Exit Lawrence Lessig

A lost battle in the war of campaign finance reform

By Nathaniel Coderre


I’d been having debates with friends about why Colbert wasn’t the same on The Late Show for two months until the reason crystalized perfectly for me with one segment on November 5th. It was an installment of his “Hungry for Power Games” segment, which he uses every time someone drops out of the 2016 Presidential race. What was really frustrating to watch (although perhaps not shocking), was that the segment was completely devoid of his informative, satirical wit, and instead consisted of lame barbs about how few people had heard of Lawrence Lessig. His attempted demolition really struck me because I had taken a great interest in this candidate. To some degree, Colbert’s jokes about how he’d never heard of Lessig make sense, because he is a Harvard Law Professor with little political experience and no name recognition. But the segment seems disingenuous when you learn that he actually interviewed Lessig on his old program in 2009. They were mostly talking about copyright law then, but they eventually drifted towards talking about how ineffectual Congress was. Colbert’s character ends the discussion by saying “The system is working for me, so welcome to the mouth of madness”. Colbert’s efforts once were directed towards revealing the depths of this madness, but since coming to The Late Show, his comedic gaze doesn’t reach quite so far. When Colbert didn’t tear into Donald Trump on September 23rd, it set a new precedent of compromises on his new show. But it was incredibly disappointing when he discarded Lessig. Lawrence Lessig may never have emerged as a viable Democratic nominee, but he was a voice speaking out against systemic misuse of power.  

Who is Lawrence Lessig? And why am I making such a huge deal about him? For a long time, Lessig has parlayed his role as a Harvard Law professor into political activism, all of which led up to his late run for the Democratic nomination this summer. He didn’t have as much of a public profile as many of the other candidates, but he did receive an initial burst of media coverage for his unique campaign.  He styled himself as a referendum candidate, someone who wanted to be elected to deal with a single issue, campaign finance reform, and then voluntarily resign. He was an unforeseen commodity spouting ideas that would never come from a known, reliable candidate. The ambitious plan frightened the Democratic Party so much that his campaign was doomed from the start. I don’t think they ever knew what to do about a candidate who said he would willingly give up his office. This kind of chaos is actually what originally attracted me to Lessig. Could you imagine what would happen if he won the nomination? Who would he select to be his Vice President (and inevitably succeed him in the presidency)? Would he have been unelectable in the general election? Could he have tapped into some sort of populist groundswell of support no one expected? Being more realistic, what would have happened if he had gotten into one of the debates? I imagine that he would have shifted a lot more of the national attention towards campaign finance, but we’ll never know.

Advocates for campaign finance reform worry that the influence corporations have in political campaigns is turning our country into a plutocracy. They would argue that our national politicians speak for the wealthy instead of their constituency. The 2010 Citizens United decision underscored the corruptive influence of money in politics for Lessig (and many others), exponentially increasing the calls for new reform. This Supreme Court decision removed the ban that prevented corporations from giving unlimited money to support or oppose individual candidates. While this (and a subsequent decision called SpeechNow.Org vs. FEC) doesn’t allow for direct contributions to political campaigns, it does allow the creation of super PACs (political action committees), which are groups that can spend unlimited money supporting or attacking campaigns. There is a nominal restriction that says that super PACs and politicians cannot coordinate, but candidates have already blatantly circumvented that rule. Actually, it was Colbert himself who first brought these loopholes to the public’s attention. He showed that super PACs could hire candidate’s lawyers, consult with former members of their staff, or simply watch their candidates say their strategy on TV.  

“Lawrence Lessig is the rare presidential candidate whose final words are not merely attempts to save face.”

This influx of money is undoubtedly detrimental to our political system. Well-supported studies estimate that most members of Congress spend 25 to 50 percent of their time in office fundraising for themselves or their party. The money that candidates solicit gives the wealthiest a platform to control candidates’ public policy that almost no other Americans have.  For example, “In one [email] exchange, McDonnell [a former Governor of Virginia] e-mailed Williams [a donor with interests in tobacco] to ask about a fifty-thousand-dollar loan and, six minutes later, e-mailed an aide to check on scientific studies that Williams wanted conducted on his product at public universities.” Given that the strength of the tobacco industry rests (at least somewhat) on studies concerning the product’s health risks, this is an example of a politician potentially using the influence he has in his role as an elected official to disproportionately benefit one of his patrons. The Citizens United decision flooded the election season with money, fundamentally altering campaign strategies for both parties. The election cycle after it (2012) raised more than $2 billion more than the season that preceded it (2008). The super PACs alone spent $1 billion, 73 percent of which came from 100 people.

As a modern political party whose sole objective is to find and nominate the most electable candidate, the Democratic Party has a vested interest in protecting Hillary Clinton, the person with the most realistic path to the White House, as well as the image of the party as a whole. The emergence of a radical, unconventional candidate who speaks out against their electoral system is a nuisance to it. Lessig (and many others) provide a very credible case that the Democratic Party intentionally and knowingly worked to prevent him from getting into the debates. As a latecomer (his campaign only began in September) without name recognition, he desperately needed to get into the October 13th debate for his campaign to have a chance. He hit every benchmark that the party set up. He raised more money than half of the other candidates did, and he hit one percent in three polls, more than half of the other candidates. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were both given podiums at the first debate, despite polling closer to .7 percent in many polls. Chafee actually needed the prodding of Conan O’Brien’s joking pleas to his fan base to hit one percent and both candidates were laughed out of the election after the first debate. Several major polls didn’t even include his name on the ballot, despite including Joe Biden, someone who had repeatedly denied having an interest in running. Of course, one percent almost seems like too low of a bar for candidates to hit to reach the debates, but there was no harm in trying to keep a larger pool of candidates for early debates.

After he failed to get into the first debate, his campaign limped on through the end of October, Lessig ended his campaign on November 2nd after it became obvious that he wasn’t going to be admitted to the second one either. The real shame in his exclusion, beyond squashing his fledgling campaign, is that he had a real opportunity to shift the discourse of the discussion. Both Sanders and Clinton have expressed interest in campaign reforms, but neither have underscored it as their fundamental issue. In Lessig’s view, solving the other issues they discuss is not possible until we make radical changes to our electoral system. Just as Sanders’ relative rise has forced Clinton to back more left-wing policies, Lessig would have forced them both to address campaign finance reform more comprehensively. Of course, the very issue he is fighting against made it impossible for him to be elected. A genuinely outside candidate would have to defeat an avalanche of money to win, an almost impossible task.  

It would certainly be appropriate to draw a dire conclusion—the ambitious outsider soundly defeated by the political establishment—but Lawrence Lessig is the rare presidential candidate whose final words are not merely attempts to save face. Lessig intends to remain an activist against political corruption, working with groups like Wolf PAC to organize communities. Wolf PAC’s goal is to pass an amendment that ends corporate personhood, provides publicly funded campaigns, and restricts large monetary donations—all measures that attempt to decrease the influence of money in politics. Interestingly enough, they don’t necessarily need a political champion to galvanize a corrupt Congress. Amendments can also be passed through a constitutional convention, something that hasn’t been done since the first one in 1787. While it’s certainly possible, they would need 34 states (two-thirds) to submit an application, and they only have four so far. Sounds far-fetched? Of course it is. But six more states have passed it in one house, and people are actively working all around the country to increase public support.

Interestingly, many political pundits have drawn comparisons between Lessig and the big story on the Republican side, Donald Trump. They argue that both candidates are trying to tap into the same emotions on opposite ends of the political spectrum: dissatisfaction with the promises and the clichés of “Washington insiders.” Supporters for both of them imagine a populist hero changing the political landscape. Even Lessig himself has expressed some solidarity with Trump (hear him out!). “He did an enormous service to the debate by opening the issue up on the Republican debate stage by calling out the other candidates as not independent of their funders,” he says. Of course, Trump’s bravado comes from being a self-obsessed billionaire, but he nevertheless repeatedly accuses his opponents of being beholden to special interests. Trump’s line of criticism will obviously prove as fruitless as Lessig’s, but it further illustrates an important point. There is a mounting disgust for the corruption in our political system, and political activists like Lawrence Lessig will continue to fight until we see radical campaign reform.

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