSIG: Yes. Look, the American political system that forces people into these two parties is deeply problematic, and we've got to change that. And I think there are, like, you know, 15 things we've got to think about changing--the electoral college, the gerrymandering.

But in my view the question is: what is the change that we need to do first? What's the sequence of reform? So, yeah, we will participate in this unjust two-party system to make it possible for us to bring about a more just way of funding elections. And I think that brings us to a place where we can think about the other reforms that'll be really essential in order to get us to a democracy we can be proud of.

But certainly in 2014, you know, it's possible we would support Larry Pressler, who is an independent political, you know, candidate in South Dakota. That would be, you know, non-two-party system.

HEDGES: Would that--when you say "support", does that mean, then, in essence, running television advertisements on his behalf, basically?

LESSIG: Yeah, yeah, acting as an independent political action committee, coming in and showing why what he has done historically has been importantly tied to anticorruption work. He supports the idea of funding elections in a better way. I interviewed him for my book, and he had this wonderful line where he says, you know, the most striking thing about the Obamacare decision were the issues that were never even mentioned, the ideas that were never mentioned. He said, when I was in the Senate, even Republicans talked about the single-payer. Single-payer was an obvious solution to this problem. But notice how it was not even allowed to be talked about. And that's because, Larry Pressler said, the lobbyists had made it clear: if you even raise this as an issue, we will destroy you.

HEDGES: Right. And when it was talked about, it was mischaracterized in an effort to demonize it.

LESSIG: Yes, absolutely.

HEDGES: And given the weight of forces you're up against, if this has any traction, you can expect exactly the same.

LESSIG: Yes.

HEDGES: So any victory in 2014 is Pyrrhic, in the sense that you send (if you focus on five races) in people who are willing to cosponsor a bill, but of course the vast majority of elected officials in the House and the Senate are not, you know, and given that number, you know, it may never leave committee. I mean, that may be the best that you can hope for.

LESSIG: Well, the objective in 2014 is to convince people who right now think there's no way to win this issue that there actually is a way to win this issue. You know, think about it as a kind of business model. We've got investors out there, investors who would be willing to invest in bringing about a better democracy. Right now they say there's no way to achieve that. But if we in 2014 can show, look, we spent this money, we moved the dial--you know, we do polling before and after--we moved the dial this way in the way people talked about it. We actually won in these particular races. Take that same analysis and now extend it to the 50 or 60 different races you'd have to imagine being in in order to get a Congress that would bring about fundamental reform. Now you've given them something; they can begin to say, okay, I think there's a reason to invest in this as a strategy for bringing about fundamental reform.

Now, of course, people inside of Washington will not, you know, necessarily believe it's going to be possible, and the pundits will tell you it can't be done, but, you know, how many of them predicted Eric Cantor was going to go down? I don't care, really, what the insiders think about the way in which this can happen. What I care [about] is getting real data that shows that it can happen, and then recruiting the kind of resources necessary to make it possible.

HEDGES: What about the press? I mean, as you have begun this campaign, we have a press that is controlled by roughly a half-dozen corporations--Viacom. I mean, how have you found trying to get your message out through commercial media?

LESSIG: You know, in some sense the problem with American politics is mirrored with the problem of the American press, in the sense that the business model of polarization is profitable for both politics and the press. And what that means is if you're trying to move an idea which in its core should not be polarized, it's not attractive to anybody, right?

So, you know, the particular remedies that I'm talking about--changing the way we fund elections--are not necessarily ones that the press would be upset about. You know, if you were talking about cutting the cost of political campaigns in half, limiting expenditures to 50 percent of their last year's amount, then the press would be very upset, 'cause they make so much money off of political campaigns and the ads that are spent--that are bought in political campaigns. But if you're talking about just funding it differently, what do they care? They get their money either way. So there's no economic reason why they should be against this. What there will be is a desire, a strong desire to polarize it one way or the other. I mean, both sides--neither side really cares which way it's polarized. It's just polarized, and then they get to play the opposite. And so the hardest problem for us is to figure out how to move this in a way that resists that.

