Larry Lessig Goes Even Bigger: May Run For President On The Single Issue Of Money In Politics

from the go-big-or-go-home dept

Last year, Larry Lessig got plenty of attention for his MAYDAY PAC, which was an attempt to raise a bunch of money to back candidates who promised to reform campaign finance laws. The 2014 campaign was supposed to be a “test” to raise around $12 million to see what could be done, with an eventual goal of raising a lot more for the 2016 campaign. Even the 2014 campaign was somewhat audacious (and somewhat misunderstood). And after the 2014 election, many argued that MAYDAY was a failure in that it really failed to have much, if any, impact in the campaigns that it took part in. To me, it seemed a bit premature to make that argument, as the whole point of experimenting and testing is to learn, but in politics everything is a horse race, and there is little in the way of long term thinking or strategy.

Either way, just a few weeks ago Lessig announced that he was handing MAYDAY over to Zephyr Teachout, a well-known professor who used to be director of the Sunlight Foundation — and who caused a political stir last year by doing surprisingly well in running against Andrew Cuomo for governor of NYC. Teachout taking over MAYDAY seemed like a natural fit.

But what of Lessig? His own post mortem on MAYDAY suggested he wasn’t ready to give up the fight, and it appears that the results of the first round of the MAYDAY experiment didn’t scare him off from taking chances on making incredibly big bets. Crazy bets. Because now he’s basically running for President. Sort of. Maybe. You kind of have to watch this video to understand:

In short, he wants someone to run as a “referendum candidate” — someone who will run entirely on this issue of fixing corruption in politics, with the promise that once in office, they will focus on solving that one issue and then resigning immediately, and handing over the job to the Vice President. In this case, the way he’d pursue fixing corruption is to pass The Citizen Equality Act — a bundle of election reforms that Lessig has been arguing would make a real difference in getting money out of politics. Lessig claims he’s been looking for someone else to stand in as that candidate, and will happily focus on someone else if the right candidate emerges — but, if no one else is able to do it, he’ll be that candidate himself.

For now, Lessig is trying to raise $1 million by Labor Day to see if this is possible. If he doesn’t raise that much, the plan will be shut down (and no one’s money will be taken).

I’m not sure what to make of all of this, frankly. Lessig has been trying for a bunch of moonshot ideas over the past few years — including holding a new Constitutional Convention, among other ideas like MAYDAY and campaign finance reform. You can’t say he isn’t being bold and trying some crazy big strategies in trying to make these things an issue. And I really appreciate and respect Lessig and his way of thinking about all of this. But… something about this latest move feels almost too gimmicky. Yes, to get people to actually take on this issue, perhaps a gimmick is needed. And maybe Lessig is right to keep trying ever more audacious gimmicks until he finds the one that clicks. I’m glad he’s trying and I hope he succeeds — and chances are I’ll donate to this campaign. But it still feels like a gimmick, and it bugs me that we need gimmicks to fix our political system. I’m guessing that Lessig might actually agree with that statement, but argue that there’s no way around this unfortunate fact, so he’s going to play the game. I just wish it didn’t need to happen that way.

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Comments on “Larry Lessig Goes Even Bigger: May Run For President On The Single Issue Of Money In Politics”

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Ninja (profile) says:

With all the problems and difficulties of his strategy at least he is trying something in the politics sphere. I mean, things may not always work but even the failures will leave valuable lessons. The Occupy movements all over the world are basically a memory now but they were labs for a lot of new ideas, testing and ultimately left heritages in the field of ideas and a message that things need to change. And they will sooner or later, with or without the help of the Governments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I don't support this.

So how about this, you have a good candidate that you support, you have given him a warchest of 1 million dollars. This candidate of yours wants to fix your local city and everyone thinks he is great, and his opponent is not such a great guy and is there only to help big business.

I now come along and give him 90 million dollars to compete. my candidate goes out and smears your candidate, and with him even saying the untruth about your candidate he is able to blast that on the local radio stations and media every 5 mins but your candidate can only do it once per day.

You know if you say a untruth enough that people will start to believe it, and then it become public knowledge that the untruth is now truth, but remember I bought this election with my 90 million and you can not compete with me as I have 100 times more $$$ than you do.

