Fixing Democracy First

The Story of Larry Lessig’s Presidential Campaign

Justin Curtis and Sam Plank | December 18, 2015

Disclosure: Both authors are members of the Harvard College branch of Rootstrikers, Larry Lessig’s campaign finance reform organization. Lessig is the faculty advisor to the group on campus. Harvard’s branch also works heavily with Democracy Matters, another organization dedicated to campaign finance reform.

“‘It’s a billion dollar industry. How are you going to get rid of it?’ And Sanders was like, ‘Well, you know, it’s probably the case that we will never be able to do it until we deal with campaign finance first.’”

Larry Lessig combs his fingers through his hair, leans back in his chair, and resumes his diatribe.

“To which my response was ... RIGHT! And about every other issue too!”

Lessig slams his desk, shouting:

“So why aren’t you talking about doing campaign finance FIRST?”

He bangs his fist on the desk again. A stack of books falls to the floor. Lessig hastily picks them up, mutters an apology, then continues right where he left off:

“It will not happen if it’s not the priority.”

* * *

This past fall, Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig mounted a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He ran on a platform of electoral reform: his proposed Citizen Equality Act outlined a plan to fix gerrymandering, protect voting rights, and reduce the power of big money in politics. After a tumultuous series of successes and setbacks, Lessig ultimately dropped out of the race on November 2. We sat down with him weeks later to discuss his candidacy. The story of Lessig’s campaign illuminates his commitment to fixing what he sees as the biggest issue facing American democracy—but it also reveals the difficulties of reforming the American electoral system.


The Path to Elections

After studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania, Lessig went on to earn a masters in philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge, and a JD from Yale Law School. Although he grew up in a conservative household, his political ideologies had changed drastically by the time he left New Haven. In our interview, Lessig was quick to clarify that he was hired as Justice Antonin Scalia’s “liberal clerk.”

Following his year with Scalia, Lessig turned his sights to Eastern Europe. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he helped fledgling Eastern European democracies develop legal systems—his work on the Georgian constitution was so impactful that it inspired a West Wing episode. Lessig next jumped into cyberlaw, becoming an expert in open Internet policy. In 2001, he cofounded Creative Commons, an alternative online copyright system; likewise, he has fought for net neutrality and has been an outspoken critic of the government’s Internet surveillance.

In 2007, Lessig’s close friend and fellow activist, Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, challenged him to look at the fundamental barrier to amending Internet laws: corruption caused by the campaign finance system. Together, they founded Rootstrikers, a non-partisan group dedicated to diminishing the influence of large political donations. After Swartz’s death, Lessig devoted himself to this fight, giving a pair of TED talks on the need for public financing of elections (he had previously given two on copyright law). Lessig’s renowned Keynote presentations never failed to dazzle his audience, winning him over 357,000 Twitter followers along the way.

He also went on to found Mayday, which dubs itself a “crowd-funded Super PAC to end all Super PACs.” In the 2014 midterm elections, Mayday backed congressional candidates who supported campaign finance reform. However, out of the eight congressional candidates Mayday gave money to, only two were elected;Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). When asked about the PAC’s dismal results, Lessig explained to us that he initially wanted “to run a billion dollar campaign in one cycle,” but ultimately settled on a more gradual approach. Following Mayday’s failure, Lessig concluded, “Bottom-up [reform] alone is never going to work.”

Lessig knew something different had to be done in the 2016 cycle. As he surveyed the field of Democratic presidential candidates, he was dismayed by their lack of commitment to fixing what he calls a “crippled and corrupted Congress.” Arguing that “an ordinary President is not going to take this issue on,” Lessig came up with a solution: a “referendum President,” who would get elected, pass the Citizen Equality Act, and then step down. After failing to recruit someone “more plausible than yet another middle-aged white guy,” Lessig decided to throw his own hat in the ring.

And so began the campaign.


