Campaign finance reform crusader and aspiring censor Lawrence Lessig is threatening to form an exploratory campaign to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Because apparently Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton aren’t serious or strident enough.
Yes, he is serious.
I want to run. But I want to run to be a different kind of president. “Different” not in the traditional political puffery sense of that term. “Different,” quite literally. I want to run to build a mandate for the fundamental change that our democracy desperately needs. Once that is passed, I would resign, and the elected Vice President would become President.
This is the Presidency as referendum. Our constitution, unlike some states, doesn’t give us a referendum power directly. This hack adds one in. Almost never would it be necessary — in a well-functioning democracy. But when a democracy has lost the capacity to act as a democracy, a referendum president is a peaceful means to force a change that Congress is otherwise not going to make. When the system has become the problem, we need an intervention from the outside.
We are at one of those moments now. In no plausible sense do we have a representative democracy in America today. That fact shows itself in a thousand ways — from #BlackLivesMatter to billion dollar SuperPACs, and none more profound than the deep sense that most Americans have that their government is not theirs. “The system,” as Elizabeth Warren puts it, “is rigged.” And the fundamental challenge for our democracy today is to find a way to fix that rigged system.
The problems here are manifest. Would it be pedantic to point out that the United States was founded as a republic, not a democracy, and that the difference matters? Or to mention that the Constitution was written to limit government as well as democratic impulses? Or to bring up the small fact that direct democracy is a disaster?
(Incidentally, your writer understands that attacks on the initiative, referendum, and recall most often come from progressive quarters nowadays. It wasn’t always so.)
Lessig likes to cite polls suggesting “96 percent of Americans say it’s ‘important to reduce the influence of money in politics.’” More recently, he’s become fond of citing a MoveOn/YouGov poll that purports to show that 82 percent of Americans of all political stripes agree “the system is rigged.” Many conservatives and libertarians would agree with the latter proposition.
So what? As always, the question must be: what’s the remedy?
Lessig’s answer is the Citizen Equality Act of 2017, which includes such novelties as “a meaningfully equal freedom to vote,” ranked-choice voting; and taxpayer-funded (or, to use his parlance, “citizen-funded”) elections.
Do read the proposal. All three ideas are worth deeper exploration—and sound refutation. In lieu, we have James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal, who made sport of Lessig’s quixotic campaign in Wednesday’s Best of the Web Today:
Lessig would ask Congress (1) to abolish freedom of speech in favor of “equality of speech,” whatever that means, (2) to prohibit state legislatures from engaging in “political gerrymandering,” and (3) who knows what else. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that (1) and (2) have glaring constitutional problems. Maybe he should consult with some law professors.
Oh wait, he is a law professor. At Harvard no less.
Lessig last month stepped down as chairman and of MayDay, the SuperPAC he founded to promote “reform” candidates in the 2014 congressional elections. The effort raised $10 million and had virtually no impact. Only one of the candidates MayDay supported won and that was Rep. Walter Jones, the Republican from North Carolina whose reelection was a mortal lock.
This cycle, he’s been urging the two leading Democratic candidates to go bigger on campaign finance reform. In July, Lessig wrote a memo to Sanders urging on the senator to take advantage of his growing popularity by making “citizen equality” the “first issue — the one change that makes all other changes believable.”
. . “…[A]fter the surge of support for you, the single strongest attack is going to be the ‘reality argument,’” Lessig wrote. “You’re talking about a string of reforms that simply cannot happen in the Washington of today. The ‘system is rigged.’ If that rigging is good for anything, it is good for blocking basically everything you’re talking about.”
Looks like Lessig didn’t get the response he was hoping for.
Now Lessig has launched a “kickstarter-like” campaign (Kickstarter itself doesn’t allow political fundraising) to raise $1 million for his new effort by Labor Day. If he makes it, Lessig vows to give “this run every ounce of my energy.” If he falls short, he’ll give the money back.
He’s raised about $166,000 so far, so who knows? Maybe he can waste another $10 million in service of an ignoble cause.