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Only A Populist Anti-Corruption Movement Can Repair American Democracy, Says Larry Lessig

AlterNet Radio speaks with the influential legal scholar.

(Editor’s note: What follows is a Q&A with Larry Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who is one of the country’s leading public intellectuals on what needs to happen to repair American democracy for the 21 st century. Lessig believes that the impact of private money in politics has created a culture of legal political corruption that is destroying American democracy. He has called for a convening constitutional convention to adopt reforms that he believes Congress would not propose on its own unless tremendous grassroots pressure emerges. AlterNet interviewed Lessig at the 28 th Amendment conference in Los Angeles in November.)  

Steven Rosenfeld: We've been at the 28th Amendment conference all day where we’ve heard about all kinds of ideas for reforming our democracy starting with the campaign finance system, going towards constitutional amendments, constitutional conventions, things that could happen with the regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C. Professor Lessig, what progress do you see when you hear with everybody talking now? Stepping back, how do you think this movement is changing or where is it in its development?

Larry Lessig: We’re at the very beginning. And at the beginning people are fumbling to understand both where they should be standing and in which direction they should be walking. I think the movement should celebrate enormous success so far in inspiring a movement around Citizens United that has produced millions of people who think of this as a fundamental problem that has to be addressed. This corruption and the movement to get states to pass resolutions calling on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment I think is a fantastic, important measure of its success. I think that we’ve got to now think what’s the next step, what’s the next move we can make that makes it easier for us to achieve cross-partisan support but also create the pressure on Congress that will be necessary for it to actually be forced to do something.

SR: That was my next question because you did talk about a cross-partisan approach. What do you mean by that—so people understand that this just can’t be an idea adopted by 10 percent or 15 percent of any part of the political spectrum.

LL: Yes, by cross partisan I mean a movement that cuts across partisan lines. I don’t imagine a movement that is going to get the lamb and the lion to sit down together, and you pick which is the lamb and which is the lion, but I think it has to be a movement that says, ‘Look, we need to be able to put aside our difference long enough to focus on this common problem we have.’  Then once we fix this common problem, we can get back to the fights that we have about what the tax rates should be or how much support there should be for business and so forth.

The cross-partisanship is essential because this change is fundamental, and no change happens in our system that’s fundamental without cross-partisan support. We just don’t have the capacity to do it. It’s not a parliamentary democracy where 50 percent plus one gives you unlimited power to change the government. You need three-fourths of the states to back up any constitutional amendment. We have to speak about this in a way—we have to be disciplined to speak about this in a way that the other side can hear.

SR: I want to ask you about what we should be doing to be disciplined, but first how do you come to the conclusion that we should not necessarily look at a specific amendment right now but rather call for a Constitutional Convention.  What is the benefit of that approach?