But, again, I don't see the press as a leading indicator of where American politics is going. It's very reactive. And, you know, it's one of the striking features of American politics today that when you sit down with strategists and you talk about an idea like this and you say, where do we have to be in order to win, they don't say, you've got to be on ABC News, they don't say you need to be on CNN or on Fox or on MSNBC. They say you've got to get onto Comedy Central, you've got to be on Comedy Central if you want an idea like this to have a chance at winning. Now, what does it say about America that the place you've got to be to bring about a fundamental change in the political system is Comedy Central?

HEDGES: What's Hillary Clinton's position on campaign finance? Do you know?

LESSIG: Well, I knew where she was in 2008, you know, because Obama clearly saw this was the way to hit her. Both he and Edwards took up this issue of fundamental reform as a way to attack her. And, you know, in 2008, she was, you know, deeply impatient with this whole argument. And, you know, she had this gaff where at the yearly of the Yearly Kos conference--which wasn't called that then, but whatever it was called, it was that conference--she made that comment about how, you know, lobbyists are people too and they represent ordinary people too, and it was kind of the laughingstock which then fueled Obama in his attack on her.

But I think, you know, the mature view of what Clinton was saying might ultimately be correct--I hope it isn't, but might ultimately be correct, which was, look, there's no way a president can take this issue up, because this issue is an issue about attacking Congress. And if you as a president make it your campaign to attack Congress, you basically guarantee you get nothing through Congress. And if you get nothing through Congress, then the business model of the American presidency, which is to run, get reelected, and then become a kind of, you know, nobility for the rest of your life, will fail. You will not get reelected. So no president could rationally make this the object of his or her administration, and therefore I won't either.

Now, Obama, you know, I mean, sounded to me--you know, and he was a friend. I knew him at Chicago. We were on the faculty together. I really believed it--stupidly, perhaps, but I really believed it. It sounded to me like he was going to take this issue up. But it's pretty clear once Hillary Clinton was no longer a rival it disappeared from his rhetoric in the campaign, and he literally did not one thing to bring about--even propose a change that would affect this problem in any fundamental way. And he went back on the promise (to reinforce your point about what politicians will do) to introduce changes to public funding for the presidential election.

You know, we forget this really important fact that until Obama, every president after Nixon got elected with public funding. Indeed, the person who benefited the most from public funding was Ronald Reagan, who would never have been President Reagan but for public funding. He would never had had a chance to run in 1976 had there not been a way for him to get money for his elections, because the Republican Party was not about to give money to this, quote, right-winger named Ronald Reagan. But because of public funding, he was a viable candidate in '76. He became the winning candidate in 1980. And in 1984, he attended four--well, it depends how you count. Let's be conservative. He attended eight fundraisers. Barack Obama in his reelection campaign attended 229 fundraisers. Right?

So the radical difference that Barack Obama brought about by basically giving up public funding and therefore saying that it's never going to be a part--is to completely change the way in which a presidential candidate goes about doing the job of getting elected for the presidency. And, you know, I would have thought a moral obligation, at least, after he did that would have been to come forward with an alternative to the presidential funding system that at least got us back to where we were before 2008. But he didn't even do that. And so, you know, this is the great challenge we have in the context of thinking about the presidency.

HEDGES: I mean, don't you worry that given the cynicism of figures like Obama, you're very easily bled dry? They can do what the Clintons have done, what Obama has done in two election cycles, which is, you know, especially in 2008, make the kinds of promises and commitments that he knows most Americans want. And in a way, he's not--there's no way to hold a politician like that accountable. I mean, for you to raise one or two million dollars is, you know, Herculean. I mean, it's amazing and it's fantastic. But it's nothing to these figures.

LESSIG: Well, if our super PAC works, we will have raised $12 million in 2014. And we're going to raise--you know, the numbers [incompr.] our calculations are anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion that it'll take to win in 2016. So those are not insignificant numbers.

