External Affairs

The Harvard Professor Who Wants to Run for US President to Fight Big Money

Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig. Credit: Kristina Alexanderson,

Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig. Credit: Kristina Alexanderson,

Washington: The 2016 presidential election is becoming a wrestle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the excitement is all to the left of centre. It is as if the people want the party to return “home” after its long detour through the centre and centre-right lanes and face real issues – income inequality, political corruption and big money.

 It is why the “people” in the Democratic Party first wanted Senator Elizabeth Warren to run – a woman with passion who took on the big banks and remains clear where she stands on big money’s influence on politics. But she declined to run. It is why a self-described “democratic socialist”, Bernie Sanders, is drawing the biggest crowds of all candidates (27,000 in Los Angeles last week) for his call to take on the billionaire class this election.
 
The latest to enter the left field, the field denuded by by Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” over the years, is Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University law professor and long-time critic of the influence of money in American politics. But his is the most unusual bid to wrest the crown from Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner with $47 million in her campaign chest.
 
Lessig announced this week he will enter the Democratic Party primaries but only if he can crowd source $1 million by Sept. 7 – incidentally the day celebrated as Labor Day in the United States. In a compelling six-minute video he explains how he would be a single-issue, “referendum candidate” with the sole purpose of fixing the “rigged” American electoral system.
 
He would campaign for his “Citizens Equality Act of 2017” – a legislative package which would guarantee automatic registration to vote, end gerrymandering of Congressional districts, make voting day a holiday so more people can vote and fund political campaigns with small donations and public money. His campaign and candidacy would be a “referendum” on the legislative package. Once the US Congress passes the new law, he would resign and his vice president would take over.
 
Unusual? Yes, extremely and Lessig may be the longest shot unless a people’s earthquake awaits all. It is difficult to imagine the finely honed, highly evolved and properly entrenched US election system crumbling in the face of a professor’s passion.
 
But he says “this is an incredible moment” and he wants to use the opportunity to make progress. “If this isn’t resolved now, it’s going to become normal and it will be almost impossible to change.” Many might argue that big money already is normal and impossible to shake off but cynicism never changed a system.
 
Lessig’s arguments are logical, precise and sensible. He says that presidential candidates talk of reform but don’t address the most important issue – influence of big money. Fighting presidential elections demands hundreds of millions of dollars and every cycle beats the last in the money raised and spent.
 
Barack Obama’s 2012 bid crossed the billion-dollar mark for the first time with a total of $1.12 billion spent to get him back in the White House. Mitt Romney was no chicken either and went through $1.24 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics which tracks campaign spending by the candidates and their parties.
 
There is already talk that 2016 could cross the $5 billion mark for the two parties, more than doubling the price tag from the last election. Bundlers (super fundraisers who organize funds from other donors) and super-PACs (independent political action committees allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and unions after a controversial 2010 US Supreme Court decision called “Citizens United”) are talking big sums for the coming election cycle. 
 
The big money comes from a very slim percentage of people, making politicians beholden to them and breaking the fundamental tenet of representative democracy, according to Lessig. He told CNN,  “Maybe about 0.05% of the US population are relevant funders of campaigns… You spend 30 to 70% of your time calling these funders. It develops in you a sixth sense, a constant awareness, of how what you do will affect your ability to raise money.”
 
It is not a detail, he says, but a fact although no politician will ever admit to it. “If you are a Republican and you want to simplify the tax code, there’s no way to simplify tax code as long as this is the way we want to fund campaigns.” The same goes for the Democrats.
 
Since Lessig’s announcement on Tuesday, he has received more than $181,000 in donations from about 2,100 donors, leaving him less than a month to reach his $1 million goal. He got wide, respectful but somewhat skeptical coverage with the subtext – this is crazy, as if Sanders wasn’t enough. Stick with Hillary.
 
But Clinton’s “e-mail scandal” of maintaining a private server at home as secretary of state throws up a daily dose of questions besides assorted allegations about the high speaking fees charged by both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Foreign donations to the Clinton foundation are yet another facet of the difficulties Hillary faces as a candidate.
 
Three top newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal – have written over the past six months on the murky dividing lines and whether public policy might have been compromised as a quid pro quo.
 
“The question is not whether Hillary Clinton is a criminal. Of course, she is not. The question is whether she can carry the mantle of a reformer,” Lessig asserted in a piece for The Atlantic in May.
 
It’s not as if Lessig is coming in from the cold as a complete maverick. He has been a political activist, a rousing TED talker and even launched a super-PAC called Mayday PAC to support Congressional candidates who would reform campaign finance laws. In 2014, two of the eight candidates supported by Mayday PAC succeeded.
 
Lessig’s book Republic, Lost published in 2011 explores how people lost their democracy with special interests taking over the major levers of government. It came out as the Occupy Wall Street movement was capturing the imagination of the young in major cities. The book, which argues for a Second Constitutional Convention to reform how government functions, provides a roadmap of sorts.
 
Interestingly, Lessig came to his liberal views via University of Cambridge (Trinity) where he extended his stay to complete a degree in philosophy because he liked what was happening – to him. He was transforming from a conservative and a libertarian to liberal. He then went to Yale Law School.
 
Over time, he has launched several activist projects, been an advocate for free software and open spectrum, fought for net neutrality after being exhorted by his mentee Aaron Swartz, the internet hacktivist, computer programmer and political activist who committed suicide in 2013 after being accused by the federal government of data theft.
 
While the right has called Lessig, the “Donald Trump of the left,” he is yet to be trumped. If he makes it to the primary debate, things could get really interesting.