Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says he'll run for president if he can raise $1 million by Labor Day. Then, if elected, he'll only serve until he manages to pass the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 -- and then he'll step down. He says it's a way to hack a national referendum into the presidential election to give the people what they want: electoral reform. First, though, he needs to get the word out. He tells Bob about his strategy and whether it's really as unlikely as it seems.
SONG: Stand By Me - Ben E. King
Bob Garfield: Meanwhile, on the left, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wants to be President. Sort of. We spoke with him last summer abou this effort to neutralize Super PACs, with his own, that backs Congressional candidates who support campaign finance reform. That effort, the Mayday Super PAC didn't go so well. But now Lessig has a new strategy for leveling the political playing field. If he can crowdfund $1 million by Labor Day, he'll run for President on a platform of election reform. And if he wins, as if, he'll serve only until Congress legislates fairness into our democratic process, with passage of the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. Then he'll resign, leaving his Vice President, maybe Bernie Sanders, maybe Elizabeth Warren, in the White House. As of Thursday, evening, when we're recording this, Lessig has raised nearly 20% of his goal from donors. Lawrence Lessig, welcome back to On the Media.
Lawrence Lessig: It's great to be back.
Bob: So this is a media show, and campaign finance is very much a media issue because most of the money is spent on TV ads, but we're also a media show, and we understand media manipulation. By having you here, we have been sucked into the vortex of your publicity strategy. You are not going to be President of the United States. What is this all about?
Lessig: As Elizabeth Warren puts it, the system is rigged. And so what I'm trying to do, is to run a campaign to focus attention on the thing we all already recognize, that we have to fix the rigged system if we're to have any hope of having a democracy that represents us again.
Bob: Lay out, please, the provisions of the Citizens Equality Act of 2017.
Lessig: Number One: We would have equal freedom to vote. Strategies that are used to suppress the vote would be no longer permitted. Number two: We would have equal representation - changing the ways districts are drawn and rules for electing members of Congress so that we would have the chance for as many people as possible to be effectively represented in Congress. And number three, the part that's most important to me, is to change the way we fund elections so we don't have this perverse system for electing candidates to Congress. You know, in the South, they used to have the white primary. Only whites were allowed to vote in the Democratic Primary. We don't have a white primary anymore. We have a green primary. And it trades on a fundamental insight of one of the most important political philosophers of political philosophy, Boss Tweed, head of Tammany Hall, who used to say, "I don't care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating." 'Cause what Tweed knew is that if he got to nominate the candidates, they would always worry what he thought. And that's the system that we've produced with money.
Bob: Let's just pretend that you actually had a chance of pulling this off. Let's just pretend. Once you do get elected on your one issue platform, you do what?
Lessig: Well, I'm gonna fight the assumption we're pretending. Obviously, I get the incredible implausibility of what I'm talking about happening. But what I've described is a series of steps. If the first step establishes a large number of people supporting the idea, I can run and get the kind of attention that makes it plausible that I could be in the debates. Practically every single question that will be asked on that debate stage is tied fundamentally to the corrupted inequality of this political system. I don't think it's crazy to imagine that Democrats react as viscerally and passionately to this point as Republicans are reacting when Donald Trump makes the same point.
Donald Trump: I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that's a broken system.
Bob: He got the attention of a predominantly right-wing audience.
Lessig: One could, you know, be a little bit surprised that it takes Donald Trump to say it for us to believe it. But ok, I'll take belief however we can get it. Now this is not just rhetoric. We have extraordinary amounts of actual empirical political science to back this up. Like a really incredible study, it's a Princeton study so as a Harvard Professor I'm not supposed to mention it but here it is, what they found was, over a 30 year period, while the views of the economic elite were strongly related to what our government actually did, for the average voter, the relationship was literally, on the graph, a flat line. What that means is, there is no statistical correlation between what the average voters want and what the government does, independent of what the rich might happen to want or what organized interest groups might happen to want. And we have got to finally find a way to take it on and do something about it.
Bob: This is not your first Quixotic tilt at political equity. In the introduction we referred to your Mayday super PAC, which you formed last Spring in order to help elect legislators who would serve the interests of the people as opposed to big money. Your super PAC invested in eight races. You lost six of them and two were regarded as easy wins. Why do you think that the Lessig for President campaign is going to be more availing.
Lessig: Now it's not true to say that the two races were simple races. One we were confident of, but the other was a very important victory in a Democratic primary for a candidate who took this issue up. I'm doing two things that respond precisely from the Mayday experiment last year. Number one, we're fighting this in the primary, where nobody's worried about whether their side is gonna ultimately win, they're just deciding what are the values of their party. And I think the values of the Democratic Party should embrace the idea of equal citizenship. Number two, one important lesson we learned in the Mayday project was that people are extremely skeptical that there's anything that can be done.
Bob: In June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll found that one third of Americans say the top concern in the Presidential election is the influence of big money. On the other hand, the electorate is not frothing at the mouth over campaign finance reform unless asked by pollsters.
Lessig: Indeed, there's a poll done by the Clarus group that found that 80% of Americans think every reform ever passed was a reform to benefit the incumbents. We are so cynical, so skeptical of efforts to reform the system that we don't even listen to it anymore. That's the politics of resignation. And that's exactly what I think we see observed in campaigns that try to raise this issue. Now, if we had a referendum on this question, we'd win easily. The problem is, we don't have a referendum at the Federal level. So what I'm saying is, here's a strategy like a referendum, that if we could convince people that this is plausible they might begin to thaw their resignation and say "Ok, let's give this a try, because this in fact could give me what I want - a government that is no longer corrupted."
Bob: One final question. Do you have a slogan?
Lessig: Sure, "Equal citizens first".
Bob: [Laughter] Listen my friend, you're a law professor. I've got a very, very rich history in advertizing. That's not your slogan. Ready?
Lessig: Please, give me my slogan. Do I have to pay for this?
Bob: Well, you'll have to deal with the Mies van der Rohe estate.
Bob: The slogan is, "Lessig's more"
Lessig: [Laughter] I've seen that slogan.
Bob: Larry, thanks so much.
Lessig: Thank you.
Bob: Lawrence Lessig is a Harvard Law Professor, but maybe not for long. He is hoping to raise $1 million by Labor Day as a sign that he should run for President.