There have been many approaches to reducing the influence of money in American politics: disclosure, fair media access, public financing, contribution limits, limiting the role of outside groups, and the list goes on. Last Wednesday, I joined a brand new approach: walk twenty miles across frozen ground in single-digit weather.
Brainchild of my colleague Lawrence Lessig, the project is called the New Hampshire Rebellion. The objective is to get New Hampshire residents to pose one question to all of the candidates during the 2016 presidential primaries: “How are YOU going to end the system of corruption in Washington?” The means is a long, cold walk. By corruption, he doesn’t mean quid-pro-quo exchanges of money for political favors, but the broader ways in which the influence of money distorts democratic decision-making in Congress (see his 2011 interview in Boston Review). And Larry is walking for American democracy. His walk will take two weeks and cover 185 miles (that’s the length of New Hampshire, the long way).
I joined for just one day —the leg that ran from Concord to Manchester. The run was about nineteen miles. But it was not the distance, so much as the weather. When we started out in the morning, it was 0 degrees Fahrenheit and the day peaked at a balmy 10 degrees by 2 p.m. Thanks to the ingenuity of the modern outdoor recreation industry, I was able to implement a layering strategy that kept me warm throughout.
About twenty-five of us walked that Wednesday. Seventeen people —the “through-walkers”—had committed to doing the whole 185 mile route and the rest of us were along for just part of the trip: a few days, or in my case just one.
Now I’m more of a participatory democracy man than an elections guy, but it is an easy truth that reducing the influence of money in politics would be a good thing. Still, for me, the most energizing parts of this political adventure involved participation.
I’ve participated in politics in many different ways —voting, going to (lots of) meetings, writing op-eds, talking in mass media, blogging, talking to officials, protesting, buycotts, boycotts, and, of course, giving money to causes and candidates. But this long walk was a brand new form of political expression for me. I recommend it highly —it is a great way to see the communities that are subject to the policies and politics you’re trying to change, to really get to know the people that your working with, and—as so many walkers and hikers know—to get in touch with parts of yourself.
The brilliance of this project is that the New Hampshire primaries —perhaps along with the Iowa caucuses —must be one of the few remaining moments in the U.S. presidential election process in which ordinary people have an opportunity to interact with the candidates in an un-spun and un-scripted way. It may be one of the only moments in which some citizens have the opportunity to participate by challenging candidates and engaging in dialogue with them. To organize around that short moment of authenticity is a fantastic way to harness citizen participation to inject a reform impulse into a political system that has proven to be highly resistant to this kind of change.
It was too cold that day to have conversations on the street and we were moving quickly, but many who saw us give us the thumbs-up and honked in support. Whether people in New Hampshire want to clean up Congress, they are generally friendly, or just wanted to hearten fellow humans walking through the freezing cold, it was wonderful to have their support.
I didn’t know who would show up for this walk, and I get the sense that no one else did either. Once I met them, I was delighted to count myself among their number. Some were old, but many were young. Some walkers had been active in campaign finance reform issues for decades. A surprising number, however, were new to politics and had not done more than vote prior to this walk. Many walkers told me that they cared most about environmental issues and economic justice and inequality, among other things, but thought that there would be no progress without breaking through the problem of systemic corruption in Congress first.
There were a disproportionate number of celebrities among our little group. There was Larry Lessig, of course. Quite a few walkers told me they had joined because they had heard Larry talk or read Republic Lost. It was important for him to be there; now they know that he literally walks the talk. We were also joined by Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) who is the champion of the “Government by the People Act,”which would reward both citizens and politicians for small money donations to offset the enormous incentives for politicians to court the very wealthy. Cenk Uygur, the host of The Young Turks (TYT) daily Internet program of The Young Turks Network joined us for Wednesday’s walk as well. TYT aims to define the next generation of new-talk media, and they are doing a pretty good job so far, with 50 million views per month. Cenk went the whole way: an impressive feat for someone accustomed to the mild climate of Southern California.
I don’t know how many people in New Hampshire will ask the 2016 presidential candidates how they plan to fix systemic corruption in Congress. Even if they do get to ask that question, it is unclear how much of a difference it will make in the candidates’commitments or in voters’choices. But every democratic advance, including democracy itself, was born in fanciful creativity and beat long odds. Why should this be any different?