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Democracy after Citizens United

09/30/2010 4:00 PM Wong Auditorium
Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics; Allison R. Hayward, Vice President of Policy, Center for Competitive Politics; John Bonifaz, Founder, National Voting Rights Institute; Legal Director, Voter Action (Free Speech for People Campaign); Gabriel Lenz, Associate Professor, Political Science, MIT; Stephen Ansolabehere, Professor, Department of Political Science, MIT and Professor of Government, Harvard University

Description: Just when it seemed the corrosive influence of big money on American politics could not be greater, the Supreme Court gave corporations full license to exercise 'free speech' during campaign season. Renowned legal scholar Lawrence Lessig and his respondents debate the most effective response to the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which, Lessig claims, poses an imminent danger to our democracy.

Consider how corporate political clout has shaped critical areas of public policy, Lessig begins. For instance, subsidies to influential corn producers in the past three decades have led to shifts in food production, such as feeding cattle antibiotics to help them digest corn fodder, and high fructose corn syrup pervasive in food and soda. The result: an epidemic of obesity and antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria -- both antithetical to public health. Industries engage in "rent seeking," contributing to politicians in exchange for some kind of economic advantage, and blocking action in the public interest in the process: fossil fuel industries defeat climate change legislation; financial services defeat tough banking regulation; the health insurance sector defeats truly comprehensive health care law. Now, says Lessig, the Supreme Court has "taken a bad situation and made it much worse," by lifting restrictions on corporations at election time.

Lessig does not disagree with the essence of the decision -- that the First Amendment permits corporations to engage in political speech. But he takes issue with the Court's reasoning, which ignores what he describes as "dependency corruption." The framers of the Constitution intended that Congress depend exclusively on its citizens. This is no longer the case, says Lessig: "People have increasingly been replaced by the funders." (Political scientist Gabriel Lenz confirms this perception, citing studies showing that when it comes to enacting policy changes, "Congress is mostly responsive to the 99th percentile in terms of income.") Congress members spend most of their time raising money, and the dominant givers are special interests, which have now been entirely unleashed by Citizens United.

The great evil, argues Lessig, is that Americans believe that corporate money alone "buys results," and "this belief is sapping our will to participate in politics." Lessig strongly supports the idea of citizen"funded elections, which would permit only small"dollar contributions matched by the government, to help reduce the influence of corporations and reconnect citizens with their leaders.

John Bonifaz sees a calculated effort over the past 30 years to enhance the power of corporations by fabricating corporate rights, and now through Citizens United, to permit businesses to tap their general treasury funds to influence elections, so they can "effectively own our democracy." He proposes a constitutional amendment that would restore the First Amendment, and elections, to the people.

Identifying herself as a "small government libertarian," Allison Hayward wants to give the ethical actors in Congress an opportunity to clean their own house. She is also concerned that a focus on campaign financing may "drive good people out of politics, while bad people will still give." There are few enough opportunities for political participation for most people, says Hayward, and we "need to make sure that contributing to a candidate is a virtuous thing."

About the Speaker(s): Prior to his current appointments at Harvard, Lawrence Lessig was a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School (where he was founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society), Harvard Law School (1997"2000), and the University of Chicago Law School. Lessig clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

Lesser's academic focus has concerned law and technology, especially where they concern copyright. He has written five books on the subject, and served as lead counsel in major copyright law cases. His current work at the Safra Center focuses on the question of institutional corruption.

Lessig has won numerous awards, including the Free Software Foundation's Freedom Award, and was named one of Scientific American's Top 50 Visionaries. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Lessig earned a B.A. in economics and a B.S. in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in philosophy from Cambridge, and a J.D. from Yale.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Department of Political Science

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