Do you feel that? The tension in the United States in palpable.
The feeling derives from the ever-increasing awareness that a tiny group of wealthy individuals have a hammerlock on our political system that prevents new ways of approaching education, agriculture, health, energy, banking, trade, taxes or climate change.
At the same time, everyday we witness thousands of stories of hope in each of those same areas. But none seem able to penetrate the media maelstrom and are ignored or actively blocked by that increasingly small and unstable group of individuals who finance our political system.
So what are we supposed to do?
Recently, I had lunch with a friend and teacher, Lawrence Lessig, at the Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge. We discussed the remarkably frustrating juxtaposition of these thousands of stories of hope and the common barrier they all face from our narrowly financed political system.
Knowing he is a man who has delved deeply into this problem for decades, I asked him the obvious question. What are we to do?
His answer was simple, and came in two parts.
Part One: Invest your time and energy in creating and telling more stories of hope – no matter how small — in the issues that matter most to you.
Part Two: Understand that reversing the concentration of power among the wealthy in our government is the necessary first step in releasing the possibilities contained those stories of hope.
Professor Lessig referenced America’s history, taking a view through the lens of distributed power. His view illuminated the dynamics of America being a land taken by force for the benefit of white, male landowners through a hard-fought evolution to a place where women, African-Americans and American who descend from any racial heritage have a stake in the game.
Through this lens, the obvious solution to the increasingly opaque, concentrated financial power over our politics is to reform our laws governing our political financing before tackling any other issue. The pendulum that has swung too far toward allowing individuals and small groups to have disproportionate influence needs to be halted and pushed back.
More than any force, this pendulum squashes those stories of hope that have recently held captive my fascination and full attention.
As it happens, Professor Lessig wrote a book on how we can accomplish such a change in momentum away from centralized power. Its title is Republic Lost and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. You can also check out his TED talk on the subject.
His suggestion in the book—which I agree with—is to reform election finance by having the entire enterprise financed by vouchers available to every American at some small-dollar threshold, say $100 or $200 per person. This is distributed power—the same force that works well for internet servers and modern energy grids. It will work in election finance by forcing political aspirants to cultivate policies that reflect the interests of millions to raise money, rather than simply cultivating the few hundred or thousand individuals now projecting their influence.
He also encouraged me to look closely at the “Anti-Corruption Act” currently being advocated, which I also support.
My decisions to highlight people like Sal Kahn, Jeff Brenner, Colin Archipley and Liz Perez in my journalism, or in my book “Greedy Bastards” are driven by my desire to share with others these stories of hope. You know I talk fast and wasting time isn’t my forte, so I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t strongly believe that a more abundant system of food, water, energy, health and education is within our grasp.
My decisions to highlight the madness of allowing a nation of 300 million people to be ruled by the wealthiest 150,000 is intended to point out that this is the common barrier we all face.
But we must go beyond highlighting the negative. Invest in and create our stories of hope, organize and reform our city, state and federal election financing to small-dollar vouchers for distributed election finance.
These principles guide me each day and give me relief from a sense of frustration and powerlessness cultivated by our political system and its complicit political media. Perhaps they will help you too.