Even in a campaign season that has showered attention on political outsiders, Lawrence Lessig’s bid for the Democratic nomination has largely gone under the radar. The Harvard law professor is campaigning with a laser-like focus on a single issue — campaign finance reform — and has vowed to step down from the presidency and hand over power as soon as he accomplishes this goal.
“If you support Bernie, you’re not going to get Hillary. If you support Hillary, you’re not going to get Bernie,” he told ThinkProgress. “But if you support me, you could get Hillary or Bernie or Elizabeth Warren or somebody. This is two for the price of one.”
The already quirky campaign allowed supporters to vote online for who they wanted to be Lessig’s vice president — a poll that included progressive celebrities like Jon Stewart and Neil Degrasse Tyson, along with seasoned Democratic officials. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) won by a landslide, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — who is currently so far ahead of Lessig in the polls that many exclude him entirely.
Sitting in ThinkProgress’ offices, peering through the small round lenses of his glasses, Lessig insisted that he is more than just “a professor racing around giving lectures.” He says those skeptical of his chances would be won over if they got a chance to hear his plan for passing reforms to end the influence of big money in politics.
Hell yeah, I want a representative democracy. That’s what we were promised.
“All of these other promises candidates are making on dealing with inequality and climate change are just not credible until we fix this democracy first,” he said. “This is the only way to crack the corruption that’s holding this city hostage. The idea of equal citizens is built into the DNA of this republic. What we haven’t done is defend it and fight for it. When it comes time for Congress to vote on this issue, it’s not about having a super-majority of Democrats. We already had that and it didn’t get done. It’s about having raised this issue to the point where Americans focus on it and say, ‘Hell yeah. I want a representative democracy. That’s what we were promised.’”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has also vowed to take on campaign finance reform, releasing a detailed plan earlier this summer to rein in the election influence of corporations and the wealthy. Sanders, currently polling in second place and gaining support, has also made the topic a key part of his candidacy — introducing bills in the Senate to create public funding for elections and overturn the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United ruling that led to the rise of super PACs.
On the campaign trail, Sanders has also incorporated his rejection of super PAC funds into his stump speeches, to the delight of the huge crowds that turn out to meet him.
But Lessig says he trusts neither Sanders nor Clinton to make real change on this topic, since it is just one of many promises they are making as they travel the country seeking the nomination.
“Don’t mistake the fact that they put words in a position paper for thinking they will make this happen. They won’t. Only I will,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’ve checked the right boxes. But they have to say what I’m saying, which is that we have no chance of taking on Wall Street so long as Wall Street is the largest funder of political campaigns. If they’re not going to commit to reforms on day one, it’s not going to get done, because to take on this issue is to take on Congress, which is to take on your own party, which is to guarantee you’re a one-term president, which is to be a failure.”
In contrast, Lessig believes he can get past the classic DC gridlock because his goal has always been to be a one-term president. “I have to limit myself, like Frodo and the ring, because it’s the only way to create the super mandate powerful enough to get the Congress to do something,” he said.
You can call that free speech, or you can call it a banana republic.
But even with a “super mandate,” the chances of passing any reform through the current Congress range from difficult to impossible. Another candidate for president, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been pushing for the further de-regulation of money in politics, calling earlier this summer for unlimited donations to political campaigns. Like the majority of the Supreme Court — where both Lessig and Cruz once worked as clerks — Cruz and many of his Republican allies have asserted that money is a form of speech that should be protected under the First Amendment.
Lessig, as you may guess, disagrees. “It’s not about limiting anyone’s speech. It’s about de-concentrating the incredible concentration of funders,” he said. “Right now, just 400 families have given half the money in this election cycle so far. You can call that free speech, or you can call it a banana republic. I think a democracy only works when it’s representative of voters, not this tiny fraction of 1 percent that’s funding their campaigns. That’s why I stepped into this race.”
Lessig joined ThinkProgress’ new video series, “Here Is Why I’m Pissed”: