Does Democracy Work?

Interview with Lawrence Lessig

I felt that it was a great honor to have Lawrence Lessig on SKYPE. He is really one of my personal ”Internt heroes“ – ne of these guys who really understood the idea of the Web. I hope he will have the same success with Change Congress like he had with Creative Commons.

we-mag: What is your understanding of WE and how has it changed since the rise of the internet?

Lawrence Lessig: I think that what we have seen is an actual, tangible manifestation of WE because we can now enable a much more diverse range of groups to create, share and celebrate their creativity or activism than was previously possible. So this has become – the WE has become – the key focus of what’s interesting in the new technology – also from an academic perspective as in the work of people like Yochai Benkler and also from a political perspective as in the Obama campaign which has shown the enormous potential of this newly enabled group of activists.

we-mag: What kind of influence has it had on your life so far?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think that seeing the potential for this collective – for this new collective power – has made it seem reasonable to think about lever-aging it to achieve the type of change that a decade ago it would have seemed crazy to aspire for. So we launched the transformation of practical copyright policy to create a common aspiration as leverage for a lot of this kind of activity. Congress is similarly focused on the potential for building an enormous movement of activists around the idea of fundamental reform of government, but once again, in a pre-internet age this would have seemed impossible.

we-mag: What are the driving forces that keep you going and fighting for an internet for the common good which is obviously what you are doing?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think that…I don’t know whether I know the answer to that. It would probably make a lot more sense to stick to a private life. But I think that as each stage of the struggle develops, it becomes clearer that a move- ment is growing and that it carries great potential. And I guess my view is that we should push it as hard as possible with the hope that it will succeed, and so that’s why I want to continue playing my part.

we-mag: So what is actually the core idea behind Change Congress just to explain it a little for those who might not be familiar with the term?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, in the United States Congress is the single failed institution of our federal government: With the inauguration of Barack Obama the presidency has now been restored, while the non-elected federal judiciary together with the Supreme Court enjoys consistent popular majority support. Congress is the only institution that continues to be really hated by most Americans, and if not hated then just viewed with a sort of cynical contempt. The view is that the people who are in Congress are not there so much because of the principles they mouth, but because of their personal desire to stay in power and that their constant focus is on how to raise money to keep them there. What we want to do is to figure out a way to change this core institution of democracy to make it an institution that people can respect. So what we’ve focused on now is building support for citizen-funded elections. Which means elections where the money that makes election to Congress possible cannot taint the elected representatives – meaning that nobody can think representatives are making their decision because of the money factor. They may be making their decisions because they are too liberal or too conservative or haven’t properly studied the issue, but at least money isn’t a deciding factor. We want to build a movement to support citizen-funded elections so that some trust can again be restored to the institution of Congress.

we-mag: That’s a big goal, I mean there are some really strong WEs tied up in this project. How do you think you can convince people to follow your idea – which I think is a great idea and one that makes sense.

Lawrence Lessig: Well, in fact from our polling data we know that most grass roots communities, both conservative and liberal, do support the idea of citizen-funded elections. Indeed, the latest poll shows that more Republicans than Democrats support citizen-funded elections. So the real trick is to find a way of leveraging this grass roots movement to support this political idea and to really resist the elite perspective. Why? In Washington there is an enormous amount of money made and traded by influence peddlers who do much more than just explain their ideas to or promote their policies – they want to use their power to raise money to gain the kind of access that might be denied to them if they had just to rely on the power of their ideas alone. So the real trick here is to figure out a way of leveraging the grass roots to take sufficient control of the political process that would allow them to introduce such citizen-funded elections.

we-mag: So what does this trick look like? Do you have any idea yet?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, we have a large coalition of groups who are pushing this. We just started something called Strike for Change where we’ve asked people to pledge not to fund candidates unless they’re committed to citizen-funded elections. You know the trick of the internet is that you can get people to do what they already wanted to do. And we think that most people now don’t want to give money to politicians to run for election, so we now want to give these people a solid public reason not to give money to candidates, at least not to those who don’t support the idea of citizen-funding.
We’ve now started this and so far we’ve got a pledge of about half a million dollars from people who will not participate until citizen-funding becomes a central issue, and we are going to work very hard over the next year to build that number into a number that cannot be ignored by those waging the battles for the 2010 elections.

we-mag: When you see all these grassroots movements and I mean there are tonnes of them and new ones springing up every day … how can they become a really significant and legal part of the democratic process?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I think it’s very hard because anybody can start these movements, and it’s hard to engender a sense of confidence in what they produce. So I think we must make a great deal of progress before we arrive at the point where there is reason to trust or put our faith or confidence in what these movements are doing. This is going to take time – the really enabled grassroots infrastructure is literally just four years old! I think it’s going to take time to grow up.

we-mag: In what timeframe are you thinking?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, we want to make a pretty significant impact on the 2010 elections, and we think that if we do citizen-funding it might be possible to get a bill enacted this year. Senator Gerber is going to introduce the bill sometime in February. There’s a good chance that we get it enacted this year, but we think that if we make it a really significant issue in 2010 then it will become a defining factor for the next Congress.

we-mag: What would you call a significant impact? What would constitute a success?

