Citizens Rising - Liveblog | MIT Center for Civic Media

Citizens Rising - Liveblog

Live notes from the Citizens Rising event at MIT on Friday, Sept 19, 2014.


Daniel Miller opens. Next, Daniel Wong speaks. He worked as a designer in 2009. Bad news about the economy and the government weighed on him. His sister introduced him to Lessig's work and he got involved with Rootstrikers, attended meetings, led meetings. But then he got a new job, and activism fell by the wayside, until he came across an article on Gilens's work suggesting that the US government operates as an oligarchy. He introduces Martin Gilens.

Martin Gilens

Gilens opens by showing us "the most unsettling line in American politics." He continues to explain that the near-horizontal slope of the line is the significant part. It represents the probability of a policy to be adopted as a function of how popular it is with the American people. The most popular policies are virtually no more likely than the least popular. His results suggest that the views of Americans have very little influence on US policy.

Over 3 decades, he collected survey responses from Americans on their favored policies. He divided them by income, and alignment with political groups. He used this data to construct a statistical model of how US policy is influenced by the views of various groups: average citizens, economic elites, and interest groups. The horizontal line he started with, was the result for the average citizen group.

Moving on to economic elites and interest groups, he shows that they have a very clear influence on US policy. But he points out an asymmetry. Unpopular policies have nearly zero probability of passing, while the most popular still only have a one-in-two chance. There is a strong tendency towards the status quo.

Gilens singles out NAFTA, the Bush tax cuts, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall as three of the most significant policy changes in recent US history. These three policies have in common a benefit for well-off Americans. Throughout his surveys, Gilens saw three areas where well-off Americans differed from the rest: redistributive policies, regulation vs. "free market," and moral/religious issues. He notes that well-off Americans tend to be more liberal on moral/religious issues.

One of the questions he asked, was what the greatest problem facing the government was. A substantial minority of wealthy Americans believed that the government needed to provide food and shelter to those in need, to ensure that all families were above the poverty line, or that everyone could find a job, but these concerns were about twice as common among the general public.

He asks why the general public doesn't use democracy to get their concerns addressed. Campaigns take money. Obama's presidential campaign cost one billion dollars. Campaigns are funded by contributions from the wealthiest 0.01% of Americans. Although more of this money goes to the Republican party, the Democrats are also largely funded by these contributions.

Between 2008 and 2012, the amount of "dark money" contributed by super PACs tripled. In 2012, 93% of all super PAC money came from 3,318 people. 59% came from only 159 people, who all donated over a million dollars.

Moving forward, Gilens calls for campaign finance reform: public financing with voluntary limits, full disclosure. He also calls to reform lobbying by stopping the "revolving" door between government and lobbying firms. He suggests electoral reforms like resisting voter ID laws, and allowing weekend voting. Finally, he stresses the important of civic engagement through unions, and other community organizations.

Lawrence Lessig

Jonah Han, a Harvard sophomore, opens with a story about his first time voting, in the 2012 election. He celebrates that his voice mattered just as much as Bill Gates or anyone else in that moment. But, he expresses frustration at watching gun control legislation flounder after the Sandy Hook shooting just a few weeks later. He introduces Lawrence Lessig as someone working on bridging that gap.

Lessig opens with the story of Hong Kong deciding in 2007 that it would hold general elections by 2017. The changes went into effect, but the general public could only vote for nominees selected by a committee of 1200. He draws parallels to the electoral systems in Russia and Iran. He calls these "Boss Tweed Democracies." Tweed said "I don't care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating."

Moving onto the US, Lessig describes the explicitly all-white primaries of Texas 95 years after the 15th amendment removed racial restrictions on voting. In the present day, politicians spend as much as 80% of their time campaigning. He compares politicians to pigeons in a Skinner box, learning how they need to act to get the money they need. Citizens are excluded from the all-important nomination stage of elections.

Francis Fukuyama described US government as a vetocracy. Lessig compares the US representative democracy to a Swiss watch with intricate mechanisms intended to provide checks and balances against sways in public opinion. He compares the current dependence of elections on money to pouring honey into this mechanism. It's easy to block change. We've come to believe that we can only make change by amending the Constitution. Lessig calls this "bullshit." He points out that a simple statute like the American Anti-Corruption Act could make real change with a simple majority in Congress.

So, he sees a path forward by winning a Congressional majority dedicated to campaign finance reform. That is why he created Mayday PAC. Mayday has raised and matched $1m, and then $5m, which Lessig is working to get matched. 2014 is a pilot for Mayday, part of a longer plan, including the 2016 election and beyond.

He's launching a "Politics in 30 Seconds" campaign to allow anyone to upload video about the importance of campaign finance reform. Lessig sees this as an issue of "many." It will require many groups, with different ideologies, to come together to achieve reform.

