the civic one million versus the Lesters

Lawrence Lessig makes the following argument in his TED Talk, his excellent stump speech (which he gave last week at Tufts), and his book The USA is Lesterland:

Members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend anywhere between 30% and 70% of their time raising money to get themselves elected or their party back in power. But they raise that money not from all of us. Instead, they raise that money from the tiniest fraction of the 1%. Less than 1/20th of 1% of America are the “relevant funders” of congressional campaigns. That means about 150,000 Americans, or about the same number who are named “Lester,” wield enormous power over this government. These “Lesters” determine this critical first election in every election cycle—the money election.

I could not agree more. I spent 1991-3 lobbying for campaign finance reform on behalf of Common Cause and have watched things deteriorate ever since. I admire Lessig’s extraordinary leadership and commitment, exemplified by his walking across New Hampshire recently to raise awareness. He has moved easily 1,000 times as many people as I have with my book The New Progressive Era and other writings about campaign finance.

Yet I am not that optimistic about the strategies he proposes. He is clear-eyed about the limitations of each strategy but leaves the audience wondering if anything can work. Here is where I would offer an alternative.

The “Lesters” are exceptionally powerful because their money buys communication. They do not literally purchase votes; they buy the ability to advertise and persuade. One reason that they raise so much money ($7 billion in 2012) is that mass communication has a low return on investment. Influencing elections is an expensive and uncertain proposition.

Meanwhile, in We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, I estimate that at least one million Americans are currently involved in demanding forms of civic work–projects and programs that involve strong elements of open-ended public deliberation. Collectively, they engage many millions of their fellow citizens. Their impact per dollar is much higher, because they have strong relationships with peers.

But they are so deeply invested in specific civic projects that they do not have the time to step back and ask why civic work is so frustrating and marginal in our society. A major reason is the corruption of our political institutions, and the Lesters are deeply implicated in that. The strategy I recommend is to organize the “Civic One Million” for political reform. They have vastly less money than the Lesters, but they may actually have more of what the Lesters try to buy: persuasiveness.

In practical terms, this means convening people who do civic work to ask why their efforts are so hard, to diagnose the barriers, and to develop collective strategies for political reform.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.