But you're right. I mean, the fundamental problem we have is that the political system for the presidency is--again, in the mature view of what Clinton was doing--is against this kind of reform, which is why, you know, in my book I sort of mapped out a different way to think about a candidate for the presidency. You know, so I said, imagine a kind of regent president or a kind of president, as in bankruptcy judge president, who runs and says, look, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to get elected. I'm going to hold Congress hostage until they pass this reform. And once they pass this reform, I'm going to resign, and my vice president will become president. It could take a day, it could take a week. Could it take two years? I don't know how long it'll take, but this is the one thing I'm going to do. And you know that if I'm elected, I'm going to do it, because, you know, I would be a complete failure if I then said, no, no, no, that's not what I'm going to do; I'm going to do these other things. So it's credible. And it's also irresistible from Congress's standpoint, because if a person were elected who said that, then the people have spoken. You know, the thing Obama could say is that, yeah, some people thought I was for campaign finance, some thought I was for climate change, some thought I was for labor rights. You know, everybody thought that they knew who Obama was. But he was everybody. But here, here it is, I'm just this--so that it becomes the kind of transformative presidency that is self-limiting, because it's like, this is all I'm going to do. And the candidate then could fight the war in a way that no normal-presidency president could, because he's not caring about reelection, he's not caring about keeping the Democratic Party or the Republican Party happy; all he or she is concerned about is doing the thing that brings about the kind of reform.

Now, you know, if you think about the way that strategy plays out, imagine somebody took the lead doing that on one side of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Quickly, if this became popular, it would have to be matched on the other side. You know, so if the Democrat took the lead and said, this is how I'm going to run, but then Republicans are like, oh my God, we need a reform candidate too, so then quickly the election would become about the vice presidential candidates. Yeah, I'm going to have, you know, so-and-so as my vice presidential candidate. And then you'd be thinking about, well, what's the long-term going to look like and what's the short term going to be? And plausibly, if it gets enough support, they just want to get this done as quickly as they possibly can. So first day in office, there it is, the bill you sign. You don't even move into the White House.

Now, this is the kind of strategy, I think, that, you know, begins to break the paralysis of the current way in which normal presidencies work. But, of course, it requires a certain kind of figure, a certain kind of candidate to be able to credibly take this on.

HEDGES: I mean, the question really is: where does power lie? Does power lie with the president? Does power lying with an elected member of Congress? Ultimately do they have political power? Or is it, you know, Exxon Mobil and Raytheon and Goldman Sachs? And where does power lie? I mean, the Occupy movement would argue that power is not in Washington, power's on Wall Street.

LESSIG: Yeah. And the question is: how does Wall Street exercise that power? So one of the most dramatic pictures of the way it exercises its power is if you just a map the breakdown of Wall Street contributions to Democrats and Republicans. So in 2006 it's roughly equal. In 2008 it's slightly more for Republicans. Two thousand ten, it's a little bit more for Republicans. Two thousand twelve, it's overwhelmingly for Republicans. So after 2012, Democrats start talking about the deregulating derivatives. Like, it's, like, like Wall Street bait to bring Wall Street back, because the party realizes it cannot survive if Wall Street is against it. And that's because Wall Street, or, you know, finance, insurance, and real estate, is the largest bloc of contributions to campaigns in Congress. So the mechanism of power is through the funding of campaigns.

Okay. Well, you know, I still think there are end runs around that. So, again, if you had this kind of president who runs a campaign about reform and elects a bunch of people with him or her also focused on reform, then that person doesn't depend on Wall Street. You know, that person's independent of Wall Street. And if you have a Congress that's been kind of, you know, elected in the context of this type of campaign, it's going to be kind of hard for them to back down from it, or at least many of them to back down from it, because there's this expectation that's been created. Here's the person we elected. This is what the election was about. You'd better do it, or two years later, when he or she is still in the white House waiting for that bill the town, there's going to be a pretty bloody midterm election about this type of--.

HEDGES: But do you envision this coming through the two-party system or outside of it?

