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Lessig: Don't fall into the four-year trap

At Personal Democracy Forum, Stanford law professor says we can only work to reform government if we work at it constantly--not just every election cycle.

NEW YORK--Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University law professor and co-founder of the new Change Congress project, gave the audience at the Personal Democracy Forum conference a brief history lesson on Tuesday morning. His message: government corruption is nothing new.

On a massive display screen, he loaded up a portrait of legendary New England statesman and eventual Secretary of State Daniel Webster, whose professional conflicts of interest would have been enough to make even the most lukewarm of political bloggers cringe.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig has founded the project Change Congress.
Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig co-founded the project Change Congress. Lawrence Lessig

"Bribery wasn't even a crime in our Congress until 1853. The 19th century was a cesspool of this kind of corruption," Lessig explained. "Up to 25 percent of the voters literally sold their votes. I'm not talking about a golden past."

But there are two big differences between that vintage sleaze and the corruption in government today, Lessig insisted. The first is that because of the government's reach and its potential to affect everyday American life, keeping it clean is a more serious priority.

"Even though today the individuals are better than the individuals who populated our government in the past, the problem of this corruption is much worse," Lessig explained. "And it's much worse because government today is much more significant. It's first more critical to core national problems...and second, it's more pervasive. The government's fingers are everywhere."

He brought up a number of examples: Perks from the sugar industry caused the Food Nutrition Board to establish guidelines that determined a "balanced diet" to be 25 percent sugar. When he was vice president of the U.S., Al Gore couldn't have his way with Internet deregulation because Congress was concerned that money from the telecommunications industry would stop flowing, said Lessig, who considered a run for Congress himself. And then there's the big one: global warming, and the "junk science" research put forth at the behest of the oil industry.

"Just putting money on the table removes the conditions of trust," Lessig said. "Money destroys the opportunity for trust. Eighty-eight percent of the people in my district believe they have their votes bought."

But the other big difference between the 19th century's politics and today's is what's making possible Lessig's mission at Change Congress: Daniel Webster's America didn't have Wikipedia, WordPress, or Twitter. (It would've been kind of cool, though: "Wig shopping with @henryclay, then out to eat. WTF is with these tea prices?") The Web's tools have made it possible for far more information to make it into the hands of ordinary citizens, and those citizens in turn can use the Web to band together and work toward democratic action.

Change Congress, which he founded with Joe Trippi, the Web czar for Howard Dean's ultimately unsuccessful but sea-changing presidential campaign, is "a kind of Google mash-up in the context of politics." Pulling together and organizing grassroots anti-corruption and activism efforts from across the Web, the ambitious effort is a "bipartisan reform movement to leverage the reform work of others."

But what's really holding us back, Lessig said, is the notion that we only have to get excited about politics every four years. The political blog phenomenon, for all the press it's gotten, is still a hotbed for small cliques of policy junkies three-fourths of the time. Change Congress, Lessig explained, will be a round-the-clock operation that doesn't only pick up when people are headed to the polls.

He left his role as founder and CEO of copyright reform advocacy group Creative Commons in April to focus on Change Congress.

"Every fourth year we wake up. There's this explosion of democratic energy and then we fall back asleep," he said. "We have this radical exciting party and activism surrounding this ideal every fourth year and then we crash. This is our Thursday night out."