Finding Common Ground Between Two Movements
Members of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party may disagree on many issues, but there's one thing that unites both groups: distrust in concentrated power.
"One can't help but feel that there's a huge system out there between politicians, between corporate interests, that really prevents the average Joe from being able to air out his concerns," says Charles Zhu, an Occupy Wall Street supporter who was in Washington, D.C., this week to join protests in McPherson Square.
At both Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests, you might hear similar opinions on the 2008 bank bailout, the federal deficit and government spending, and the influence of corporations and money on Congress. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig says there's good reason to this visceral sense by both the left and the right that there is too much power in too few hands — whether it's the government or corporations.
"We have a government where members spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress, [and a Congress] that is increasingly dependent on the funders," Lessig told weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. He says that the funders are in fact, not the people.
"Anyone who knows anything about campaigns knows it's the people who contribute the maximum in a campaign that have the real power in Washington," says Lessig, whose new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, is about the concentration of money and power in politics.
Those who can contribute the maximum amount to campaigns represent about .05 percent of the population, Lessig says. So he says forget "We are the 99 percent," the Occupy Wall Street movement represents something more.
"[They] stand for the 99.95 percent of America who are not deep into the campaign giving [and] that can't direct policy in the way that we see policy being directed," he says.
Change We Can Agree On
Toby Marie Walker, head of the Tea Party in Waco, Texas, says there is too much money in politics and worries about its influence on regulation and laws.
"I'd like to see some finance laws that say only so much money can come from outside your district [or state] so that the local people have more control over who gets elected." Walker says.
That sentiment has been echoed in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but Walker says the groups don't exactly see eye to eye — yet.
"Their solutions are nothing like our solutions," she says. "There are natural things that we'll agree about, but it's the process of how do we get there that I think would be harder to bring people together on."
Lessig says campaign finance reform should be one issue the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements can find common ground and agree on. He says changes in campaign finance laws are critical in the effort to take the influence of money out of politics.
"So if we could have a system for funding elections that guaranteed that it wasn't just the tiny slice, but instead all of us that was in an important way providing the money," he says, "then I think we could at least imagine a Congress that could be independent enough to stand up to very powerful financial interests."
People recognized the massive economic collapse was caused in part by financial deregulation on Wall Street. But Lessig was astonished that Wall Street was still able to "blackmail Congress" into enacting a reform bill that didn't change the fundamental problem with the architecture of the financial system.
"Never in the history of our republic — after we've had some kind of financial collapse — has the financial industry so successfully blocked the ability to re-regulate to deal with whatever caused the collapse," he says.
In his new book, Lessig maps out a potential plan to make people the funders of Congress — and not corporations or Wall Street. He says funding campaigns through small-dollar contributions only is the best place to start.
Similar plans have been tried in several diverse states like Arizona, Connecticut and Maine. Whether it is his plan or a similar small-dollar funded plan, Lessig says, it would bring about the critical change needed.
"It could at least produce a system where when Congress did something stupid you would think, 'Oh, it's because there are too many Democrats or there are too many Republicans,'" he says. "But you wouldn't think it was because of the money."
GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
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RAZ: If you happen to pass through McPherson Square, just up K Street here in Washington, D.C., this week, you might have heard Charles Zhu strumming his mandolin.
CHARLES ZHU: I'm really from Tampa, Florida. I'm a recent graduate.
RAZ: From Yale University. Charles was passing out flyers that were neatly stacked in his mandolin case.
ZHU: So this flyer is called Facts and A Mandolin.
RAZ: Charles spent last week in New York, in Zuccotti Park, with the Occupy Wall Street movement. He arrived at Washington this week to join the protests here. And his flyer, pretty detailed, lots of statistics backed with source citations from congressional reports and government studies. For example...
ZHU: The richest 10 percent control two-thirds of Americans' net worth.
RAZ: That comes from the Federal Reserve. But for Charles, in fact, for most of the people we ran into at this Occupy Wall Street protest, it wasn't even the facts that mattered so much, but rather something more visceral, a feeling that something's not right.
ZHU: One can't help but feel that there's a huge system out there between politicians, between corporate interests, that really prevents the average Joe from being able to air out his concerns. I think...
