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The Big Numbers Behind Big Money in Politics


With an increasingly small fraction of wealthy Americans buying and selling elections, power has never been more unequal in Washington, says Lawrence Lessig in a new TED Talk. And the problem goes way beyond the 1 percent.    

Everybody seems to agree that there’s too much money in politics. According to a Demos poll during the last election cycle, more than 80 percent of Americans agree that “corporate political spending drowns out voices of average Americans,” and more than half would support a ban on all corporate donations. What’s more, opposition to laws like the Citizens United decision is equally strong among those on the left and the right. 

But knowing that the system is rigged is different than understanding exactly what’s behind it. With Super PACs and “independent expenditures” veiled from public knowledge by Citizens United and other laws, how do we know what’s really going on?

For activist and academic Lawrence Lessig, it all comes down to the Lesters. That is, the 144,000 or so Americans that are rigging the game for the rest of us—roughly the same small number of Americans who are named Lester. These are the guys making big donations to Super PACs and hiring high-powered lobbies. They’re also the guys members of Congress are trying very hard to impress—as Lessig adds, federal politicians spend somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of their time just trying to raise even more money from the Lesters.

But wait, it gets worse. The Lesters may have more political influence than most of us can fathom, but they’re no match for the real movers and shakers. The ones who are really in charge are the .000042 percent—that’s exactly 132 Americans—who made 60 percent of Super PAC contributions in 2012. I’m gonna let that sink in a little…  

But don’t worry, there is hope. There are plenty of proposals for fairer elections already on the table, and no shortage of public support. The key, says Lessig, is to remember that the barriers to real change are not insurmountable—just political.

To learn more, check out his TED Talk below: 

Image by Kevin Dooley, licensed under Creative Commons