Now is that fair?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I don't support this.

How about remove the wasteful investment of money altogether when campaigning and the candidate draws a fixed salary that caps out at the average school teacher salary during their campaign? No adverts, “honest” commercials, radio plugs or similar garbage we see everywhere during elections. Do with what you have as early candidates did before tv/radio.

Far fetched? You bet, but its not as ridiculous as the way its handled these days. At least you remove the aspect of wasted funds and questionable contributions that permeates these elections. But I also believe a sitting president should not campaign for another term while running the country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I don't support this.

I understand the sentiment, but …

There is no question that the situation in Mississippi is deeply troubling.

But then when you turn right around and start arguing —in effect— that no one except MPAA studios should be permitted to make political movies to show on pay-per-view, then you’ve lost me.

At that point, what the fuck are you really arguing for?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I don't support this.

I actually hate the thought that there could be rules in place banning me (or anyone else) from giving as much support as I want to the political candidate I want.

It’s important to note that Lessig, ultimately, is campaigning to restrict certain freedoms.

I have concerns over certain kinds of limitations — and I think that people misunderstand the Citizens United decision. But Lessig is mostly focused on creating much better incentives for public funding of elections, through a rather creative voucher system. This does not necessarily mean limiting freedoms, but gives much more incentive for politicians to go the public funding route rather than the corporate/donor funded route. It has the potential to greatly level the playing field, by taking away the core instrument of corruption — the need to cultivate donors. That doesn’t need to limit freedoms. It just shifts the incentives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I don't support this.

I think that people misunderstand the Citizens United decision.

Among people who followed the case more closely than the masses, it seems to be received wisdom that the case was lost at oral argument, when Deputy Solicitor General Stewart began saying that the government could ban books. That was pretty extreme. And stunning. It kinda blew the case out of the water.

Turning to Professor Lessig’s proposals now, the people who are going to be most attracted to these policy prescriptions are people who don’t really see the broad problem in having the government ban books.

As a practical political matter, it seems to me that Professor Lessig is inviting a skiing party down a steep, ice-covered hill.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I don't support this.

It has the potential to greatly level the playing field, by taking away the core instrument of corruption — the need to cultivate donors.

If someone wants to propose that TV stations, as a condition of their FCC licenses, must carry reduced-rate commercials for political candidates… well, I’ve got enough sympathy for old, historical Wobbly positions, that I might be willing to endorse that.

Heck, I might even endorse free TV airtime for candidates.

Otoh, once upon a time, we had hoped that the internet would change some of that TV-driven dynamic.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I don't support this.

…propose that TV stations, as a condition of their FCC licenses, must carry reduced-rate commercials for political candidates…

That’s called “equal time” if it still exists. It did NOT call for reduced rates but did require stations to give the same considerations for all candidates and issue positions. That meant they had to charge the same fees to everybody, no discounts allowed; and they had to provide the same or comparable airtime to all, no putting one candidate on at 1800 hrs and their opponent on at 0300 hrs.

Anonymous Coward says:

I Nominate Jon Stewart

With Stewart stepping down as the host of the Daily Show it seems to me like this would be a great fit for him. I think what Lessig is going for would be right up Stewart’s alley politically and he would get far greater name recognition and likely support than Leslie would himself.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I Nominate Jon Stewart

With Stewart stepping down as the host of the Daily Show it seems to me like this would be a great fit for him. I think what Lessig is going for would be right up Stewart’s alley politically and he would get far greater name recognition and likely support than Leslie would himself.

FWIW, apparently Lessig asked Stewart to run instead of him, but it didn’t work:

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think Sanders would accept PAC money.

Quick hit on Google search for “Bernie Sanders PAC”:   Career Profile ( / Center for Responsive Politics)

PAC Contribution Breakdown
Business .................. $   312,204 (14%)
Labor ..................... $ 1,605,571 (70%)
Ideological/Single Issue .. $   375,224 (16%)

Third hit, though: “Bernie Sanders doesn’t follow the money”, by Tarini Parti and Jonathan Topaz, Politico, Jun 2015. Incidentally, that story contains a Lessig quote.

