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A Letter to FixCongressFirst.org: Where we are, where we are going:

By       Message Lawrence Lessig       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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On Thursday, the House Committee on Administration passed the Fair Elections Now Act -- the bill that we, along with many others, have been pushing for the past two years. With a bit of luck, and a lot more pressure, the managers of the bill believe it could have the votes to pass the House as well. If they're right, and if the Speaker allows the bill to come to the floor, then for the first time in a generation, the House will have ratified fundamental and effective campaign finance reform.

This optimism will surprise many of you. As I've travelled to talk about this issue, the overwhelming attitude of people who want better from our government is that our government is incapable of giving us better. The House ratifying Fair Elections would be the first, and best evidence, this skepticism might be wrong. It would also be a testament to the extraordinary work of organizations like Public Campaign and Common Cause (especially the campaign director, David Donnelly), as well as many others, including MoveOn, the Coffee Party, You Street (as in "not K Street") and many of you. This victory would give American voters an idea worth fighting for. It would be a critical victory, at least if we can gather the final few votes needed in the House. (You can help in that by using our Whip Tool).

But we should recognize that this victory would also be just a first step. I don't believe the Senate will pass this bill this session, which means the fight must begin again in January. So as we've been at this now for almost two years, I wanted to give you a sense of where we are and where we're going. I also want to begin to share with you my own sense of how to get there.

This isn't a short letter. But I hope you'll take the time to read it. (Here's a PDF if you want to print it). We all need to understand the kind of fight this will be. And after many sleepless nights thinking it through, I believe I have a sense of what victory will require.

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Reform Movements, Past

The fight to win in the House has been a traditional legislative battle waged effectively and well. I joined this fight late, and I've been happy to help how ever I can. But the kudos here goes to those I've already mentioned. Fingers crossed, they will have done what the experts thought was impossible.

But as I've said many times before, we cannot rely upon this inside the beltway fight alone. The change that the Fair Elections Now Act would effect would change Washington fundamentally. There are too many inside DC who depend upon the system as it is -- for their own wealth, and future. They are not about to permit this fundamental change, and they have not yet even begun the fight against it.

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Instead, the battle to pass this reform will require something that none of us have seen in our lifetime -- a broad based, cross-partisan, citizens movement that demands fundamental change in how our government works.

This movement must take aim at the core corruption that is our government. Not the corruption of bribery, or improper (as in illegal) influence. Instead, it must attack the in-plain-sight corruption of the current system of campaign finance. Our Congress has become dependent upon their funders. Their attention is devoted to their funders. And like a 5-year-old watching his dad on his BlackBerry, we get that we're no longer the most important souls in their lives. In a very precise sense of the term, this Congress has been corrupted by this competing dependency. We must change this.

The last best example of this sort of change is a movement that is as misunderstood as any in American history -- the Progressive Movement. Most of us today think the "progressives" were liberals. No doubt many were. But as I described in a piece for the Huffington Post, Progressivism was actually a multiparty movement. It was a Republican, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, who took up the Progressive cause for the Right, by challenging a sitting Republican President, William Howard Taft. La Follette lost, but he inspired Republican Teddy Roosevelt to return from the wilderness to wage a third-party campaign against Taft. In that election of 1912, America had an extraordinarily broad range of ideologies to choose among: Eugene Debs ran as a Socialist, Taft ran as a "standpat" Republican, and two Progressives ran between these two extremes: TR, a former Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a new kind of Democrat. Almost 70% of Americans voted for these two leading Progressives, with Wilson -- the more conservative, small government, pro-liberty Progressive -- beating Roosevelt by almost 15 points.

Of course, the Liberal Progressives of 1912 wanted different things of government from the Conservative Progressives. But despite these differences, they shared a common recogniti all Progressives believed that government had become corrupted. That with its appointed Senate, and enormously powerful corporate funding of elections, our democracy, they all believed, was no longer a democracy. The government had become dependent not, as Federalist No. 52 puts it, "upon the People alone." Instead, it was the People who were left alone, as the government did what ever it could to curry favor with the richest and most powerful in society.

Progressives of all stripes wanted to restore that democracy -- again, not because they all agreed upon a single platform for government action, but because they all believed that the platform of democracy had to be restored if we were to be true to the best ideals of the founders.

Cross-partisanship was thus the first feature of that Progressive Movement. Headlessness was a second. Though there were many important Progressive leaders, the Progressives had no single leader. Every Progressive group did their own work in their own field. None tried (for long at least) to claim the authority of the movement as a whole. Everyone recognized a common need to reform a corrupted government, and worked with astonishing public commitment to achieve that reform in addition to the particular policy objectives that their wing of the movement wanted to push.

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Finally, there was one more critical element to the movement's success: citizens. This was not ultimately a movement controlled by politicians. Of course, we remember the movement for its politicians. TR, and Wilson, and perhaps now that I've mentioned him, La Follette. But politicians were not the lifeblood of that movement. Citizens were. There were thousands of leaders in hundreds of fields, from women's suffrage to the temperance movement, to labor reform, to judicial and electoral accountability. These citizens were the giants. Yet the overwhelming majority of these people never dreamed of running for office. They had been awoken from a slumber by the repeated and grotesque excesses of a corrupted government. And they worked hard to end that corruption, not to become famous senators, or president. But so that they could go back to their private life, and do the private things they wanted to do.

It was this cross-partisan, headless, citizens movement of passion that changed the American government at the turn of the last century. Not in perfect ways. In some cases, not even in smart ways. But the point to remember is that this change happened in the only way real change ever does: From the many, putting aside key differences, to focus the swarm upon the key problem in government: corruption.

Reform Movements, Today

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Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, Co-founder of Change Congress

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