Interview with Lawrence Lessig

August 04, 2011

The following interview appeared in the Summer 2011 version of Flash, MapLight's behind-the-scenes newsletter. To receive a copy of Flash, published three times a year, send us an email with your address.

What makes MapLight’s work important?
The institution of Congress has become corrupted, not in a traditional sense of bribery, but in the sense that the members are focused on what funders want and not on what the people want. That corruption weakens Congress’ ability to address a wide range of issues that are important to both people on the left and the right. To show people that, the critical first step is to produce data in a compelling way that makes it easier for people to see exactly how money influences results. That’s why I’m so happy to be a strong supporter of what MapLight is doing, because we’re presenting this data in a way that makes it almost inescapable that there’s a problem and we need to do something about it.


When Dan first approached you about becoming involved with MapLight, you said that MapLight was one of the things that encouraged you to get started in your work to end political corruption. Could you say more about that?
The challenge that I recognized when I first started thinking about this was how we could make this message understandable. I was extremely encouraged by the creative and effective way that MapLight was doing that. If we could begin to make this understandable, as MapLight was doing, then maybe we could have a chance of succeeding, and so that was certainly part of what brought me in.


How have your impressions of the organization evolved over time?
It has grown and become better at showing connections between money and political results. It’s such a very, very difficult job to figure out how to connect these two things, so it’s not – and wasn’t – obvious to anybody. But MapLight’s success in doing that is what really convinces me that there’s a reason to support the organization and also a reason to push others to pay more attention to this issue. I think it’s developed in a way that makes us increasingly compelling to a wide range of activists, again I think both on the left and the right.


In this time of so many urgent issues, what makes MapLight and the problem that it focuses on stand out?
It’s not so much that this is the most important issue, it’s just the first issue. An alcoholic could be losing his liver and his job and his spouse – those are certainly the most important issues he might be facing. What we all recognize is that until he solves his alcoholism, he’s not going to address any of those other issues effectively.

It’s the same thing with money and politics. Given the problems the world faces, from global warming to the United States’ lack of really effective health care to banks run wild and all sorts of financial and economic issues, it would be hard to think of any issue that’s more important than those. But we’re just not going to make any progress in addressing those issues until we address this fundamental issue of money and politics first.


What turned you onto money and politics as an issue?
I’d been working in the area of internet and technology policy – in particular, copyright policy – for more than a decade. What slowly hit me (it’s not a profound insight, it’s pretty obvious when you see it) was that we weren’t going to make any progress until we dealt with this money and politics issue. I was seeing all sorts of progress among ordinary people and teachers and parents, and certainly the technology community, understanding the importance of a more sophisticated, updated copyright system, but no progress among policymakers.

And why was that? It was the obvious reason that it didn’t pay to think about reform from the standpoint of policymakers who are looking for political contributions. Until we could actually make it that the issue was considered on its merits and not on the basis of how much money it might raise in campaigns, it was clear that we weren’t going to make progress there.


What’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in the realm of money and politics right now?
To be quite frank, I think the most exciting thing on the horizon is the Republican primary – because I am more and more convinced that when you see a field of seven or eight credible Republican candidates, one of them is going to recognize that a solid 70 to 80 percent of the Republican base is fundamentally disgusted with the way money corrupts politics and wants a better system, a different system. For many of the reasons that only Nixon can go to China, it might be that only a Republican can bring us to the promised land of a politics where money isn’t controlling the results.

If the primary opened up the opportunity for someone on the right to begin to talk about these issues the way people on the left, like Dick Durbin and Chellie Pingree, have been talking about it for a long time, then we begin to create the political space to actually address the issue effectively. So that excites me.


What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of this issue?
I think it’s hard to get people to look past impossible. I think most people think getting this kind of change is impossible, so they don’t even want to think about it, they don’t want to talk about, and they kind of pretend that we can go on without talking about it. Getting people to see that it’s both feasible and necessary to address the problem of money and politics is the hardest thing to do.


What else needs to happen in order to realize substantive change in the role that money plays in our political system?
I think once we see it’s necessary, we’ve got to have leaders who try to bring it about. We haven’t seen bipartisan leadership on that yet. I think that’s going to be the essential step: bipartisan leadership to the end of trying to solve this problem of money and politics.


What can be done to facilitate these necessary steps?
That’s your [MapLight’s] job. Finding ever more effective ways to make the truth clear is the first step, and deploying those effective tools in a religiously bipartisan way is the second step. Every cycle it’s got to be, on the one hand, here’s how something on the left gets blocked and, on the other hand, here’s how something on the right gets blocked, and they both got blocked for the same reason. Getting people to connect those reasons is the essential step of understanding that we need here.


What other issues do you see as being closely related to money and politics?
I think of campaign finance reform as one example of why people are disenchanted with government. People are cynical about our government, and that leads them to disengage. There are other things we could do to encourage participation: dealing with gerrymandering issues, with voter confidence issues (that votes are counted in the right way), and also with issues dealing with things that make it so that democracy works in the sense of “when you win, you win” – ending the games that the minority party plays on both sides when they get control in the Senate.

But I don’t like to talk about these other issues because I think nothing makes sense until we solve this issue. So rather than distracting people with things that won’t work, I think we need to focus people on the critical thing that we need to work.


What would you want other people to know about MapLight and your experiences with the organization?
How diverse both supporters of MapLight are and the political context in which MapLight is working is – state level as well as federal level.


Why should other people get involved with MapLight?
The critical thing is pushing toward a solution to this problem of corruption in our democracy. Getting involved with MapLight is one very effective way to solve that.

Lawrence Lessig, a MapLight board member, is director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a professor of law at Harvard Law School.