Imagine you lived in a country where there was a pretense of democracy; elections were still held, congress still sat down and debated legislation, and politicians continued to make rousing populist speeches—only it was all just for show. In truth, the nation was run, not just by
a very small number of people, but for
an even smaller number. Got that? Now, think about what happens if that very small number of people aren't representative of a broad spectrum of views, but are entirely composed of people with very similar social positions and very similar goals. That's not just a democracy in peril. That's not a democracy.
Now go to the window and greet this country.
Lawrence Lessig's new TED talk starts off in the fictional semi-democracy of Lesterland, then, with statistics that are no less shocking for their familiarity, reminds us that this land of the few, by the few, for the few is the land we call home. Worried about the 1 percent? Don't be. Worry about the 0.05 percent. That's the percentage of Americans who maxed out their contribution to any political candidate in the last election. Or the 0.01 percent who made contributions of $10,000 or more. That's the number of Americans who actually show up on the radar of politicians. But those are only flyspecks on the screen. Save your real worry for the 0.000042 percent. That's 132 people. Those 132 people provided 60 percent of all the money that ended up in Super PACs.
If you're a politician, and you spend between 30 and 70 percent of your time begging for funds for the next election cycle, as American politicians do ... who you gonna call?
Come inside and find out why things are both worse, and better, than they seem.
There's no doubt that when politicians spend most of their time, literally most of their time, talking to the same small group of people, asking those people to hand over cash, it leads to corruption. It's not necessarily a direct road to evil, but corruption? That's a given. It's certainly not democracy.
And it's not just the funding that drives elections which causes this inevitable de-democratization. For most of those in political office, it's just a stepping stone to a more lucrative career. That career? Working directly for that same small group of people to influence the next round of politicians as lobbyists. Politicians are not just dependent on the 0.000042 percent for the money they get now. Pleasing those people determines the size of the paycheck they'll get once they decide to "spend more time with their family." So how willing to cross these folks do you expect them to be?
The correlation between money and power isn't perfect, and yes, it can be amusing to see the Koch brothers or Karl Rove burn up enough dollars to stretch between Earth and Saturn (okay, not quite, but darn near to the Moon), but even when the best funded candidate doesn't win, it doesn't mean that the winning candidate isn't still twisted around the pinkies of folks in that same small club.
Lessig's talk is snappy, hard-hitting, and make a compelling case that no matter what you think the most important issue is, you're just not going to get it until this problem is addressed. Like many pundits, Lessig feels a need to decorate his speech with a bit of "both sides do it" (in this case, saying that real small government Republicans are also losers because the system provides little incentive for politicians to let go of the levers that give them some power over the money men) without owning up to the fact that the left (otherwise known as the positions, economic well-being, and security of a large majority of Americans) takes the brunt of the damage in this rich get richer system. Why is there no pressure from the right for this kind of reform? Because the system as it is rewards the right.
Even so, Lessig's arguments are entertaining, his facts sobering, and his ultimate position—that this problem is far from insurmountable—is cheering. Being told you're living in an ex-republic is not fun, but the path back to democracy might not be as stony as those who benefit from the current system want you to think.