How Public Power Can Defeat Plutocrats

Government has become a clearinghouse for corporations and plutocrats with deep pockets to buy the politicians who grease the wheels for lucrative contracts and easy regulation. It’s all pay for play, and look the other way.

According to the watchdog Sunlight Foundation, from 2007 to 2012, 200 corporations spent almost $6 billion in Washington on lobbying and campaign contributions. And they received more than $4 trillion in government contracts and other forms of assistance. Now that the midterm elections are over, it’s payback time, with the newly elected Congress ready to deliver to those who invested well in their chosen candidates.

This week, Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout return to talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics — a subject both have studied as scholars and are fighting against as reformers. (Watch part one of Bill’s conversation with Lessig and Teachout)

For the 2014 midterm elections, Lessig started the Mayday SuperPac, raising millions for congressional candidates who vowed to fight for campaign finance reform. All but two of them lost – but the fight continues. He tells Bill, “When we look at the systematic way in which our representatives are responsive not to the people alone, but increasingly to the funders exclusively, then that is an obvious corruption… This is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is an American issue.”

Zephyr Teachout ran for governor of New York this year, trying to rouse the public against corruption in state government and received more than a third of the vote in the Democratic primary. She has written the book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. “I think we should forget the perfect resume and instead engage people who come from all different backgrounds, including the arts, and get them to run for office. Because this is what the kids in Hong Kong are fighting for. And we have to take the opportunity we have before it totally shuts down.”


BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Like many of you, I’ve been watching Congress since the midterm elections, and what I’ve seen has me thinking of King Louis XVI of France. His Majesty was a good friend of the American Revolution but when he gave Benjamin Franklin a gold snuff box with the monarch’s portrait surrounded with diamonds, some of our founding fathers objected. They worried that the gift would corrupt his judgment and unduly bias Franklin in France’s favor.

Ever since, we Americans have been debating the meaning of corruption. Today, gifts to politicians that were once called graft or bribes are called contributions. And the Supreme Court has ruled that powerful corporations and rich individuals can give just about anything they want to politicians who do their bidding, and it’s not considered corruption.

The watchdog Sunlight Foundation reports that from 2007 to 2012, two hundred corporations spent almost $6 billion for lobbying and campaign contributions, and received more than $4 trillion — that’s $4 trillion — in government contracts and other forms of assistance. Now, that’s why K Street in Washington is the road to paradise for lobbyists. But it’s a road that runs in both directions. NPR’s Peter Overby talked with political scientist David Primo:

DAVID PRIMO on NPR Morning Edition: The conventional wisdom out there is that businesses are going to Washington, writing checks and expecting big returns. But the other side of the story is that members of Congress may implicitly threaten businesses that if they don’t change their policy, or if they’re not heavily involved in the political process, that bad things might happen to them.

BILL MOYERS: Now, partisans of the system say this is just business as usual, which, of course, it is, and that’s the problem, as we’re about to see with the newly elected Congress. Once upon a time the GOP stood for Grand Old Party; now it stands for Guardians of Privilege, and this is payback time for everything from fracking to getting the big banks off the hook; from doing away with the minimum wage and coddling off-shore corporate tax avoiders to privatizing Medicare and Social Security; to gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency. And that’s just for starters.

Democrats, meanwhile, are so compromised by their own addiction to big money they have forgotten their history as champions of the working stiff, the little folks down there at the bottom. And that’s why the great problems facing everyday people in America are not being seriously addressed by a political class afraid to offend the people who write the checks – the corporations and the rich.

That’s why we asked Larry Lessig and Zephyr Teachout to return to talk further about corruption – a subject both have studied as scholars and are fighting against as reformers. Zephyr Teachout teaches at Fordham Law School, and ran for Governor of New York, trying to rouse the public against corruption in our state government. She got more than a third of the vote in the Democratic primary. She’s also the author of this acclaimed book, “Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United.”

