RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Lessig writes: "This week, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents turned out to protest China's plan for bringing democracy to that city. Rather than letting voters pick the candidates that get to run for chief executive, Beijing wants the candidates selected by a 1,200 person 'nominating committee.'"

Pro-democracy activists filled the streets of Honk Kong. (photo: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy activists filled the streets of Honk Kong. (photo: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images)

Americans Should Be Protesting for Democracy, Too

By Lawrence Lessig, Reader Supported News

04 October 14


his week, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents turned out to protest China's plan for bringing democracy to that city. Rather than letting voters pick the candidates that get to run for chief executive, Beijing wants the candidates selected by a 1,200 person "nominating committee." Critics charge the committee will be "dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite." "We want genuine universal suffrage," Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party demanded, "not democracy with Chinese characteristics."

But there's not much particularly Chinese in the Hong Kong design, unless Boss Tweed was an ancient Chinese prophet. Tweed famously quipped, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Beijing's proposal is just Tweedism updated: a multi-stage election, with a biased filter at the first stage.

The pattern has been common in America's democracy too. Across the Old South, the Democratic Primary was limited to "whites only." That bias produced a democracy responsive to whites -- only. The battle for equal rights was a fight to remove that illegitimate bias, and give African Americans an equal say in their government.

Today there's no "white primary." Today, there's a "green primary." To run in any election, primary or general, candidates must raise extraordinary sums, privately. Yet they raise that money not from all of us. They raise it from a tiny, tiny few. In the last non-presidential election, only about .05 percent of America gave the maximum contribution to even one congressional candidate in either the primary or general election; .01 percent gave $10,000 or more; and in 2012, 132 Americans gave 60 percent of the superPAC money spent. This is the biased filter in the first stage of our American democracy.

This bias has consequences. Of course, we don't have a democracy "dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite." But as a massive empirical study by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page published just last month shows, remove the word "pro-Beijing," and the charge translates pretty well.

America's government is demonstrably responsive to the "economic elite and organized business interests," Gilens and Page found, while "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." Boss Tweed would have been impressed. The "green primary" isn't a formal bar to election. But it is certainly an effective bar. There isn't a single political analyst in America today who doesn't look first to whether a candidate for Congress has the necessary financial support of the relevant funders. That money isn't enough, and it certainly doesn't guarantee victory. (Only 94 percent of candidates with more money win.) But no candidate ignores the money, or is ignorant of the views of the tiny fraction of the 1 percent that provides it. That's not perfect control, but it turns out to be control enough to weaken the ability of ordinary Americans to have something other than a "non-significant impact upon public policy."

The surprise in the Hong Kong plan is not that it fits Boss Tweed's mold. The surprise is the reaction of her students, and now people. To imagine a proportionate number of Americans -- 5 million -- striking against our own version of Tweedism is to imagine the first steps of a revolution. But in America, we don't protest our "democracy with Chinese characteristics." In America, we have accepted it as as American as apple pie.

At least for now. There is no doubt that because of the way we fund campaigns, the "economic elite" -- what conservatives call "the cronies" and progressives "corporate power" -- have hijacked American democracy. And as frustration and anger about that truth grows, that elite will become as the whites of an apartheid regime: identified as the cause of a dying democracy, and the target of angry demands for reform.

It is hard to see this just now, since so much of popular culture idolizes extraordinary wealth. But as economic growth in the middle class stalls, and as inequality soars, an enemy will be found. At least unless the more enlightened of that elite, from both the Left and the Right, stop screaming at voters through their superPACs, and step up to support the change that might weaken their power, but walk us back to a democracy.

Hong Kong's students have started that struggle -- for them, there. But their ideals are ours too, as is the flaw in the system they attack. We should be demanding the reform for which they are now fighting: an unbiased election, at every important stage. Or more simply: #EndTweedismEverywhere.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+4 # AUCHMANNOCH 2014-10-04 16:03
Walk back to democracy? I applaud the optimism of the author but in my opinion he is dreaming about a peaceful transition back.
+2 # politicfix 2014-10-05 13:19
AUCHMANNOCH - Oh yes, knowing something is wrong an intentionally not willing to doing anything about it, but sarcastically applaud someone else's optimism, is nothing to be proud of. Here is a lackadaisical response from someone who had democracy, and is perfectly happy to sink into a quagmire of defeat rather than get out there himself, and defend Capitalism with IMPROVED finance. Everybody complains but everybody is responsible for letting this happen while they sit around criticizing people who are trying, while they wait for one person or party to change everything FOR them, Lackadaisical people are like parasites who are perfectly willing to absorb everything but produce nothing while they wait for someone to push back against the most powerful forces in this country. The lack of personal action by the American people is exactly why we're where we are. No politicians will do anything unless pushed by the American people and it trickles upward. People don't kick the crooks out at election time, they somehow re-elected them and then they complain. All they are is disinterested, uninformed, or don't vote at all. "I'm an American" is a legend in their own minds, and not a standard they live up to. Germany is ahead of us in Solar Energy, and now they're going to offer free college education for not only their population, but international too. We're running backwards as fast as we can. America has to stop the insanity. The politicians won't do it, so the people must.
+6 # RMDC 2014-10-04 19:16
Americans did protest for democracy -- in Ferguson, MO. The result was that the militarized police met them on the streets with tanks and machine guns. The national guard was called out. Homeland Security made sure the protest was contained. Americans would never be allowed to take a protest as far as the one in Hong Kong has gone. In america when you want to protest, you have to go into a "free speech zone" behind a chain link fence and surrounded by armed police.

The demonstrators in Hong Kong are just more of the same old color revolutions that we saw in the arab spring or the Ukraine. These demonstrations are not about democracy. they are about the corporate elite and the billionaires hijacking the democratic process. these demonstrators will support elected leaders of Hong Kong that allow British based banks to retain their control of Hong kong. Maybe the Beijing plan is not very good, but it is better than the plan coming from the City of London.

Hong kong is part of China, not part of London and its banking empire. The future of Hong Kong is with China and that future looks good. The future of the UK is pretty dismal.
+2 # fdawei 2014-10-04 23:11
RMDC, I agree with much of what you wrote. However, you must spend a number of years in China to understand the nature of the government under the new leadership who brooks no interference, will not submit to the will of others, who rounds up and imprisons naysayers, those who make discouraging and disparaging remarks and many who are simply disappeared for helping the less fortunate and disenfranchised.

The future of HK and the mainland is not as bright as you make it out to be.
+1 # politicfix 2014-10-05 13:32
RMDC - And where did the protest get anyone in Ferguson, Mo.? When in America in previous years, was it ever necessary to meet protestors who have no guns, with militarized police, streets with tanks, and machine guns? That is unacceptable in a democracy. The corporate elite and the billionaires HAVE hijacked our democratic process. We support politicians who are bought and paid for by the banks, corporations, and the elite who control the government through these hired touts who are supposed to represent the people, but who really support the banks, corporations, and wealthy elite.
+4 # RLF 2014-10-05 04:54
"Pretend democracy" can't last forever...Rome didn't.
+6 # Inspired Citizen 2014-10-05 11:27
There is only one way democracy can be established in the US. The people must demand it, must vote out the oligarchs and vote in populists. First, though; people need to wake up, and I applaud Lessig for his efforts to do this.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.