LESSIG: Unfortunately, the way our party system is structured, I think this has to be through the two-party system. Now, you know, it's got to be a kind of independent person through the two parties, not a kind of, you know, ordinary politician wannabe who works his or her way up through the system, but somebody who's credible outside the system. And so, you know, people are talking about how that candidate gets developed and who that could be. But that might be, you know, at the--when I did the second version of my book, in the afterword I basically said this might be the only way to imagine the presidency playing a central role.

HEDGES: But then you'd have to change the internal rules of the parties themselves,--

LESSIG: Right.

HEDGES: --because after the McGovern election, where they, essentially the grassroots, won, the Democratic leadership rewrote the rules to make sure that would never happen again. And you saw--let's go back to the 2008 primaries where you had Dennis Kucinich physically not allowed into the debates, which were sponsored by corporations. The first debate was sponsored by pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

LESSIG: Right. And dramatically you saw that, I think, in the Republican primary. You know, in the Republican primary of 2012, there was arguably the most qualified candidate, Buddy Roemer, who was a governor and a four-term congressman and a person who had started a bank and made a successful community bank in Louisiana. Was not permitted to be in any debate. And why? Well, because he had tied himself to a pledge that he would take no more than $100 from anybody. He'd take no PAC money. A hundred dollars from anybody. And they said, well, you can't win, buddy. And he said, well, look, you know, I can't win if you don't let me in the debates. So they said, okay, you've got to get 1 percent national recognition. So when he got that, then they said 5 percent national recognition. When he got that, then they said, you have to have raised $500,000 in the prior six weeks. And he said, my whole campaign is about the money. You can't force me to give out the central part of this premise of my campaign to be allowed in the debates. This is just the way it is.

HEDGES: And they did the same thing to Kucinich. Remember, you had to be in the top--by the time New Hampshire rolled around, he, under their imposed rules, he had qualified, and they just--I can remember why--they didn't let him in the debate hall. He literally was standing outside in the snow. So, I mean, working within those two-party systems requires confronting those structures even to get heard.

LESSIG: Yeah, that's right, although, you know, I think that there's a way in which you are prominent enough that you can't be excluded. You know, Ross Perot couldn't be excluded in the '92, right, just couldn't be excluded. There was a debate that had all three. And I think, you know, Dennis Kucinich, is much as one loves him for what he stands for, did the chief the national support necessary to make it impossible to exclude him from the debate. So it's--.

HEDGES: Well, am I not correct in saying that after the Ross Perot phenomenon, the Republican Party changed the rules so there would never be another Ross Perot? I think that's right.

LESSIG: They changed the rules, and they certainly changed the rules in the debate. But we've not yet had a case where you've got somebody who's developed enough of an independent political--you know, 10 or 15 percent or 20 percent support who's been excluded in the context of the debate. The debate rules explicitly say, if you achieve this little level at a certain point, then you will be included in the debate. So no doubt the bar is much higher. And so you've got to aim for that bar. Now, whether they continue to move the bar higher and higher--.

HEDGES: Well, that's what they did. That's what they do, did they?

Well, we'll see. I mean, that's the question.

I mean, they just rewrite rewrote the rules every week. The whole goal was to keep those voices out. And we can go back to Nader. I mean, the person or the party that destroyed Ralph Nader was the Democratic Party.

LESSIG: Absolutely.

HEDGES: They were terrified. He held a rally in Madison Square Garden. He didn't have the money to rent the hall. He said, everyone has to pay $five and he filled it. And at that point the Democrats set out and did destroy him. So it's not just the structure of campaign finance, it's not just a corrupt political system, but it is essentially parties that have atrophied in the sense that they have locked out any kind of genuine grassroots candidates, anybody who--nobody rises from the base.

LESSIG: No, that's right. Through the party.

HEDGES: They are anointed by the moneyed and political elite, which is how we have been reduced to this monstrosity of, you know, a few ruling families. We may very well have election between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. It's like the end of Rome.