The Campaign Trail

“Why should your political influence be different from mine? What’s the justification for that? Or at least, if it’s different, why should it be different because you’re rich and I’m not? Or why should I, because I happen to be a Republican in a Democratic safe seat, or a Democrat in a Republican safe seat, have no influence on my congressman? Why does that make sense? Or why, just because the color of my skin is black, should it be harder for me to vote than the neighborhood over where they’ve got four times the number of voting machines and those people are white?”

As Lessig reiterated throughout our conversation, his campaign sought to address various manifestations of political inequality. At the core of his candidacy was the proposed Citizen Equality Act of 2017 (CEA). This extensive reform proposal called for publicly financed elections, amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make registration and voting easier, and measures to combat gerrymandering. According to Lessig, redistricting has made 345 House seats non-competitive—89 million Americans are political minorities in these “safe” districts, effectively disenfranchised from the voting process. As a result, the CEA would establish multi-member districts with ranked choice voting.

As Lessig underscored in our interview, “The problem with America, with American democracy, is Congress. Period. This is a failed institution at the heart of our democracy.” On the campaign trail, he promised to “Fix Democracy First” and proclaimed that, as he explained to us, “there was no one else on the field who was going to make a priority of addressing this corruption.” Referencing Congress’s single-digit approval ratings in an NPR interview, he hoped that voters frustrated with Washington would look closely at his omnibus package of reforms to congressional elections.

Lessig moved quickly to spread his message, setting up a campaign team of veteran political strategists and experts in digital media. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales led Lessig’s exploratory committee; renowned political consultant and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Steve Jarding was brought on as a general consultant to the campaign.

The candidate’s “Dream Team” booked cable news interviews and set up appearances with HBO’s Bill Maher and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. Lessig spoke across the country, perhaps most notably in Ferguson, Mo. in late August. He and Wales even held an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit at the start of his campaign. Quite clearly, he was eager to take the Citizen Equality Act out of the inner circles of academia and into the public debate.

His campaign showed promising signs at first. Within a month, he raised over a million dollars from 8,000 contributors. His fundraising far outpaced many candidates, including fellow Democratic contenders Jim Webb, Lincoln Chaffee, and Martin O’Malley. Subsequently, Lessig2016 launched targeted ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, including one panning Marco Rubio for his dependence on corporate money from Blackstone, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs.

Lessig’s campaign also pressured the other Democratic candidates to bend towards his policies. As he proudly noted, “The day we announced the campaign, Hillary Clinton came out with her campaign finance reform proposals.” Likewise, he said that once he entered the race, Bernie Sanders moved “getting big money out of politics” from number eight on his website’s list of issues to number two. (It is now down to number three).


Obstacles to Success

Nevertheless, Lessig’s candidacy struggled to overcome serious roadblocks. Voters were hesitant to embrace the idea of a “referendum president.” By mid-October, when it became obvious that a referendum presidency was a nonstarter, Lessig ditched his initial plan and declared that he would stay in office for a full term if elected. He proceeded to outline policy positions on 15 issues, ranging from the more common (“The Economy,” “Immigration Reform”) to the more idiosyncratic (“The Internet,” “The Emerging Surveillance Society”). He linked all his issue essays back to the underlying need for electoral reform.

Despite fighting fervently to get his message across, Lessig’s campaign did not manage to gain traction. As he put it, he remained “a completely unknown candidate with a funny name and funny glasses, and the only picture of me was with a bowtie.”

* * *

However, the failure of Lessig’s campaign was not a product of poor performance or an unpopular message. After all, more than 90 percent of Americans want to curb the power of money in politics. Although his referendum presidency idea might have dissuaded some voters, he emphasized that his campaign faced a much bigger obstacle: the Democratic National Committee.

Indeed, the DNC seemed to systematically exclude Lessig from the race. Unlike every other candidate, Lessig did not receive a welcome letter from the DNC after announcing his candidacy. In a piece he wrote for Politico, he claimed that party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz scheduled a call with him, cancelled, and neglected to schedule another one. In the process of writing this article, we reached out to DNC spokespeople, who declined to comment.