“I frankly don’t get the restraint. I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” said Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig, who said that some progressives and campaign finance reform advocates think Sanders is ruining his presidential chances by not having a super PAC.

Do you have some kind of definite Sanders campaign statement containing promises for this presidential election cycle?

Aaron Wolf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s totally irrelevant. Lessig is saying that if he runs, it would be on some sort of incontrovertible promise that he will take nearly zero action on anything other than achieving a rebalance of our democracy and then step down.

So, I’d guess he’d want to get Sanders to be his VP, so he could just turn things over to Sanders later, I dunno.

It’s a nutty but interesting idea. Put simply: Lessig is worried that if everyone even elected Sanders somehow that people would say “they elected him for health care, for education, for civil rights…” and so it wouldn’t be an absolute mandate specifically for overturning Citizens United…

But Sanders has made Citizens United a key focus, with his whole emphasis on refusing PAC money. I think Lessig isn’t giving Sanders enough credit for really emphasizing this.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Treating the symptom instead of the disease

Lessig has done a lot of good things, and I admire his idealism and dedication.

But money in politics is there because politicians have the power to choose winners and losers, to rig markets, to implement regulations that protect incumbents, to choose who is taxed and who isn’t, etc., etc., etc.

As long as politicians have those powers (as opposed to the far more limited powers intended by the founders), those with power and wealth will find ways to influence politicians – one way or another.

No law can prevent that – laws can only force the influence under the table, underground where it can’t be seen.

Money in politics is the symptom. Too much power in the hands of politicians is the disease.

John David Galt (profile) says:

This doesn't seem like something a President can do.

Citizens United was decided on First Amendment grounds. Any new law similar to McCain-Feingold would obviously fall to the same principles. Therefore, a constitutional amendment would be necessary to achieve the “reform” Lessig wants.

Which is fine with me. The SJWs already have far too much power to make their opponents shut up as things are now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This doesn't seem like something a President can do.

… obviously fall to the same principles. Therefore…

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 82 years old (March 15, 1933).

Then Scalia was born in March of 1936, and Kennedy was born in July of 1936, so they’re both 79 years old. After that, Breyer, born on August 15, 1938, has his birthday in just a few days.

Thomas, born in 1948, is a mere 67 years old. Alito 1950. Sotomayor 1954. Chief Justice Roberts in 1955, and finally Kagan in 1960.

Glenn D. Jones (profile) says:

The fundamental problem with online crowdfunding for politics

The fundamental problem with online crowdfunding for politics is that politics is often regional.

That is, unlike open-source projects and non-profit groups, politicians usually have restrictions placed on international *monetary* contributions.

One of the reasons Kickstarter, Wikipedia, etc. are so successful is that *anyone* *anywhere* can contribute some money, no matter how small.

But no matter how much I respect Larry Lessig and desire to contribute, I can’t, because I’m a Canadian (not US) citizen.

I’m not saying that those restrictions are wrong — I don’t know anything about campaign finance — but I think this crucial regional limit on potential supporters needs to be recognized so that political projects are not unfairly held to the standard of other crowdfunding projects without such restrictions (e.g. Kickstarter game pitches) and then found wanting in comparison.

JT says:


Half the stuff suggested is working within the existing co-opted system which operates under several flawwed premice, the problem as I see it the existing “COG system” needs to be bussed over to Ft Leavenworth for SORTING for treason.

Until they are jailed we no longer have a government of the people. We have oath breaking treasonous occupiers who no longer have MORAL AUTHORITY for ANYTHING, but they do still have men with guns authority, and so why would I POSSIBLY CONSENT or want to vote for that!?

NaBUru38 (profile) says:

Another issue that undermines the United States political system us the lack of proportional representation in legislative bodies.

A party could get second place with 40% of votes in each circumscription but get no seats, as long as they don’t win at any. That’s why unsatisfied Republican and Democrat politicians won’t leave to organize a third party with a purer ideology (like libertarian or anticorporation).

Here in Uruguay, a party with roughly 1% of votes gets one of the 99 seats, no matter where did they get the voted. And we also have proportional representation of departments, with a little overrepresentation of less populated drpartments.

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