When facing public disinterest, the cold shoulder from the news media, legions of incumbent politicians, a series of unfavorable Supreme Court decisions and more than $6 billion in entrenched interests; walking 150 miles through northern New Hampshire in temperatures as low as negative 20 degrees is the least of your problems.
None of which dissuaded the 400 members of the New Hampshire Rebellion.
On January 21, on the fifth anniversary of the Citizens Unitedv. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision, the New Hampshire Rebellion, led by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, descended on Concord, New Hampshire, to protest the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Demonstrators walked in sub-freezing — sometimes sub-zero — temperatures across the state from all four directions to the capital, Concord. According to the Concord Monitor, individuals from as far as Hong Kong, France, California, and Cambridge participated, sharing a belief that the wealthy have too disproportionate an influence in politics.
The longest walk was a 10-day, 150-mile trek that started 20 miles from the Canadian border, in Dixville Notch — a tiny unincorporated township nestled in the White Mountains and famous for it’s midnight voting during the nation’s first primary election.
Lessig set the rebellion in New Hampshire for it’s “First in the Nation’’ primary election status, but also for it’s tradition of grassroots politics and campaign finance reform activism. On January 1, 1999, 88-year-old New Hampshire native Dorris “Granny D’’ Haddock began her walk from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California to advocate for campaign finance reform. Two birthdays and 3,200 miles later, she arrived at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. at the spry age of 90. Less than three years after Granny D completed her walk, Washington passed legislation — The McCain-Feingold Act — placing limitations on independent and campaign election spending.
Campaign finance reform advocates, however, face a unique paradox.
Despite 96 percent support for reducing the influence of money in politics, according to a Global Strategy Group poll, Americans are also just as unenthused about addressing the issue. Out of 23 issues, “money in politics’’ ranked 20th in the public’s 2015 policy priorities, according to the Pew Research Center. This fallsjust below transportation and above scientific research, global trade, and global warming. From 2002 to 2012, no more than 28 percent of Americans thought “reforming campaign finance’’ was a priority.
Much of this has to do with framing, said Lessig.
“If you talk about it as campaign finance reform, that’s such a geeky way to talk about it,’’ he said. “Most people don’t know what you’re talking about, they don’t have any clear sense of it.’’
Lessig pointed to a 2012 Gallup poll where Americans ranked reducing corruption in federal government second only to creating good jobs. They weren’t thinking about bribery, according to Lessig, but people like Sheldon Adelson who individually spent $155 million on the 2012 election.
Wonkiness aside, campaign finance addresses a larger problem that cuts to the center of American democracy.
“The problem is that we have such a small number of people funding elections,’’ said Lessig. “Less than 2 percent of Americans gave anything over the last election cycle to any campaign. The top 0.2 percent gave as much as the bottom 66 percent.’’
About 20 people committed to the Dixville Notch route from start to finish. (Lessig planned to walk the entire walk, but missed one day to care for his ill daughter in Boston.) Many others would join to walk along the way, and a few people even walked the entire way, according to Lessig. To deal with injuries and the frigid weather, however, the walkers worked as a team, rotating through to give others a rest.
The people walking in this year’s New Hampshire Rebellion weren’t just protesting; they were preparing.
Along the route, the New Hampshire Rebellion featured speaking and training events. Speakers included local community members and leaders, as well as liberal political figures, such as Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Andrew Cuomo in the democratic primary in the New York gubernatorial election, and Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s.
The organizers also partnered with the American Friends Service Committee to hold “bird-dogging’’ training sessions. As described in a 2007 New York Times article, “Just as a bird dog flushes a bird out and pins it down, political bird-dogging involves forcing a candidate to address a particular issue and answer it with specificity.’’
The New Hampshire Rebellion’s bird-doggers had their question ready: What specific reforms will you advance to end the corrupting influence of money in politics?
“As the candidates are walking down the street and shaking their hands, you want to give people the courage to just ask the question,’’ said Lessig. “And what we think is, the more we get that kind of really informal interaction going, the more responsive the candidates will become.’’
Lessig says another walk is scheduled for July. Until then, the plan is to continue to flood the state with stamps, yard signs, and bumper stickers. The group will organize and equip citizens with the tools to get responses from political candidates on what they’re doing to address money in politics. They have also partnered with Cohen’s Stamp Stampede, a grassroots effort to stamp anti-corruption messages on dollar bills, and raise awareness about the influence of money in politics.
From New Hampshire Streets to the National Reform
Last year Lessig also founded Mayday PAC, a Super PAC devoted to eliminating the influence of money in elections. Politico dubbed Mayday the “PAC to end all PACs,’’ since Lessig aimed to corral big money to fight big money. One of the group’s mottos is “Embrace the Irony.’’ Mayday spent $7.5 million across eight 2014 elections and claims to have raised a total of $11 million to date.
However, only two of the eight federal candidates Mayday PAC supported won their elections. Heading into 2016, the group will focus more on supporting candidates in primaries, according to Lessig, where party lines are not a barrier for voters who feel campaign finance reform is a priority.