Larry Lessig teaches at Harvard Law School and made his reputation as an expert on Internet law. He started the Mayday super PAC, raising millions for congressional candidates who vowed to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics. All but two of them lost – but the fight continues. Welcome back.


ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Thanks for having us.

BILL MOYERS: Chief Justice John Roberts takes a different view of corruption from the two of you. He says, quote, “Any regulation must instead target what we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance. […] the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.”

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well, at the constitutional convention, the primary topic was corruption. The framers are sitting there in Philadelphia, trying to figure out how to build the structures to allow this new country. And their real obsession was how do we, you know, we’ve seen what’s happened in England, we’ve seen what’s happened in world history.

How do we protect against basically big money taking over representative democracy? And when they talked about corruption, they weren’t talking about criminal bribery, bags of cash. They were talking about when public servants serve their own ends, the selfish ends, or ends of, you know, wealthy sponsor.

BILL MOYERS: Using the public power to benefit private interests.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Private ends. And you know what? That’s what people on the street think now too. When you talk about the corruption in Congress, people are talking about the same thing that Madison was talking about, this the sense that our public servants are just serving themselves. They’re running away with the resources of our country. Or serving their donors.

And John Roberts gets it so deeply wrong in his understanding of history. And he gets it so deeply wrong in a way that has really hurt us, because he keeps striking down campaign finance laws. So it’s bad history, it’s bad law, it’s bad policy. And I believe that one of the things we need to remember as reformers is that this fight against big money is a long fight. It never ends. It’s always going to be a struggle. But that’s what we were founded on and we should honor that.

BILL MOYERS: You write and talk about systemic and systematic corruption. Give me a working definition of that.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, you know, Madison created, when he helped craft the Congress, a system which he said would be “dependent on the people alone.” And he was quite explicit about who the people were. He said the people are, quote, “Not the rich, more than the poor.” We have corrupted that dynamic. There’s no doubt about that. In the way we speak, in the way our framers speak.

And I actually think this debate in the Supreme Court is not over. Because one of the arguments that’s not yet been pressed against them firmly enough is for those conservatives who go around talking about the importance of original understanding, and talking about what the framers meant when they used their words.

We now have the document, the work, Zephyr’s book is incredibly powerful about this, to establish that those framers would have understood this concept in a way that could see the corruption in the system as plainly as they would see it anywhere. And so when we look at the systematic way in which our representatives are responsive not to the people alone, but increasingly to the funders exclusively, then that is an obvious corruption that they ought to be able to respond to. Now look, the Supreme Court gave us Citizens United. I think it’s the greatest gift this movement has had. You know—


LAWRENCE LESSIG: Because just like Roe v. Wade motivated the pro-life movement, so too this has excited an incredible cross-partisan movement of people who finally recognize the corruption of this system. So we will rally that movement. And I think the court’s eventually going to get it right and allow Congress to at least end that systemic corruption.

BILL MOYERS: How do you get the court, the Supreme Court, which has ruled consistently on this issue now, to reconsider its principle?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Look, the court has said again and again, it’s not Congress’s job to silence people. Now, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of what Congress is trying to do. But anyway, that’s what they are targeting.

BILL MOYERS: That’s why they say it’s free speech?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah. But what we’re talking about when we talk about small-dollar public funding, it’s not silencing anybody. It’s about giving a wider opportunity of people to speak. It’s about recognizing not the need for equality in speech, but equality in citizenship. We all ought to be equal citizens in this process of selecting our representatives.

So, you know, what were they protesting about in Hong Kong? They were protesting a system, a two-stage democracy wherein the first stage, a tiny, tiny group will select the candidates who the rest of Hong Kong get to vote for. A tiny group, .024 percent of that population. Well, that is our democracy too. Because we’ve got a system where a tiny, tiny fraction of America picks the candidates who get to run by funding their campaigns. The relevant funders of campaigns are no more than the number of people proportionately that were picking the candidates in Hong Kong.

