There are about 144,000 people named Lester in the U.S.—0.5% of the population. And that’s about the same number of people who decide our elections every cycle, according to Larry Lessig. They are the "relevant donors" that candidates must preen and pamper, and that inevitably shape their views.
In this TED talk, Lessig discusses how America has become "Lesterland": a place where the soft corruption of campaign contributions rules and where both left and right never get to carry through their principles. The real political process has nothing to do with the people’s priorities, he says. It is its own internal economy of donors and lobbyists. Members spend much of their time either raising cash or thinking about how to get a job on K-Street later. Between 1998 and 2004, 50% of Senate members left office to become lobbyists, Lessig says, and the numbers have risen since then. Congress is now a "farm" system for the lobbying industry, a stepping stone to the real show.
Lessig is best known as a crusader for Internet freedom and a founder of the Creative Commons. In an interview, he says he became interested in election funding after seeing how ineptly Congress dealt with Internet issues. He now thinks you can’t have sensible policy in any area without first having equitably funded elections. (In any case, he says intellectuals shouldn’t spend more than a decade on any subject).
Lessig’s solution is to expand the fund-raising base through small-donor financing. His proposal is to give a $50 "democracy voucher" to every citizen to spend on the politician of their choice (with the proviso that they don’t also take big money). But several other proposals would work just as well, including this one, and this one, he says.
"The most important thing is to spread the recognition among ordinary people that this is a root cause of the inability of Congress to deal sensibly with a wide range of issues on the Left and Right," he says. "When that becomes conventional wisdom, it will create an environment for someone to step forward and take advantage."
Update: TED is publishing a book to accompany Lessig’s talk. It’s available here.