Lessig encourages a return to Madison's vision of a representative democracy

Madison Vision Series

In a nation where private funding from wealthy donors fuels political campaigns, Lawrence Lessig told a Madison Vision Series audience on April 13 that equality, the kind that James Madison idealized, has now been forgotten. “Because though our republic now defends the equality of race, and of sex, and has begun to effect equality for sexual orientation,” Lessig said, “our tradition has forgotten [the] core commitment of a republican government.”

Lessig’s lecture, “Madison’s Forgotten Egalitarianism,” drew from his highly regarded body of academic work, legal expertise, and political activism.

In 2014, Lessig cited that about 5.4 million Americans gave at least $1 to any congressional campaign (about 1.7 percent of the population). But of that 5.4 million, the top 100 gave as much as the bottom 4.75 million combined. These are the “relevant funders,” whose contributions are enough such that their views matter to candidates, and the candidates figure out where they must stand in order to get this funding and get their party back into power. And, in order to be a relevant funder, Lessig chose the number $5,200. a contribution amount that 570,854 Americans, or 0.02 percent of the population, made in 2014, demonstrating that a miniscule amount of the U.S. population truly has a stake in the outcome of electoral processes.

“It’s the money primary. It’s not [just] a white primary, it’s a green primary,” Lessig said. “It’s one stage in a multi-stage election, the first stage that determines who can qualify to run in a regular election process. It is a system of Tweedism.”

To explain Tweedism, Lessig told the story of Dr. Lawrence Nixon, a Texas citizen in the early 20th century who was black. In 1923, Texas had adopted a statute that explicitly established the Democratic primary as an all-white primary with an open general election, resulting in a democracy responsive to whites only. This system can be traced to Boss Tweed, where, as Lessig explained, “Tweedism [is] any end-stage process for electing, which has at least two stages, where the Tweeds get to dominate the first stage and everyone gets to participate in the second stage. But the consequence of that domination is a filter which excludes and biases the effective election.” 

This is the system of campaigning that we effectively have in the United States, Lessig said. But it can be rebuilt.

First, “Tweedism is legal,” Lessig said. “Nothing I’m talking about here is bribery. I’m talking about corruption of a system, of representative democracy.” Though it was not pure, the framers of our Constitution intended for us to have a representative democracy, one that ought to be “dependent on the people alone.” But, this improper dependence on funding cheats democracy.

Second, Lessig added, “Tweedism is inequality…[it] is unequal status…[It is an] unequal vote, which means unequal influence, because when we think about what it means to be responsive to the funders, we need to recognize the very different influence that funders have relative to the influence all of us would have if, indeed, we could control the process.” Madison envisioned a system of government that avoided aristocracy, and our system today caters and is responsive to the rich more than the poor.

Third, “Tweedism is fixable,” Lessig said. Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed changes that reform campaign finance systems: the possibility of vouchers, for example, that citizens can put toward any candidate of their choosing, or a matching fund proposal, in which candidates can commit to taking small contributions and have them matched to exponentially increase their value.

“If we did that, perhaps a hybrid between these Democratic and Republican proposals,” Lessig encouraged, “Then when candidates run, what would matter would be the votes, not the unequal money…what would matter [would be] the equality of citizens.”

Lessig encouraged James Madison University, a national model for the engaged university, to consider this inequality and seek to remedy it. It is a system of inequality that benefits only a few, and strays greatly from Madison’s vision of egalitarianism and democracy.

“And the reason to fight for that equality…is to restore a basic possibility of a representative democracy that could do something other than respond, as this one does, to the interests of the tiny fraction of the very few,” Lessig concluded. “And what we need to find is the will…to stand up and demand that equality and to begin that demand now.”


April 29, 2015

By Rosemary Girard ('15)

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Published: Sunday, April 13, 2014

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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