And so I guess, you know, the question is: how far gone is the system? And I think you probably believe that it isn't--that it's still transformable internally.

LESSIG: I don't have to believe that to believe that this is what I should do. I could believe that it's not transformable. But in the face of it being non-transformable, you still have to act openly and honestly to transform it. And if there are enough people beaten down doing exactly that, that's the conditions for making it so the structure that makes it the way it is weakens. Now, so maybe not this generation or the next, but what else to do, right?

HEDGES: But what about the German political system, where you have a party that kind of militantly represents labor? It never polls more than 5 percent, as far as I know. But it is a factor that has to be taken into consideration. Of course, it's a parliamentary system, but it is a factor that has to be--. It doesn't sound from what you're saying that this money is going to go to third-party candidates. It is going to be funneled into the traditional parties. And third-party candidates--you know, I mean, Nader would certainly argue that that is the only way to build pressure, especially on the Democratic Party, is to separate from the party and build independent political movements.

LESSIG: Yeah, and I would agree with that after we find a way to neutralize the money. I mean, the difference between Germany and the United States, you pointed to it: it is that's a proportional parliamentary system. So having 5 percent is to have a lot, because then that's the difference between winning and losing for the majority parties. But in the United States having 5 percent is nothing, because we've allowed this two-party system to lock us down into this constant battle between parties which on most important issues, the money issues, there's no difference between them.

I mean, and this is what's so interesting about the polarization debate: America's not polarized; it's inconsistently polarized. So the parties--there's one party on money. You know, think of Clinton's race to deregulate Wall Street. But then the social issues, they're radically opposed to each other. But that's a nice strategy for flushing money out of the base, because you scare them because they're pro abortion or pro gay rights, while at the same time sitting down with the Wall Street bankers and saying basically the same thing.

HEDGES: Well, it's both parties have adopted a fear-based ideology, and they whip up the fear--you know, homosexuals will be teaching your children in kindergartens kind of stuff. And yet you're right, they're all feeding from the same trough. And, you know, at that point, to use Sheldon Wolin's term, we've walked away from anything that can honestly be called a democracy. At that point we live in what he calls inverted totalitarianism, we live in a corporate totalitarian system. And the way that you effect reform and change within a totalitarian structure is very different from the way you effect change within a liberal capitalist democracy.

LESSIG: Maybe. But I think the historical difference here is the enormous capacity for violence, organized violence. You know, it's one thing to resist in a direct, powerful way in a world where there are muskets and redcoats, but you saw firsthand in the Occupy movement what happens when it's spun around so that they could invoke the right to deploy, literally, jackbooted troops in to suppress the uprisings and to restore peace. You know, it's in--my view is it's a scary time. And it might be that historically you look back and you say, yeah, what happened is people organized and they, you know, rose up and overthrew the government. I'm not sure we have the technical capacity to rise up against that amount of force, you know, legitimized force right now.

HEDGES: But I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the only way you do it, as you saw with--we're now at the 20th anniversary of Tienanmen Square. When Beijing sent in troops, beep people surrounded the convoys for four days, brought them food and water, invited them into their homes, and paralyzed that military structure. This is what happened in Czechoslovakia. It's what happened and East Germany. And when the--.

LESSIG: Yeah, but remember--let's stop with Tienanmen Square, because I was in China literally--my plane was supposed to land on June 3, and I was diverted and I came in two weeks later. Within two weeks it was almost impossible to find anybody in China would say anything good about the youth movement that had--. So, yeah, there's a guy standing in front of a tank in an effort to sort of slow them down, but they won, right? And they won largely because of this overwhelming force that they could deploy. And people realize they have this force.

Now, Eastern Europe is different story, right, because Eastern Europe was filled with these Potemkin village-like forces. And once people saw this all collapsing, it was easy to imagine escaping it. And people did. You know, the reality of United States right now is not weakness in the security dimension. This is the one thing we do well. Like, we have guns and tanks and bazookas and drones. We've got everything they need. And if we ever get this fight framed in a we've got to keep the peace dimension, yeah, it's not just that we lose. We die.