BILL MOYERS: And you call that the wealth primary, where the donors can really actually decide who’s going to run.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: You can call it the wealth primary, or you can call it the green primary. The point is, it’s a system that excludes a vast majority of people from participating equally in this critical stage in the election. That is a violation of the framers’ conception of our democracy.

BILL MOYERS: But even if you had raised public money, even if you had that statute in place, the big donors would still have been given the big megaphone.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: If we had in New York state the public financing system that I’d like to see in every state, I, first of all, I would’ve raised at least $4 million.

BILL MOYERS: Instead of?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Instead of around $800,000, most of which came in the last two weeks. I could’ve gotten on TV. I got a third of the vote with no television. No mail. And most importantly, there’s an odd dynamic where the press will only take you seriously as a candidate once you’ve raised a certain amount of money. And by far, the most important intermediary is still the press. The press still makes a bigger difference than the fundraising itself.

BILL MOYERS: Well, separate the press. The journalists from the tsunami of ads out there. There were so many ads that some stations could no longer carry them. And the parties had to go out to little small stations just to spend the money to run the ads. And I saw ad after ad for your opponent here, none from you. So it’s not just the journalists.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It’s not just the journalists, but I actually think it’s really important because one of the things that public financing does is it allows and gives permission in some ways for media to actually cover a contest of ideas, instead of doing what they do nowadays. I talked to journalists who say, I can’t cover you because you have so little money. But if you have a public financing system, they can at least cover the fight. And I think that’s so important. I mean, I think—I’d certainly agree with you on Hong Kong and the wealth primary and how people feel the wealth primary. They feel like they’re not getting a choice between people who represent them. They’re getting a choice between people who represent donors.

And it’s hard to engage and excite people on that. But I tend to think that this court, sort of deep down, is motivated by a vision, a non-democratic, or distrust of democracy. There’s an old corporatist idea that was part of the early 20th century, where there were pretty who were actively advocating, saying, I think our corporate leaders should be our leaders and work hand in hand with elected officials. Because they’re good managers. They’re— they’ve been selected through the fight of the market. I happen to think that idea is crazy and not sustainable. But it was a true ideology. And I see some of that in our current Supreme Court as well.

BILL MOYERS: Well, excuse me for being tedious. But I read in your works what you say, that if dysfunction sets in and you can’t get government to work on behalf of the public interest, then you can’t pass the legislation that you say, I mean, it’s a squirrel’s game.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Look. Look. Look. You read my book from four years ago. And in the meantime, I’ve seen Zephyr Teachout run for governor. And I’ve seen the incredible response. When I’ve been out there watching people and watching real leaders push on this issue, the passion is there. And this is still a system where we can win more votes than they do and win more seats in Congress than they have and pass legislation to take this critical first step. And I think—

BILL MOYERS: You mean—


BILL MOYERS: By “they,” you mean the oligarchs, the plutocrats. Are we close to plutocracy, where government runs, is run by the rich?


BILL MOYERS: For the advantage of rich?


LAWRENCE LESSIG: But, you know, here’s the way I want to push back on that. It makes it sound like it works for them, too. You know, it works for them on some issues. But the point is when they look at a system which, you know, they pretty much agree is broken in 1,000 different ways, they, too, can begin to recognize why this is a terrible system.

When we would get super-large, rich people giving us money to make it so they had less political power in the system, it wasn’t because they were trying to show off. It’s because they genuinely believe that this system is broken. And they believe one way to fix it is to make it so that they don’t have so much power. So, you know, you could say in the Civil Rights Movement, why would whites ever work with blacks to bring about equality? Because they realized that even though they benefited, in some sense, from this unequal system, they didn’t believe that was the American system that they had grown up loving. And that’s the same thing that’s happening.

BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with him on this? The fact that you can tame it, you can regulate it with laws, when you have a legislature like we have in Albany and a governor who has no interest in diminishing his power, as Larry says?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes, we can. Again, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that it’s simple or we know the exact route. I mean, I look at William Jennings Bryan. He never became president.

BILL MOYERS: Great orator. Great populist.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And Bryan ran for president again and again. He came out of a populist movement that had been demanding a change in the way that we do campaigns, down with monopolies, in the 1880s and the 1890s. Maybe in 1894 or ’95 they should’ve just given up.

Because if you looked at the structures of power at that moment, you would say, I don’t see a path. Well, that’s when I say we’re at a moment like that, I think we have to call on the best parts of our American history, when we have actually overcome seemingly impossible things and say things that aren’t possible if we just follow a straight power map are going to be possible.

Because we can tap into the great American tradition of organizing, of actually speaking out, of dissent. This is a different form of dissent. Because it’s dissent against this plutocracy. And I think there are a lot of people— unlike you, I think there are some people who just do benefit. But I think there are a lot of people who might sort of falsely align themselves with the current system, but are not benefiting because it’s shutting down our marketplace.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, but my point is when you talk about it as if it’s a fight between the rich and the rest of America, in fact, there’s a whole bunch of the rich who don’t benefit or don’t feel like they benefit, or don’t identify with it. And I actually think it would be more effective to frame this not as the fight between the one percent and the 99 percent.

But the fight between, you know, American citizens and those who would corrupt the American democracy. Because, you know, I was meeting with the most powerful Republican in New Hampshire. And he said to me, you know, this is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is an American issue. This corruption is an American issue. And we can find a way to not separate us from, you know, people that we recognize, but instead, to unite us against a fight that nobody on their merits can defend.

Nobody can stand up and say, yeah, it’s important that I, as the Koch brothers, have enormous political influence versus you. Nobody would say that. And the point is we should be fighting in a place where there’s no credible argument on the other side. Because we can win that argument.

BILL MOYERS: I know you think that this present campaign system works against competition, not only in politics but in the economy.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes. And I actually think this is really important. Because I found on the campaign trail that when I would talk about the growing, basically— too much power being held in the hands of too few in the economy and in politics, people really respond to that. They’re experiencing it in not having a lot of options for places to go for a job.

And I found once you got into a room, people may not know the language of antitrust. They may not know the language of antimonopoly, because it’s actually vanished from our political vocabulary since the early ’80s. But it’s a deep part of the American tradition.

But they know the experience. They know the experience of a sense that the small nursery can’t compete against Home Depot, and not because the small nursery isn’t doing more innovative things. It’s because they’re both buying the same clay pot for a dollar, but Home Depot is getting tax subsidies that the small nursery is not.

But the experience of, say, you know, big cable having political power and market power. Time Warner in New York State, people know that Time Warner isn’t in a competitive industry and has too much power. That was really resonant. And I found that when I talked about those together with campaign finance, that actually could move people to a sense of, oh, we can have a different system. I think we need to fix both. I think we need to fix the way that we fund campaigns. And I think we need to remember and revive antitrust and break up these companies that are playing sort of governmental roles.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: But this is a perfect example of the way this issue is not partisan, right. Because you take Luigi Zingales, who is a libertarian conservative economist on the University of Chicago Business School faculty. He writes this fantastic book coauthored this book, “Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists.”

And his whole point is that we need a theory of antitrust that recognizes that the problem is not just whether a company is too big, it’s also whether the company would therefore be too politically powerful. Because what capitalists do is they win in a competitive market, and then they turn to government so that they can get the rules changed so that government protects them from the next generation of capitalists.

And a principled person on the right is as animated by the things that Zephyr is talking about, about the way in which the current system is favoring the incumbents and blocking competition, as people on the left. And if we begin to talk about it in this principled way, we can cut through the insider game, which is all about sucking up to those who are in power right now and make it possible to change those rules.

