This week, we bring you a special report on a two-week, 185-mile trek through the winter cold in New Hampshire, led in January by constitutional scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig to raise awareness of the crippling problem of corruption in American politics.
“If you think about every single important issue America has to address — if you’re on the right and you care about tax reform or addressing the issues of the deficit, or on the left and you care about climate change or real health care reform — whatever the issue is, if you look at the way our system functions right now you have to see that there will be no sensible reform given the way we fund campaigns,” Lessig says.
Inspired by Doris “Granny D” Haddock’s march across America, Lessig says his movement, the New Hampshire Rebellion, is encouraging voters to ask all the presidential candidates who soon will be haunting the Granite State: “How are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?”
BILL MOYERS: David Simon, it’s time you meet Lawrence Lessig. Like you, he knows that capitalism is no blueprint for democracy and he’s demonstrating the power of his convictions with boots on the ground-- snow boots.
Lessig is a well-known constitutional scholar and activist. He not only talks the talk, he’s walking the walk. Last month, through winter’s ice, sleet and snow, he led a two-week march of patriotic Americans from north to south down 185 miles of streets and roads in New Hampshire, traditionally, the site of the nation’s first presidential primary. The march was to raise awareness of the need for campaign finance reform, including HCR-10. That’s a resolution in the State Legislature to amend the U.S. Constitution and overthrow Citizens United. They're also asking all of the presidential candidates who will soon be haunting New Hampshire a big question: how are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?
This hike’s just the beginning. More marches are planned in the state between now and 2016. This year’s began symbolically in Dixville Notch, population 12, well-known to fans of American politics as the first town in the United States to cast its presidential ballots.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: People have constantly said to me, "this feels a little crazy, to march across New Hampshire in the middle of January." I kind of feel, well, who is the crazy in this story?
We have a Congress where members spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money. They live in an environment, much like an elementary school, where the buzzers go off and they race from their office down to the floor of Congress to vote on issues they don’t even know what they are voting on. They stand at an empty chamber, giving speeches to nobody. It is a system that produces no progress.
So the people inside that system it seems to me are the crazy ones. So if there is crazy here and I'm crazy for this march, then crazy knows crazy.
If you think about every single important issue America has to address -- if you're on the right and you care about tax reform or addressing the issues of the deficit, on the left if you care about climate change or real health care reform -- whatever the issue is, if you look at the way our system functions right now you have to see that there will be no sensible reform given the way we fund campaigns.
GABRIEL GRANT: No one directly cares that much about campaign finance reform or the issue of money in politics because it’s not an issue that directly affects us. It’s an issue that affects us through every other issue we care about.
MALE HIKER: It’s a great day today! Oh yeah, got to wear these. Essential for any walk to save democracy.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: Both sides of the political divide are embarrassed, I think, by the way in which the system functions, but they have no clear resolve or will to do anything about it. So the only way we can do something is to force them to take it seriously.
So we’re at the tip of New Hampshire. We’re going to start at the place that the New Hampshire primary will happen, and we’re about to begin a march. And the march will be two weeks, from Dixville Notch to Nashua.
New Hampshire is an incredibly sophisticated political state, mainly because presidential candidates basically live here for two years of the presidential election cycle as they try to convince New Hampshire to vote for them.
ARCHON FUNG: New Hampshire still is one of the few moments in the process of electing our president in which ordinary people sometimes can get to ask candidates real questions in an authentic and unscripted way.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: We want to create a movement of people who will make this the first issue by asking every single presidential candidate between now and January 2016 this one question: “What will you do to end the system of corruption in Washington?”
We’ve been looking for a long time to the kind of action that people had to pay attention to, they had to look at, they had to see, they had to think about. You know, we’re hopeful that if people see people trudging through the sleet and the rain and the snow in New Hampshire in January, they’ll stop and say “Why? Why would you do that? What’s the purpose? What’s the issue?” And as they think about it they’ll be reminded that they too care about this issue.
The latest poll we’ve done found 96 percent of Americans believe that the influence of money in our political system has got to be changed. There is no issue in American politics that has that unanimity of support. But at the same time 91 percent of Americans believe this issue will never be solved. Ninety one percent believe there is no way to beat this issue because the issue is so tied up with power right now that it can’t be reformed.
MARY REDWAY: Single-file please!
I’m 61 years old. It depresses me. It depresses me to think what I’m leaving my children. I’m past the point of anger. I think we all had a sense of futility until this march came through and somehow for us it seems to be a window of possibility.