RAZ: Our cover story today: Mistrust, a sense shared by both left and right, that there is too much power in too few hands, whether it's the government or corporations. In a moment, we'll hear from Lawrence Lessig, a law professor and activist who says there's only one way to fix it, turn up the unlimited money tap flowing into political campaigns.
But first, some other activists we spoke to this week. We talked to Toby Marie Walker who lives in Waco, Texas.
TOBY MARIE WALKER: The Toby Marie started because people thought I was a boy.
RAZ: I got you. OK.
WALKER: And so, I - and everybody...
RAZ: We also spoke with Nick Allen(ph) from Virginia who we met at the protests here in Washington.
NICK ALLEN: I am currently a student of - Iraq veteran, five years in the Marine Corps.
RAZ: And Charles Zhu.
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ZHU: Facts and A Mandolin.
RAZ: The mandolin guy from Yale.
I'm going to go down a list here, OK? So tell me in a few sentences what you think of each of these items, right? You ready?
RAZ: The 2008 bank bailouts.
WALKER: Oh, bad. I really did not like it. I didn't agree with it.
ALLEN: I think in the shortest sentence I'd give you, we were hustled.
ZHU: Banks got bailed out, we got sold out. They convinced us in every way that it was the only alternative.
WALKER: Too big to fail, well then, you're too big to get it right.
RAZ: What about the federal debt and the long-term deficits?
ZHU: I think that we are a very, very basic math. We're spending more than we're taking in. We're more or less moving with an invisible bridge that doesn't support us anyway.
WALKER: Not only can we not get out of our personal debt for a lot of Americans, we can't get out of our financial debt as a country. It really frightens me.
RAZ: Do you think that we are at a point now where corporations are more influential in this country or the government is more influential in this country?
ALLEN: The government is directly influenced by the money that corporations provide. So...
ZHU: The amount of growth of wealth in the top 1 percent has been staggering, whereas the bottom 9 percent has stagnated.
ALLEN: It is very unlikely that I will accomplish the adage of doing better than the parents before me.
WALKER: The legacy that we were leaving our children and grandchildren, future generations is not just this country but the world. And it really worries me. That's the whole reason that I got involved with the Tea Party movement.
RAZ: That's right, Toby Marie Walker, unlike Nick and Charles who you also heard, isn't an Occupy Wall Street protester. And we didn't meet her at the protests. We reached her in her hometown in Texas.
WALKER: I'm Toby Marie Walker. I'm the president and co-founder of the Waco Tea Party here in Waco, Texas.
RAZ: And for all their differences, members of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are united, in a way, by a deep suspicion of concentrated power.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yes, that's right and for good reason on both the left and the right.
RAZ: Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has written a new book about the concentration of money and power in politics. It's called "Republic, Lost."
LESSIG: We have a government where members spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress, that is increasingly dependent on the funders. And here's the fact that's obvious to everybody, the funders are not the people. Indeed, Wall Street - the Occupy Wall Street has the sign, more than 99 percent.
Well, anybody who knows anything about campaigns knows it's the people who contribute the maximum in a campaign who have the real power in Washington. Those people are the .05 percent. So forget 99 percent, they stand for the 99.95 percent of America who are not deep into the campaign giving that can't direct policy in a way that we see policy being directed.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
LESSIG: You may or may not believe in capitalism.
RAZ: This week, Lawrence Lessig went out to the same public square we did for a teaching with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. He spoke to about a hundred people.
LESSIG: And I said, you know, you should celebrate the liberal values that you have. But in putting together a list of demands, there ought to be a frame that says, look, here's what we believe and here's what we all believe. Let's talk about the things that we could get honest members of the Tea Party to agree on.
And if this movement can begin to speak about these issues in a way that they can hear...
RAZ: And what is that issue Lessig thinks everyone can hear? Campaign finance reform.
LESSIG: So if we could have a system for funding elections that guarantee that it wasn't just the tiny slice, but instead all of us that wasn't an important way providing the money, then I think we could at least imagine a Congress that could be independent enough to stand up to very powerful financial interests whose interests don't happen to be in the public interest. And that's the critical part that I think both the left and the right should be able to agree upon.
