HLS Professor Lawrence Lessig brought campaign finance reform to the center of national attention with his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Lessig also authored Republic Lost: The Corruption of Equality and the Steps to End It and founded Rootstrikers and the Mayday Super PAC. Though Lessig withdrew his bid earlier this month, he was happy with the support he received from the HLS community throughout the campaign.
On November 23, Lessig sat down with HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain to discuss what he learned running for president. Lessig said that his presidential run was animated by his belief that “we are at a point in the history of our democracy, maybe on the way down, when we have got to recognize that a fundamental flaw has emerged.” Members of Congress currently spend the majority of their time soliciting campaign money from the tiniest fraction of the top 1 percent of the American population—and as a result, Lessig contends, congressional politics are driven by the concerns of a small number of ultra-wealthy donors, not the concerns of the populace at large. Add this to the problem of gerrymandered districts, which ensure that only 90 out of 435 Congressional seats are competitive in any given election, and the result is that Congress “is an institution that no longer recognizes the people.”
Lessig’s campaign was an attempt to “hack” the problem of Congressional gridlock by turning the presidency into a referendum on campaign finance reform. If elected, Lessig would have refused to sign any legislation into law until a campaign finance reform bill, the “Citizen Equality Act,” crossed his desk. Having secured this legislative reform, Lessig would then immediately resign, ceding the presidency to his Vice Presidential running mate. The only problem with this idea, Lessig said, was that some questioned his sanity.
Press coverage focusing on Lessig was far more interested in the surrealism of “getting elected to resign” than in the substantive reform issues Lessig sought to publicize. Nonetheless, Lessig had hoped to use the Democratic primary debate as an opportunity to give campaign finance reform a public hearing, and thus force other candidates to adopt more concrete stances on the issue. Though Lessig raised more money than at least two other Democratic candidates, he was informed by the Democratic National Committee in early November that only candidates who had been polling at 1 percent in three polls “six weeks prior to the debate” would be invited to participate. This was a revision of the DNC’s earlier policy, which had simply stated that candidates needed to achieve the requisite poll numbers “in the six weeks prior to the debate.” Speaking to The Record, Lessig said that he was not sure why the DNC had “moved the goalposts.” His best guess was that DNC was focused on buttressing support for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and had sought to minimize “wild card” elements within the primary debates.
Lessig believes that, with Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, the American public would be open to discussing novel methods for tackling the problem of government corruption. A referendum in Seattle on “democracy vouchers”—a program that allows each voter to divvy up $100 of their tax dollars amongst local candidates of their choosing, provided that the candidates agree to refuse funding from PACs and adhere to other restrictions on campaign spending—was overwhelmingly approved by voters earlier this month.
Lessig told The Record that he was surprised by how “fun” and “rewarding” the campaign process had been, particularly when he had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with potential voters. He found that many of the people he met were receptive to learning more about the issues surrounding campaign finance. “Most people want to do the right thing,” he said.
So, what is next? Lessig will return to teaching but says that he currently does not have plans to create any new HLS courses or organizations. He believes that the Mayday Super PAC is running well under the direction of Zephyr Teachout, but indicated that he would continue to support Mayday’s efforts to promote campaign finance reform. And on November 24, he helped publicize Mayday’s involvement in Democracy Spring, a mass demonstration to take place next April in Washington, D.C., which Lessig describes as “the largest American civil disobedience action in a generation.”
Ally Chiu, president of HLS Rootstrikers who spoke with The Record in her personal capacity, hopes that many students at HLS will advocate for reform. “I encourage all students to become involved at any and all levels that suit them—whether that be writing an editorial to address a larger audience, petitioning to their public representatives, or starting a conversation with their peers,” said Chiu. “Campaign finance is at the root of every single issue of national importance, and not only HLS students, but all Americans should be concerned about it.”
Third-year student Sara Murphy, who is also involved with HLS Rootstrikers, notes that campaign finance is an issue that affects all other issues important to HLS students—“whether that’s climate change, mass incarceration, or improving public health. Students should have a basic understanding of the problems in our current campaign finance system and should push their representatives to implement creative policy solutions, like democracy vouchers.” Murphy also mentioned that students who wish to get more involved can join local and national advocacy groups, like HLS Rootstrikers.
Though Lessig ran as a Democrat, he believes campaign finance reform is an issue that transcends partisan politics. “The real difference in American politics is not between the right side and the left side,” Lessig argues. “The real difference is between the inside and the outside.”