Redefining the Problem: How Money Affects Politics

By Matthias Jaime

Americans generally agree money in politics is a problem. Typically this is expressed in calls to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision or to declare money as separate from speech. However, according to Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, these calls may largely miss the point.

In a lecture given Tuesday, Lessig provided a moving speech of how money has fundamentally changed politics in the United States and our responsibility to advocate for change. Through the course of his speech, however, his definition of the problem  stood out.

Rather than warn of direct corruption or pursue attacks on the Supreme Court, Lessig directed the audience to reevaluate how money alters the system of politics. As he described it, money shifts Congress’ focus away from democratic votes and towards raising money. Indeed, how focused will a Congressmen be on attending their constituent interests when they have to spend 30 to 70 percent of their time on raising funds for their next election?

Lessig also reframed how money in politics is typically viewed by showing how it also works as a self-propagating extortion scheme. He pointed out how several temporary tax cuts have been extended time and time again because they are excellent fundraising tools. In the current system, businesses are forced to contribute thousands of dollars or face immediate cost increases elsewhere.

In Lessig’s estimation, money in politics has developed into a system of dependence. Recognizing how money affects the system is important in creating working, structural solutions. However, it is still the responsibility of the citizen to embrace the role of activist to enact the change America needs.


Matthias Jaime is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.