In New Hampshire, a small group of organizers are on a mission. They're seeking hundreds of people willing to walk as many as 150 miles in the frigid tundra of northern New England this January. And that's the easy part. Ultimately, the New Hampshire Rebellion, founded by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, wants to radically reduce the role that money plays in American politics.
Drawing inspiration from Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the legendary New Hampshire campaign finance activist who walked across the country over two years, finishing at age 90, more than 200 activists took part in the group's first long-distance walk last January. The next walk aims to put campaign finance reform in the national spotlight at a moment when 2016 candidates are gearing up for the Granite State's first-in-nation primary.
"There is a tremendous opportunity to show the country that New Hampshire can be and will be the leader in this issue as the national press starts to get here," said New Hampshire Rebellion Director Jeff McLean.
Any quest that involves taking on moneyed interests in Washington has always been a bit quixotic, and that's especially true of campaign finance reform right now. Another Lessig project, Mayday PAC, came on to the scene in the 2014 midterms with the bold goal of electing pro-campaign finance candidates, but ended up spending $10 million without any clear success.
The trouble, as Lessig noted in a dejected Tumblr post after the election, is that only one of the candidates the PAC backed in 2014, North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones, actually won, and he would have won anyway. In a more analytical post on the Mayday website, Lessig wrote that one lesson of the elections was that trying to move voters on the single issue of campaign finance ran up against the wall of party loyalty: "Whatever else voters wanted, they wanted first their team to win."
As Lessig points out, it's hard to imagine campaign finance reform driving many people to change their votes. It's an inherently wonky issue without the visceral pull of issues like job creation, national security, or abortion. But, to people like Lessig and McLean, it's the underlying factor that determines how everything else in politics plays out. Whether you're eager to reduce the national debt or desperate for action on climate change, you probably want the people, not the dollars, deciding what laws get passed.
In a popular TED talk, Lessig lays it out like this: The nation essentially has two elections in each cycle. There's the popular vote, but, before that, there's the money election. If you want to be considered in the real election, you don't have to win the money election, but you have to do pretty damn well. He notes that members of Congress and congressional candidates spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money.
"The question we need to ask is, what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent," he told the TED audience. "As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness, about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money."
Not everyone agrees that the story is so simple. Thomas Mann, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it's easy to overemphasize the role of money in elections, given just how much of it there is—more than $3.6 billion in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But he said in some cases, clashing powerful interests cancel each other out. In others, strong financial backing for a candidate makes little difference compared with a shift in the national mood favoring the opponent's party.
Mann said it's certainly true that wealthy interests wield influence in the political system, but it's not all about funneling money into campaigns. For example, one of the most powerful ways for interest groups to change policy is by essentially providing extra staff to work on issues with congressional offices.
In any case, Mann, who helped craft the McCain-Feingold Act, the 2002 landmark campaign finance law, said new reforms are unlikely in the current political climate. Resistance to such laws from Republicans in Congress, along with the Supreme Court's demonstrated willingness to treat many forms of campaign funding as protected free speech, present serious barriers. "It would be nice to separate lobbying from fundraising," Mann said. "But it's damn difficult, with the court that's skeptical of almost every reform now. That's one of the reasons I think we're missing the boat by putting the emphasis on something that can't be done until the court changes."
There's also still the open question of just how much voters care about money in politics. In one Gallup poll, 79 percent of US adults, including 82 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Republicans, said they'd support limits on campaign fundraising. But it's not something that comes up much when pollsters ask open-ended questions about the issues voters care most about. When asked how to fix Congress (needless to say, everyone knows it's broken), only 3 percent of respondents in one Gallup poll mentioned campaign finance. In contrast, 14 percent wanted to encourage more bipartisanship, and the most popular response, at 22 percent, was that we should just throw all members out and start fresh.
To McLean, the lack of public focus on big-money politics is a sign not of apathy but of perceived helplessness. New Hampshire Rebellion did its own polling about a year ago, he said, and the group found that 96 percent of the public thinks money in politics is a problem, but 91 percent believed there was nothing they could do about it.
So is there anything that can be done? New Hampshire Rebellion doesn't advocate for specific solutions, but McLean argues that there are a lot of possible options. Candidates could be given free or low-cost time on public airwaves, he said, or better public funding options. Or citizens could get government-funded vouchers to spend on the candidate of their choice. The first step, he added, is to convince citizens that big spending on campaigns is a real issue, not just a law of nature.
In New Hampshire, a small state where a lot of political dollars get spent, the issue naturally came up in this fall's elections. "People were inundated with these negative, attack ads," McLean said. "The more money that is being poured in, the more people reach out to us saying 'this is just crazy what's going on.'"
Going forward, McLean said New Hampshire Rebellion has more plans to raise awareness. This year, instead of just one long walk through New Hampshire, it's holding three additional short ones in different parts of the state, giving more people a chance to participate. It's also organized a speakers bureau to spread awareness.
But McLean doesn't expect immediate concrete results from these efforts, either in terms of new reform laws, or electing candidates who are hyper-focused on the issue. The goal is simply to convince more people that it's possible to change the system.
"I think success for us [would be] that when we do polling around this issue that we've been able to take that 91 percent and reduce it and show that we can give people hope," he said. "One of the things stronger than money is hope."