RAZ: I find it interesting that even though this movement began on Wall Street, in some ways, it's more symbolic that you have a protest here in Washington, D.C., on McPherson Square, on K Street, which is the epicenter of money and politics.
LESSIG: That's right. Although I wouldn't have choreographed it any differently, because if there is one place that symbolizes the corrupting influence of money in our government, it is Wall Street. The really amazing fact about Wall Street is that after 2008, after we saw the biggest collapse since the Depression, after everybody who was independent of Wall Street recognized that the collapse was in part a function of this ridiculous system of regulation, after the dean of deregulation, Alan Greenspan, admitted he had made a, quote, "mistake" in understanding how the banks and Wall Street would respond given the temptation to gamble with our future - after all of that, Wall Street was still able to blackmail both the Democrats and the Republicans into enacting a kind of, quote, "reform bill" that didn't change the fundamental problem with the architecture of our financial system. So many people believe we are more at risk today than we were five years ago.
Now, that is an astonishing achievement. Never in the history of our republic - after we've had some kind of financial collapse - has the financial industry so successfully blocked the ability to re-regulate to deal with whatever caused the collapse. And that should terrify everybody on the left and the right.
RAZ: In some ways, the Tea Party was a response to the perceived growth and power of government. And, of course, Occupy Wall Street is a response to the perceived growth and power of corporate America. Are those incompatible ideas?
LESSIG: No, they're not. Because whether you are upset about the size of government or the size of corporation, one thing everybody should be upset about is when corporations used their power to corrupt the government, to reinforce their size and their influence. A critical change in the way in which we've seen America become much more unequal was driven by changes in public policy that was driven itself by the kind of influence that my book is trying to attack.
So whether, again, you like big corporations or you like capitalism, you and the right cannot possibly defend crony capitalism. And that's why Cato Institute and every single credible principled right-wing organization or libertarian organization or conservative organization has historically fought that kind of corruption.
RAZ: Lawrence Lessig, your new book is called "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It." Can you outline a plan?
LESSIG: Well, again, the critical thing is to recognize - the kind of corruption I want to talk about is not Rod Blagojevich corruption. It's not criminals. I think our Congress is filled with the cleanest Congress, in that sense, that we've ever had. But instead, it's a problem caused by Congress focused on fundraising from a tiny size of America.
So the plan that I offer is a plan that says, here's how we can actually make the funders the people. And it's a version of a plan that's been tried in Arizona and in Maine and Connecticut, very diverse states, that basically funds campaigns through small-dollar contributions only. And candidates opt into that. And they want to opt into it because it's a better way to fund their campaigns. So the specifics of mine include a kind of voucher, which everybody has to contribute, and they can contribute up to $100 on top of that, and candidates can get the voucher if they limit their contributions to $100.
But whether it's my plan or another of these small-dollar-funded plans, it could at least produce a system where when Congress did something stupid, you would think, oh, it's because there are too many Democrats or because there are too many Republicans. But you wouldn't think it was because of the money. And I think that's the critical change we need to bring about.
RAZ: That's Lawrence Lessig. His new book is called "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It." Lawrence Lessig, thank you so much.
LESSIG: Thank you for having me.
RAZ: We raised some of this with Toby Marie Walker, the head of the Tea Party in Waco, Texas. Do you think there's too much money in politics?
RAZ: And tell me what worries you about the influence of money and politics.
WALKER: Well, because you can start to influence regulation. You can start to influence laws. And I'd like to see some finance laws that say, OK, only so much money can come outside your district or so much money outside your state so that the local people have more control over who gets elected.
RAZ: Toby, it sounds like a lot of the things that you're talking about are similar to a lot of the things that members of the Occupy Wall Street movement are talking about. It really seems to come down to a mistrust of concentrated power.
WALKER: Oh, I think that there is a similarity there, but their solutions are nothing like what our solutions. There are natural things that we'll agree about, but it's the process of how do we get there that I think would be harder to bring people together.
RAZ: Toby Marie Walker with the Waco Tea Party. Tomorrow on the program, we'll explore some more of these things with the so-called sheriff of Wall Street, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.