Lawrence Lessig: I think that if the effect of our strike is to get the Democratic party to make this a priority – either a legislative priority before 2010 or after 2010 – then that’s a significant impact. You know that obviously we are not going to be doing this alone, and there are many other groups with a similar aim. But if we managed to lever this citizen-funded, citizen-driven move- ment in support of citizen-funded elections, I think this would be an enormous success.

we-mag: Do you think that these grassroots movements or let’s call it the social internet, want a new form of democracy to emerge which is maybe more powerful, more sophisticated than the one person one vote system we have right now?

Lawrence Lessig: It certainly is a possibility. I don’t think any of us see exactly how it could be perfected but it certainly has potential. But I think we have to resist a certain kind of utopianism here. I am not a believer in direct democracy, but I am a believer in representative democracy. What I believe is that we can use the citizen movement to support a smarter, more reasonable, more responsive representative democracy than the one we have right now. I think that’s where the technology really comes into its own powerful and that’s what I hope we can use it to achieve.

we-mag: Do you think that citizens are ready for it or are you talking about an elite who is taking part in all this?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, I do think that citizens are ready for it. You know every step taken toward the citizen movement is a step away from elite-controlled politics. And by elite I mean, you know, people who try to leverage not the power of the ballot box but the power of the cheque book to achieve their results, and from the right wing they are people who want to short circuit the democratic process by using a different kind of power – namely money – to achieve a political end. I think there is a strong recognition and appreciation of the damage or harm that this can cause. What we have to do is to figure out how to channel these perceptions in productive ways for achieving our objectives.

we-mag: So you are leaving Stanford and returning to Harvard to this ”Saffra“ Centre which is actually an institution famous for its ethics teaching. My difficulty with your approach of Change Congress is that maybe it’s just too money-driven, it’s a money approach. Do you think when you look only at money and not at the whole system that you can really change it? Just look at ourselves – we still take planes even though we know about global warming and stuff like that. Do you think this kind of narrow approach can really change something which I think is much much more substantial?

Lawrence Lessig: In fact I think that is certainly possible in all domains of our lives. With global warming, if you take a plane and you don’t buy carbon offsets for your carbon emissions, you are doing something unethical in my view. And people ought to start behaving in a way that is consistent with their rhetoric about supporting state measures to stop global warming. It’s the same thing here – I mean I don’t believe –  nobody believes – that taking money out of the political process will make for perfect politics. Just like with the Supreme Court, money does not underpin the results the Supreme Court justices achieve. And the justices are very good in maintaining that kind of independence from money. But, even so, there are still thousands of reasons why people want to criticise what the Supreme Court does. The point isn’t to create perfection; the point is to remove a particular kind of harmful influence. And it is a harmful influence because it creates enormous cynicism and disconnect. People believe there is no reason to engage in the democratic process if there is something else driving the process, if that something else is money. So I do believe this is possible, it’s also the only opportunity we have right now. And so I think the way to motivate people is to give them a picture of something they can do that has a success story attached to it, and that’s what gets them out there being active.

we-mag: Have you already talked to companies about these plans? Have they reacted?

Lawrence Lessig: We are talking to members of Congress; we talking to political leaders who are trying to build citizen-funded elections as a core part of political reform.

we-mag: Yes I understand that, but what I meant was have some companies reacted to hearing about your Change Congress movement?

Lawrence Lessig: Of course nobody believes it’s going to work, that’s the reaction right now. It’s probably a reason- able reaction because of course we have had literally 102 years of political movement around the idea of citizen-funded elections. In 1907 Teddy Roosevelt, the then Republican president, was the first person or first major political candidate to call for citizen-funded elections. So you know a hundred years of failure is staring us in the face … So I’m happy that the people who would be the most affected by this are not paying it much attention right now because we need some time to build a movement with the very people who will benefit from it.

we-mag: My very last question is what do you think will change with your new president? Do you think there will be a movement in step with your ideas?

Lawrence Lessig: Well, this is an enormously potent moment in United States history. I think part of what makes  Barack Obama so powerful is that he is quintessentially authentic. I mean I knew him as a colleague at the University of Chicago, and he is exactly who he seems to be. And I think that is what people can see and feel, and that’s what really excites them. And in some sense that is the same thing we trying to achieve with Change Congress. We want to change politics in the way that Obama has changed the presidency. In the sense that people feel that its members are being authentic. I think the core thing that people feel right now is that members might say one thing but all the time their real focus is somewhere else, because their real focus is not on what they talk to people about, but how to raise the money for their election. So I think the inspiration here is that authentic reality now has come into its own way of fullfilling his new role as President of the US and I think that’s going to have an enormous effect all the way down the system. Now obviously there hasn’t been a president since Franklin D. Roosevelt who has faced a more important series of challenges, and Franklin D. Roosevelt – as perverse as this sounds – had World War Two to get him out of his troubles. But part of our problems is a combination of wars that were unwisely executed, that are bogging the country down, and will bog this administration down as well. So Obama has enormous challenges ahead, but I think that the real challenge, the real key, is whether he can leverage the movement he built up to effect real substantial change so that that democracy can work again.
Because I think the real question now is: ”Does democracy work?“

we-mag: Thank you very much!

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