“The thing we were quite convinced of was the difficulty of competing with the partisan monster,’’ said Lessig. “If you can’t find a way to get over their partisan position, then you’re never going to get people focused and responsive to this issue.’’
While many of the Rebellion’s members were of the left-leaning Teachout/Cohen mold, state Republicans like Senate candidate Jim Rubens and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway also joined the New Hampshire Rebellion.
While Hemingway — the 32-year-old former state director for Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential run — would probably disagree with most Rebellion members on many political issues, the libertarian-leaning Republican is in solidarity with the anti-corruption movement.
“It is time for New Hampshire citizens to rise up with one voice and demand clean elections, ethical fundraising, and a reversal of what big money and partisan politics have wrought on our Democracy,’’ wrote Hemingway in an online op-ed.
Rubens, whose failed campaign was backed by Mayday PAC, spoke at the January 21 Concord rally, telling the audience he was there “to disabuse Republicans of any notion that this corrupt campaign finance system is advantageous to our party in any way.’’
“This is the system we’ve got, so whatever your cause, whatever your issue or your ideology, we’ve got to confront this corrupt, immobilized political system,’’ he said, according to the Concord Monitor, five years to the day after the Citizens United ruling.
Despite scheduling the ultimate rally on its anniversary, Lessig said he doesn’t think people upset about the influence of money in politics should focus solely on the 2010 Supreme Court case that allowed corporations and unions to directly spend unlimited amounts of money on political elections.
Lessig said he doesn’t particularly take issue with the idea that money is speech. Without that interpretation, he pointed out the government could theoretically pass laws to suppress the press or protect incumbent politicians.
“The truth is, despite the rhetoric around this issue, that’s not really a controversial idea,’’ he told the Concord Monitor.
Not all campaign finance reform advocates are united in their solutions, though. Wolf PAC, which joined Lessig and others for the New Hampshire Rebellion, is a political action group that wants to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United, eliminate corporate personhood, and enact public financing of elections.
The group has organized across the country to work with state legislators to call for a national convention of states — one of two ways to amend the Constitution outlined in Article V. So far, three states —Vermont, California and Illinois— have passed such resolutions.
But Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield says that the “corporations are not people’’ argument is a distraction.
“Often those who are focusing on money in politics focus on the wrong thing, and advocate reforms that would make matters worse,’’ said Greenfield, who otherwise agrees that centralized election and lobby spending has a bad effect on our political democracy.
In a lengthy essay for The Atlantic, Greenfield explained the civic importance of corporate personhood and took issue with the Supreme Court’s “simplistic, libertarian theory of free speech doctrine,’’ which doesn’t account for the negative, distorting effect of extensive elite spending on democracy.
Greenfield also points out that the money spent by the most politically active corporation, Chevron ($2.5 million in the 2012 election), did not compare to the amount spent by the most wealthy individuals, such as Adelson or the Koch brothers ($400 million).
Though he does find an “attractiveness’’ to public funding of elections and doesn’t want to dismiss “a broader response that includes a Constitutional amendment’’ to give Congress the power to regulate campaign finance, Greenfield suggested focusing efforts on reforms that had a better chance of succeeding.
Personally, Lessig said he favors a voucher system to dilute the influence of money in politics.
“We have radically concentrated the funding of campaigns to a tiny, tiny slice of the 1 percent,’’ he said. “The solution to that is to spread the funding of campaigns to a much broader swath of America.“
Lessig said he believes the voucher system offers two benefits over past attempts of regulating campaign finance reform. It doesn’t require amending the Constitution, which is, at the least, a forbidding barrier. It also addresses the concentration of funding by increasing participation, rather than attempting to restrict it, said Lessig.
“If it’s $50 a person, that’s about $7 billion an election, which is about two-and-a-half times the amount spent in the last election,’’ said Lessig. “That’s serious numbers, but it would be coming from a wide range of people, not just a tiny fraction of the one percent.’’
Looking Towards 2016: Many More Steps To Go
For now, however, his focus goes as far as the New Hampshire border and the upcoming primary elections.
“We’re recruiting people and then beginning to deploy tools that people could use to capture the moment when they’re asking a presidential candidate, and share it, and we can have commentary on that interaction, and create a real presence here,’’ said Lessig.
As for the 2016 presidential field, Rand Paul is the only serious GOP contender who has publicly endorsed even modest reform to reduce the influence of money in politics. Even while Hillary Clinton supported a public financing of elections in 2007, her campaign became the first ever to opt out of the existing voluntary public funding system.
Additionally, current Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has perhaps been the number one crusader against any campaign finance regulations, battling disclosure rules and contribution limits dating back decades.
For reformers, challenges remain. Two months before Granny D died on March 9, 2010 at the age of 100, the Supreme Court gutted McCain-Feingold in the Citizens United case. Less than a week after the New Hampshire Rebellion converged in Concord, the Koch brothers pledged to spend $900 million on the 2016 elections.