In a stemwinder today at MIT Technology Review’s emerging technologies conference, the constitutional scholar Lawrence Lessig declared that the story of emerging technology in political campaigns is one of its appropriation by major parties in service of a profoundly corrupt system—corrupt not in the criminal sense, but the constitutional and moral one, because of the outsized influence of a wealthy few.
Changing this system will require uniting disparate groups such as the Tea Party and the Occupy movement under common corruption-fighting aims with umbrella groups like Rootstrikers, which Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, co-founded. Changing the current system is “the challenge that I believe emerging technology in U.S. politics ultimate has to face,” he said.
Lessig noted that tiny slices of American business and wealthy individuals hold decisive power over who gets to run for office at all—the “money election” that precedes the general election. Among his datapoints: 47 Americans contribute 42 percent of all SuperPac money. This sort of power of money represents corruption from the perspective of how the framers intended the democratic system to function. Lessig also pointed out that 50 percent of U.S. Senators become lobbyists after leaving office, jacking up their pay tenfold or more. Big-money interests control many top legislators at both ends of their careers in public service.
Where is technology in all this? “All sorts of technologies for microtargeting and messaging” have emerged for politicians, Lessig noted, but “these are fundamentally boring stories, because these are fundamentally stories about a machine” (see “How Obama Really Did It” for one such story). The way technology is used by mainstream campaigns is, in the end, “not interesting about the future of American politics.”
Lessig cited surveys of Americans showing that “reducing corruption in the federal government” is second on a list of ten top priorities. Yet, he said, no place President Obama’s or Gov. Mitt Romney’s site even mentions the issue. And four out of five of their five-point plans are essentially identical. Big agenda items are controlled by the powerful: politics that would force sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, for example, are essentially broomed off of the table.
Lessig put up images of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was King, Lessig said, who correctly observed that only a non-violent movement would garner wider traction—one that others could not dismiss as extremist. Likewise, leaders of movements generally associated with left-wing or right-wing policies ultimately can find common ground in fighting corruption. “King, when he was as unwilling to be as divisive as others thought he should be, was called an Uncle Tom. We need Uncle Toms, in this sense,” Lessig said. Currently, these groups are practicing “exopolitics”—working largely outside of the current machine that elects national leaders. Technology might yet bring them together.