NICK PENNIMAN: One of the great challenges for anyone who cares about campaign finance reform is to make it a kitchen table issue. Is to link it directly to people’s lives in a real way. To show them that the foreclosure crisis next door links back to money and politics and the power of the bank lobby. That the cost of prescription drugs links back to the pharmaceutical lobby.
MARY REDWAY: In general people support us whether they know it or not, the sense of frustration and dissatisfaction with the total dysfunction of the government and I think everybody right on agrees yes, money is one of the big problems.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: The simplest thing that money buys you in Washington -- and the thing that absolutely everybody admits it buys you -- is access.
So, you're a congressperson, you've been on the road all day, maybe giving speeches, maybe meeting people. You get home and there is a pile of messages of people you need to call, and among those people are the people who have given you $5,000 in your congressional campaign
Who are you going to call first? So, your priorities get bent in direction of the money.
When you step back and you ask, "Where in the constitution, in the design of our government, did anybody ever envision that money, independent of votes, was going to have this amount of control in our system?"
ARCHON FUNG: The word “democracy” means “people rule” but in this system it’s at least the case that money rules as much as people rule. And if that’s the case, it’s not a democracy.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: Even though the framers were pretty bad about race, and they certainly didn't understand sex equality, the one thing the framers got was class. They understood the biggest risk was to create an aristocracy, and so they insisted, as Madison said, that the people meant not the rich more than the poor. Well, we've completely betrayed that commitment.
GABRIEL GRANT: And this issue fundamentally is about empowerment. It’s about feeling like ideas can move forward based on their merits instead of based on who holds the most power.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: So the incentives inside the fundraising process no longer align with the incentives of an institution that was meant to represent the people as a whole. And the only way to fix that is to change the incentives, to make it so that instead of obsessively worrying about what the tiniest fraction of the one percent care about, they are worrying about what the vast majority of Americans care about.
The solution is to change the way we fund elections by supporting small dollar-funded elections so that instead of the 1/20th of one percent, they raise money from the vast majority of Americans to spread out the funder influence, just like we spread out the vote. That would change the way we fund elections and radically change the way Congress works.
This is not a one-time struggle that we can solve and then just forget. This last election cycle saw a lot of super PAC money, but it was kind of the dry run, just getting its legs and what I fear is 2016 is going to be the year of the super PAC, where they are extremely effective in raising unbelievable amounts of money from a completely tiny, tiny, tiny set of Americans.
MALE HIKER: Hey, stand for a selfie?
LAWRENCE LESSIG: Of course!
MALE HIKER: I think I got one.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: Let’s go!
You know, when we decided to do this, we first didn't expect there would be more than about five or ten at the most, people who would be marching.
But as we've gone through the town or have been going down roads, the number of people who have reacted passionately and really vigorously to what we we’re doing as they see our signs or they have read about us or heard about us on television, people honking horns, putting signs in front of their house, every day there’s new people joining for the rest of the walk.
NICK PENNIMAN: It is raw human suffering to walk from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire to Nashua in January. We’ve seen that over the course of the last two weeks: sleet, snow, blizzards, sub-zero temperatures. The inevitable question-- “So what?” Well, they got picked up by every single media outlet in the state including every paper that counts. Radio, TV, and they’ve also created a dialogue beyond that.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: I see a finish line!
After this march we’re going to begin to organize meet-ups around the state where people get trained about how do you ask the question: “What will you do to end the system of corruption in Washington?”
LAWRENCE LESSIG: C’mon Kevin!
KEVIN: Three way finish! C’mon bud! Woah!
LAWRENCE LESSIG: We made it!
MALE HIKER: Thank you sir!
LAWRENCE LESSIG: This is a much easier problem than some of the really hard problems that the 20th century struggled with and solved. When you think about racism or sexism or homophobia, those are not problems which you can just solve overnight. You don’t just wake up one day no longer a racist. It takes years, generations to rip that pathology out of the DNA of a society
But this is a problem of just changing incentives. If we change the incentives for fundraising, campaigns would change overnight. BILL MOYERS: Sound the alarm, because soon the Supreme Court will rule in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission – a case that, like Citizens United, may open the floodgates to more money in politics even wider. Sad to say, there’s barely a single decision before Congress, the White House, or state and local governments that can’t be swayed by the almighty dollar.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ll show you how cash has bought the vote of elected officials on every issue from the environment and taxes to food stamps and the minimum wage. And on our “Take Action” page, we’ll keep you updated on what to do about it -- how to help spread the New Hampshire rebellion to every village and town, to every precinct in this country.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.
Producer/Camera/Editor: Cameron Hickey. Field Associate Producer: John Light. Intro Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Producer: Robert Booth. Additional Editing: Lauren Feeney. Audio: Christoph Gelfand.