Many pollsters, apparently mimicking the stance of the DNC, failed to list Lessig as one of the Democratic candidates. Instead, their polls included undeclared politicians like Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo, as well as poorly performing hopefuls like Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. Something was amiss.

To get onto the debate stage, candidates had to receive at least one percent in three or more polls conducted over the six weeks prior to the debate. Since he was not even included in most polls, Lessig failed to qualify for the first debate in October. His supporters vehemently protested the professor’s absence, demonstrating outside CNN’s office in New York and appealing to Wasserman Schultz to “Let Lessig Debate.” The Bloomberg Editorial Board joined the call, and a petition attracted several thousand signatures. Given that Webb and Chafee were both on the stage, Lessig’s lack of inclusion seemed especially unjust.

Following the first debate, the campaign ramped up its outreach efforts. Even though Lessig still was omitted from most polls, by late October he managed to gain one percent of the vote in the four polls that did include him—enough to qualify him for the second debate.

As he began to prepare for the event, the campaign received troubling news: the DNC had changed the rules. Rather than requiring three qualifying polls over the six weeks preceding the debate, candidates now had to qualify in three polls at least six weeks prior to the event. As Steve Jarding implied in a Huffington Post op-ed, the sudden rule change was seemingly handcrafted to exclude Lessig from the debate. No other candidate was affected by the DNC’s decision.

Facing a party leadership that seemed intent on barring him from a national audience, Lessig ended his campaign. As he recounted, “The strategy of the campaign was a sprint from raising this money to getting to the polls necessary to get into the debates … and we achieved that. We got to the polls necessary to get into the debates. And then the goalposts were moved.”

He went on, “We just didn’t quite expect being successful wouldn’t mean actually succeeding.”


The Aftermath

A serious Lessig bid for the White House always seemed unlikely, but he had the potential to radically redirect the national conversation towards fighting institutional corruption and making elections more equitable. However, the “Democrats’ only non-politician” was never given a chance to speak. Lessig’s campaign could have brought together millions of Americans who are angry at an unresponsive political system, yet it was snuffed out before it had a chance to catch fire.

The campaign took a tremendous personal toll—according to Lessig, “as a law professor, once I started running I had to give up my salary and live on savings and credit cards.” Similarly, the chaotic schedule of a presidential campaign left little time to spend with his wife and three young children. As Lessig sardonically reflected, “Running for president if you are not a billionaire or politician is hard.”

The professor also developed a love-hate relationship with the media, realizing that “to get to one percent in the polls was solely a function of media attention.” He wrote in Politico Magazine, “While the Atlantic listed me as a candidate on their website from day one, it took some lobbying to get the New York Times to do the same.” Moreover, cable news stations often proved unreliable. Lessig recalled to us how he would go “to New York to be on a cable television show and they would cancel at the last minute. So then I am in New York. Alone. At night. The pathetic guy at the restaurant sitting there alone, reading his iPhone.” At least his campaign’s collapse has not dampened his wry sense of humor.


The Plan Going Forward

“The thing which the critics never take the responsibility of saying is: ‘What is the plan for fixing this problem?’ It’s not going to be Congress. They just will never have the perspective or the incentives to fix the problem. The Framers thought we could have an Article V convention. That’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

Larry Lessig is obviously frustrated with the outcome of his campaign. From his perspective, the three remaining candidates have all danced around the need for electoral reform. As he asserted in our interview, “The striking and depressing thing about the debates so far is that literally not once has anybody mentioned public funding.” Nonetheless, his eyes are on the future. Although he is no longer a candidate, he still hopes to bring electoral reform to the forefront of the 2016 race.

He recognizes that he faces an uphill battle. Combing his fingers through his hair and leaning back in his chair, Lessig declared, “We’ve got to find a more fundamental way to talk about this, and the history of political movements in America has only ever seen success when you articulate in the rhetoric of equality.” One thing is clear: we certainly have not seen the last of Larry Lessig.

Image source: Robert Scoble/Flickr, Joi Ito/Flickr, Madaleine Ball/Flickr, Ed Schipul/Flickr.


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