January may strike you as an odd time to walk the length of New Hampshire, but that is what a hardy band of citizens are up to as I write this post. Rallied by Harvard Law School Professor Larry Lessig, on January 11 the participants in the New Hampshire Rebellion set out from Dixville Notch, 20 miles south of the Canadian border, in a freezing rain. They will finish their 185-mile trek on January 24th all the way down in Nashua on the Massachusetts state line.
Their walk marks the opening salvo in a three-year campaign to use New Hampshire’s preeminent presidential primary as a foundation for elevating campaign finance reform to the top of the national political agenda. The New Hampshire Rebellion is raising awareness by asking every presidential candidate at every campaign event in the state between now and the 2016 primary one simple question: “How are you going to end this system of corruption in Washington?”
In developing the foundation’s democratic process initiative, we have recognized how waves of so-called “dark money” or undisclosed contributions flooding into political campaigns are contributing to the problem of polarization that we want to help solve. This is especially the case as candidates seek to raise money from well-heeled and often ideologically-driven donors in order to ward off rivals from the more extreme wing of their party if they are incumbents, or to finance just such an insurgency as challengers by assuring potential patrons that they will never compromise with the other party.
Thus when Larry Lessig described the plans behind the New Hampshire Rebellion and asked us for a small grant to support efforts to engage the public on the importance of campaign finance reform, we said we would be glad to help by donating to the public charity serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor. We have been impressed by the grassroots attention he has attracted to this issue; his TED Talk on this topic, for example, has 1.3 million views.
Lessig’s call to combat the systemic corruption of Congress taps into a deep and perennial wellspring in our political culture. As Bernard Bailyn noted in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the colonists were in no small part prompted to rebel by their outrage at what they perceived and described as the corruption of the independence of parliament – and the resulting endangerment of their own liberties – stemming from the machinations of George III and his ministers.
Indeed, Article 10 of New Hampshire’s State Constitution, ratified in 1784, picks up on precisely this theme in preserving a right to revolution for citizens of the Granite State: “Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government.”
So while they may call themselves rebels, participants in the march are really upholding the best traditions of citizenship in a republican government. “Live Free or Die” is New Hampshire’s state motto. Since they are already doing that, I just wanted to encourage the marchers to stay warm and keep moving – you are almost there!
As recent events make all too clear, the democratic process of the United States is in bad shape. Even apart from the travails of Obamacare and the high-stakes combat in Washington over the government shutdown, we are confronted by legislative inaction on a range of pressing policy issues, a runaway campaign-finance system, new assaults on voting rights, worsening economic inequality, and growing cynicism and withdrawal among citizens taking all this in.
The Hewlett Foundation has a particular interest in these issues given that we make grants to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world. We cannot always count on persuading the government to adopt policies we favor, nor is our ability to do so the measure of whether our political system is working, but our grantmaking presumes a minimally rational and functioning democratic process. Unless the mounting problems of governance are removed or reduced in importance, we risk being stymied on other aspects of our work.
In the spirit of transparency, and in the hope of soliciting some constructive feedback, let me outline how we are planning to respond to these challenges.
To focus our efforts, we are going to zero in on the problem of political polarization and its three most notable markers: increasing ideological coherence within and divergence between the Republican and Democratic parties, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock.