Neo-Progressive update: Fighting Corruption

Those who read my blog know that I’ve always been an enormous fan of Lawrence Lessig. On numerous occasions I’ve pointed people to his most amazing talk on copyright. Indeed when Beltzner finally got me to watch Lessig’s talk a few years ago (after months of trying) it caused me to go into a 6 month self-directed reading and listening binge on all things copyright, internet rights and open source. Indeed, it is what propelled me into trying to find ways to contribute to the thinking around copyright and open source generally and the success of Mozilla specifically.

So I remember quite clearly the day Lessig said he was backing away from copyright to address the issue of lobbying, fund-raising and problematic incentive structures in the US political system – what he broadly termed as fighting “corruption.” At the time I was not only a little disappointed that he was moving away from such an important issue (copyright), I confess to thinking he was a little crazy. “Fighting political corruption in the United States? That’s an unwinnable battle and a waste of Lessig’s talent” I thought.

The problem was, I was still thinking like it was 1999. I believed that changing congress started and ended with structural change – altering the laws and processes. That battle felt insurmountable – particular given the recent passage of McCain-Feingold bill in 2002. Lessig – while still believing in the need for structural reforms – knew that better and more meaningful change was still possible if one leveraged new technologies to achieve greater participation and transparency.

One of his most recent updates demonstrates how devastatingly successful his small and nascent efforts have been. Don’t think that other congresspeople aren’t taking note.

This week, Change Congress scored a major victory against U.S. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) after he fell victim to what I call “Good Souls Corruption” — good people trapped in a broken campaign-finance system they refuse to fix.

Ben Nelson probably hates us right now — or at least me. But that’s OK, it was worth it. Here’s what happened.

Nelson has received over $2 million from health and insurance interests who oppose President Obama’s public health insurance option. Those companies fear competition. 71% of rural voters support it.

Who did Nelson side with? You guessed it — in May, he sided with the insurance interests against the citizens of Nebraska, calling the public option a “deal breaker.”

So Change Congress launched $10,000 of online ads, letting Nebraska voters know about Nelson’s special-interest money. We also sent 3,000 direct-mail pieces to Democratic donors throughout the state. This generated state and national news stories for over a week (and apparently freaked Nelson out).

After an intense 11-day battle with Nelson, he’s now publicly “open” to the public option — and yesterday, he made more news by saying he won’t join a filibuster of Obama’s plan. One of our local supporters even got a personal phone call from the Senator yesterday, during which Nelson tried to explain away his special-interest contributions!

This campaign is a model for our ongoing anti-corruption work. But to replicate this success, I need your help. Can you please consider chipping in to help us take our show on the road?

At the above link, you can give once or become a monthly Change Congress supporter, which is certainly appreciated.

Ben Nelson was actually the second in our “Good Souls Corruption” campaign. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) was the first — we successfully called him out for siding with special-interest contributors and made him react as well.

As Mother Jones nicely put it:

“Maybe the reason members of Congress are responding so defensively is that CC is striking a little too close to home. Apparently members of Congress are shocked by the nerve-the nerve!-of people who tell them that taking huge amounts of money from the industries they’re in charge of regulating reeks of corruption.”

Exactly right. And we can’t stop in Nebraska.

Change Congress has really hit its stride, but shaming politicians for participating in a corrupt system isn’t cheap. We’re thankful to those who trusted us with their hard-earned dollars in the beginning. But we really need your help now to continue this model around the country.

On the donate page, we ask you to include any suggestions you have for politicians we should consider targeting next. Please include any links to stories that may be relevant.

Below is a timeline of our recent campaign. I hope you enjoy — and please help us continue this work.

A democracy is a terrible thing to waste. Yet that is precisely what money in Washington is doing — wasting this democracy. Together, we can take democracy back.

Thanks for your support,
Lawrence Lessig

Indeed, Lessig’s work mirrors the efforts of ForestEthics Taylor and I chronicled in our piece on neo-progressivism. Better still Lessig’s work hits a lot of neo-progressive buttons. It:

1. Tackles an issue (reforming congress and dealing with influence peddling and lobbying) that is deadlocked and going nowhere

2. The conversation hasn”t been possible not because alternatives to the status quo are considered taboo, but because they are not seen as feasible, or politically possible.

3. It is an issue where there are real divisions within both the left or right. On the right large corporations are not keen on reform as their money buys them influence. This is less true on the left, but nonetheless certain interest groups – such as the unions – are adept at leveraging the current system to gain disproportionate influence, they might not all be in favour of Lessig’s reforms. However libertarian right wingers and progressive left wingers in the United States would both like the system to be reformed.

4. Debates which unite odd factions from within the left and right – see above.

5. This is also an area where individual freedom is curtailed – indeed, individuals and there influence are downplayed within the system and collective interests – corporate, labour and other interest groups, are favoured.

6. And finally, it is an issue where the impact on the public has always been significant.

Mostly however, what impresses me is that Lessige is

a) trying to find ways to inject into the behaviour of congress the values of traditional progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century – equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and transparency

and

b) is adopting the 21st century approach and philosophy those early progressive embraced but their mid-20th century successors ultimately abandoned – working outside of the state, self-organization through the internet, leveraging micro-donation, self-publishing and using sunlight to shame people into action.

I’m looking forward to seeing how far Lessig can go.

One thought on “Neo-Progressive update: Fighting Corruption

  1. Conrad Barwa

    Interesting post Dave. I remain a bit sceptical as to the macro effects of these kind of campaigns but there is no doubt that they can have an impact at the micro-level. Sustaining these efforts over a considerable period of time might be harder imo.I remain a bit sceptical as to the impact of “libertarian” as a label; it seems to be a way for economic Conservatives/neo-liberals who adhere to a misplaced belief in markets to distance themselves from the socially reactionary policies embraced on the right. The whole debate on torture and arbitrary detention exposed many in this category for what they are.As for 6 (b) imo, progressives from that period embraced equality of outcomes more than opportunity and I don't think meritocracy was an important part of their core ideology. This was the last time that radcial Liberalism and Socialism posed a serious foundational threat to the existing regimes.

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