For more than 10 minutes of his keynote speech at last week’s Next Billion conference in New York City, Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig discussed the heavy influence of “Tweedism, which has corrupted political processes in democracies such as Hong Kong and the United States.

Tweedism, named for the political corruption that pervaded New York City politics under William “Boss” Tweed in the 1860s, comes in the form of undue political influence on the candidates being nominated for office, as well as the heavy hand of business on the political process.

He made his comments during one of the sessions at the all-day conference presented last week by digital news service Quartz.

Quartz has held similar forums in Seattle and New York and plans another next year in London. The objective is to address the by-products of an increasingly connected world, as well as examine the issues and products that will be used by the next billion users of the Internet.

Influences on Democracy

Lessig said during his critique of the private political funding process that there are only 150,000 “relevant” funders of political campaigns in the United States or approximately 0.5 percent of the nation’s population.

“After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon vs. the FEC (Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee vs. the Federal Election Commission), which removed aggregate limits on contributions, that number is going to fall to I think no more 35,000 relevant funders to campaigns, which the Internet tells us is the same amount of people named ‘Sheldon’ in the United States.”

Lessig added that in 2012, 132 Americans made up 60 percent of the funds raised by “Super Pacs,” which can take in unlimited amount of contributions.

He said that before the general election, those aspiring to office must do well in the “Green Primary” or the contest for political funding. He said the Green Primary stage filters out the majority of voters and involves the selection of viable candidates by those funding political campaigns.

“The consequence of this is to produce a democracy responsive to the funders, and perhaps only (the funders),” he said.

He cited a recent Harvard poll of voters that revealed that while 96 percent of respondents said it was important to reduce money’s influence on American politics, 91 percent of respondents felt it was not likely that money’s influence will be reduced in the next few years.

“It’s not because we like it, it’s because we are resigned to it,” he said.

Digital Change Ahead

Lessig said there is hope that change is on the horizon. He cited a number of examples of progressive change led by those empowered by digital infrastructure.

That included the recent protests in Hong Kong, known as the “Umbrella Movement,” staged in September over proposed electoral reform. The protests were started by “kids,” he said, many of whom had Twitter accounts.

Activists in the Umbrella Movement protested outside the Hong Kong government offices and elsewhere over China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress proposed electoral reforms that included having an Election Committee of approximately 1,200 citizens select two to possibly three candidates for Chief Executive in 2017. A similar digital infrastructure-led movement recently stopped a proposed Internet tax from taking effect in Hungary, he noted.

“These are an incredible range of examples of passionate energy being driven by kids who have not learned to give up on our ideals,” Lessig said. He concluded his talk by saying, “They are using this infrastructure to change our ideals into their reality. As someone who is not a kid, I just hope they succeed.”