Eight years ago, Lessig announced he would switch his focus from copyright reform to anti-corruption work. He was visited by Aaron Swartz, who asked how he could ever solve copyright problems when we have corruption in the government. It wasn't Lessig's field as an academic, but Aaron asked whether it was "as a citizen." Lessig, Swartz, and Josh Silver started Change Congress. When Obama came into office, Swartz moved onto Demand Progress with a focus on helping Obama achieve reform.

Lessig always hoped to work with Swartz again, but he didn't. After connecting to MIT's open network to download a large number of articles from JStor, he was charged with 13 felonies and up to 35 years in jail. After two years defending himself, Swartz took his own life. Lessig says this tore up his life, and since then he has been.

He says that what MIT did was not to kill Aaron, but simply to do nothing. He says we're guilty of the same when we see corruption and do nothing. He ends with a question: "Can we reclaim our democracy?"

Questions and Discussion

Miller introduces Nadeem Mazen. Nadeem, an MIT mechanical engineering graduate, cofounded the Danger!Awesome hackerspace after graduating so that he, and everyone, could have access to laser cutters after he graduated. He's currently a member on the Cambridge City Council. He doesn't believe politicians, from Congress to city councils, are really listening to the general public. He's pledged to voluntarily limit his number of terms, not the norm in Cambridge, so he can focus on getting things done. He wants to find and train leaders to replace him. He says this is working, and it's sustainable. He calls Lessig and Gilens back up.

Q: If we have a voucher system, where all candidates have a voucher for campaign funds, don't media companies still have the ability to skew public perception?

Lessig: There is a whole series of problems with American democracy. Problems with the way politicians raise money and how it gets spent are important, but distinct problems. Solving the raising problem first makes it easier to solve the other. If you have to raise your money in $50 chunks, you need to appeal to a much wider audience.

Gilens: The more money a politician raises, the better they'll do. But, it's not always the best funded campaign that wins. The problem is not having less money, it's having no money. He hopes to make more candidates viable.

Online Q: How do you solve the problem of voter turnout?

Lessig: People are critical of low voter turnout, but if you look at the data, why should they? The system is not responding to the average voter. We need to make the system more responsive.

Q: How can we have legitimate elections when voting is unobservable?

Lessig: Only about 15% of Congressional seats are really contested. Usually, who's voting for whom doesn't usually matter, but all politicians need to raise money. He stresses that the money problem makes sense to solve first in the sequence.

Q: With global climate change, isn't saving civilization more important than saving democracy?

Lessig: Agrees that the way we use oil and its effects on the environment is one of the most important issues today. Oil companies make a $100 billion/year profit, it only makes sense to solve the money problem first.

Q: A strong economy has made the US powerful. Isn't it necessary that companies advocate for their needs?

Gilens: When they're in line with the needs of common citizens, yes. But when those interests diverge, absolutely not.

Lessig: Twitter answer: "no."

Q: What about reforms to electoral college, winner-takes-all, and districting?

Gilens: These reforms are being tested on a small scale, and we should continue to do so.

Lessig: Again, stresses sequence. Many of these reforms make campaigns more expensive, so we need to fix the way campaigns are funded first.

Q: Can we reform the consumption side of the process? With approval voting, each candidate would run on their own, and would have no incentive to tarnish others.

Lessig: Would love to see this tried. The current system is the sickest imaginable, a system of non-consensual communication, and he'd love to see innovation. The communication happens in 30 second chunks. He calls this the pornography of ideas, an absurd way to communicate, in which it's impossible to discuss anything meaningful.

Nadeem: We have rank voting in Cambridge, and it resulted in a more congenial election.

Q: What can we do to solve the problem, right now? Where do we start?

Lessig: How can we flip the non-consensual communication to consensual communication? Can we get a more meaningful connection to voters at a lower cost.

Gilens: We need not one organizations, but a multitude of organizations.

Q: Do you envision a pathway to the courts changing their perspecitve in a fundamental way?

Lessig: Yes. And this is an important point to keep in the center of the progressive movement. The Supreme Court is way off from the views of average Americans, and they are not insensitive to that. How do they get back? (Wearing law-geek hat) Lessig says corporations are discovering the high cost of free speech through unlimited spending, which is what was allowed by Citizens United. Unlimited contributions to super PACs, the real problem, was created by a lower court and could be overturned.

Q: Is Tweedism necessarily a bad thing? The average citizen isn't necessarily informed.

Lessig: We need to figure out which filters are good and which are bad. If the filters were truly representative, he might not have a problem with that. The real question is the reasoning of why we're excluding people. We've built a filtering system that excludes the poor, and most people. It's not justifiable. Income was one dimension of equality that was explicitly stressed by Madison in the Federalist Papers.

Nadeem ends with a prompt for the audience: What is this movement's ice bucket challenge?