BILL MOYERS: But how do you get the country talking about that when the mass media, the corporate media, is owned by the very giants that you are talking about?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It’s actually very funny. Because, you know, if I go on MSNBC to talk about Comcast, I’m basically talking about the boss of MSNBC, you know. This is, so, it’s a very, very real issue. But I know how to start.

I mean, Gandhi’s autobiography says, first, tell the truth. You know, start— what happens if you tell the truth is really the question. And I feel like first trying in electoral life, you know, in running for office to tell the truth about what I see in the world and to ask that other people tell the truth, and what I see is this incredible concentration, I think extraordinary things can happen there.

I see with— and just in this last summer, the response to Amazon, the response to Comcast-Time Warner, there’s a real chance the Comcast-Time Warner merger will be stopped. And then, if you combine that with the number of Americans who want to break up the big banks, you suddenly see this isn’t about the individual sectors of Amazon abusing its power, Comcast abusing its power, and JPMorgan abusing its power. It’s— we are in a new anti-monopoly moment. And I will tell you that politicians who take that up and speak that to people are going to find unusual success like I did.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: But the other thing about this is that, you know, we get fixed on the model of media from, you know, the middle of the 20th century. And the reality is that the model of media is increasingly becoming media at the beginning of the century, right? Before broadcasting.

We are increasingly moving, not from a place where 60 percent of America watches one of three shows every night to get the news, but instead to a world where everybody is getting news from 1,000 different sources. So when Zephyr refers back to the progressive era, the lessons are not just the lessons of substance that we have to get government to be responsive to the people again.

It’s also the lessons of process. We have to figure out how to build a movement that can’t count on a single broadcaster reaching all of America, and instead can leverage the fact that there are 50,000 relevant sources that people are watching these days, and the generation that we really need to mobilize, the generation under the age of 35, is not paying attention to the media that, you know, you’re talking about. They’re paying attention to the rest of it.

BILL MOYERS: So, what do each of you plan to do next?

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well, I know that I would love to run for office again. One of the real secrets that— sort of the dirty secret of politics is that it’s more fun than you know. It’s every bit as hard as I thought and every bit as painful to do the fundraising.

But it is actually one of the most inspiring and exciting things to actually talk to people, to learn from people, to be able to go— to have any door open and somebody will say, I want to tell you about my life and I want to tell you what’s wrong with it and I want to tell you how I understand the world. So, I’d love to run for office again. In the meantime, I want to, hopefully, I’m particularly focused on getting more people to run for office along with me.

BILL MOYERS: Well, it’s pretty lonely out there.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: So, I’d like to see a lot more women run with this antitrust message, a lot more young people run. And we know that people don’t run because they’re not asked. And we also know that they have a sense of, like, that’s a politician. A politician looks like this. A politician has never had trouble with student debt or credit card debt.

And I want to say that we are in a moment where if we keep having the cookie-cutter, you know, Manchurian candidate type politician, you’re going to see even more and more young people drop out. And so, I think we should forget the perfect resume and instead engage people who come from all different backgrounds, including the arts, and get them to run for office. Because this is what the kids in Hong Kong are fighting for. And we got to take the opportunity we have before it totally shuts down.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So, we want to take, you know, the incredible number of people that were supporting Mayday and turn them into brigades that go out and start recruiting more and more congress people to the idea of fundamental reform, that use the technology of the Internet to reach out to other voters and get those voters to talk to their congress people and say to their congress people, we need you to stand up for a change.

Now, this is a way to kind of leverage the power that we aggregated with money into power with people. And ultimately, I think that that’s going to be the much more effective way to begin to convert members of Congress, to get it close to a place where we could actually have the majority to pass the statutes we think we can pass.

BILL MOYERS: Larry Lessig, Zephyr Teachout, thank you for being with me.



BILL MOYERS: At our website,, find out what you can do to help drive money out of politics. That’s all at I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

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