HEDGES: Well, that's why it has to remain nonviolent.

LESSIG: Nonviolent, yeah.

HEDGES: But, I mean, I covered the STASI state, which was the most sophisticated security and surveillance state until ours. And they brought it down with Erich Honecker tried to send down an elite paratroop division to Leipzig to fire of the demonstrators and they refused. Honecker last another weekend. And I think revolutions, despite the mythology, are usually nonviolent and that what broke the czar was the Cossacks going to Petrograd, refusing to fire on--indeed, fraternizing with the crowd, and the czar abdicates.

LESSIG: Yeah, but my point is not whether they are nonviolent or not. My point is whether they can be framed as violent when they are not.

HEDGES: Well, that's what they always seek to do.

LESSIG: They always seek to do, right. And--right. So I want to structure this in a way that makes it almost impossible to characterize it. So I want to do it in the old, you know, high school civics like way. Like, we're talking about organizing people to vote and we're talking about turning out to force candidates to answer questions and we're talking about--. Now, that might not work. You know, it might need another strategy, might be out there. But I want to try all these strategies and I'm going to play the side that you cannot begin to say that I'm a revolutionary, right? I'm not. I'm ordinary, working within the system to bring the system.

HEDGES: I guess that's the distance difference between the two of us.

LESSIG: Yeah, that's exactly right. That's why we need both. We need both of these.

HEDGES: And, you know, it doesn't really matter at this point if--you know, sitting around wondering whether it's going to work or not work, because if you don't do anything, you know it isn't going to work.

LESSIG: Right.

HEDGES: So everything should--you know, pressure from every point should be pushed, with a clear understanding of what we're up against. How would you handle a candidate--. Let's take the candidate to beat Cantor in the primary. So he did rail against Wall Street, but it is a kind of, you know, proto-fascist Tea Party populism, and it's frightening. And you can see it within Ron Paul, where on issues of civil liberties and empire he's really good; there are very problematic questions about issues of race, you know, the welfare state. What happens when you get these far-right-wing populists who on this issue are good?

LESSIG: Well, I think what happens is we ideally bring them together with progressives who want to change the system to. We change the system. And then we go into a fight about what our democracy stands for.

You know, what's interesting in Arizona, which is one of the, you know, three publicly funded elections states at the state level, is that many of the mainstream Republicans in Arizona now hate public funding, 'cause they say, look what public funding did in Arizona. You got all these crazy right-wingers who took over politics in Arizona. And my response is, well, you know, that's Arizona. That's the people.

But I don't actually think the people in the nation, you know, poll to that extreme. I mean, there are people at that extreme. Fine. But that's what democracy is about. It's about saying, okay, we've got people at this extreme and people at that extreme. They've got to find a way to build a coalition to govern that's not going to be at those extremes.

So, you know, I read what Brat said. What I was impressed about with Brat is that number two on his list of issues was, quote, crony capitalism and the way in which these people have sold out to the moneyed interests. Fine, I take that. I want that. That's exactly the kind of rhetoric I want. And then I'm going to say, we're going to bracket the immigration stuff. We're not going to have that conversation. I'm not having that conversation with you. I'm going to have the conversation with you where we can find a common ground to bring about a change so that we're not fighting the money interest.

You know, people--you know, people, especially some progressives--you know, and I talk about creating vouchers so that people can put their money together. They say, oh my gosh, we're going to have the people doing all sorts of crazy special interest legislation to benefit the people. And I'm like, you know, that's a tiny problem, in my view, compared to the special interests that we're getting on behalf of the funders of campaigns right now. So I don't support the idea of elite governing America. I support--I'm a populist in this sense; I support the idea of the people, recognizing I'm not going to agree with what the people do on a whole bunch of cases. But I don't know the alternative that I in the long-term would turn to other than that.

HEDGES: That's great. Thank you very much.

LESSIG: Thank you.

 

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges' most recent book is "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt."