Harvard professor and campaign finance reform crusader Lawrence Lessig is running for the Democratic nomination for president. He was not allowed in tonight’s debates. Luckily, he stopped by to explain his entire platform to us.
Lessig, who announced his candidacy in August, has been campaigning against the influence of money in politics for years. He has a novel plan for his presidential run: he promises to resign after passing the Citizen Equality Act, his signature package of reforms designed to fix our campaign finance system and make our democracy more fair and responsive to the will of the people. Though he strenuously argued that he should be, Lessig was not included in the group of candidates participating in tonight’s Democratic debate. He came by our office last week to talk to us about how to fix what ails our democracy.
Gawker: Let’s talk about why you’re running.
Lawrence Lessig: The problem that I’m talking about, that I want to focus America on, that literally no one else wants to acknowledge, is that the government’s broken. It has no capacity to make decisions any more. And it’s relatively recent. I think it’s a 20 year problem. It’s grown over the last 20 years. But we’re at this place where such a tiny number of people are funding campaigns, it’s trivially easy for any major reform on the left or the right to be blocked. We’ve got to solve that problem. When you look at the problem, you ask “why is it we have the problem?” The answer to that question is: inequality of citizens. A world where 400 families fund half the political campaigns is a world where those 400 families standing at the front of the line have enormous power in our political system. A world where Congressmen spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money from a tiny, tiny fraction of the 1% is a world where that tiny, tiny fraction has enormous power. And it’s that inequality in political power that enables this corrupted system to happen.
That’s important, because it explains the motive for the Equality Act. You could be a citizen egalitarian for purely moral reasons—you could say, “Jeez, we ought to have an equal society.” And I kind of believe that. But I’m pushing for citizen equality not because of some moral idea, but because this is the essential way to crack the corruption that now makes it so Washington can’t work. So the Citizen Equality Act is the remedy to a problem which no one else wants to talk about, but which when you step back as a sentient being in America today, this is the core problem.
Gawker: Why do say this problem has come about in the last 20 years?
Lessig: Well, 20 years ago exactly, Newt Gingrich became speaker, the first time Republicans took control of the House in 40 years. So every two years, Congress is up for grabs. So what in corporate finance we would call the “control premium”—the premium you get for controlling the company—we have it in the government. Every two years the government is up for grabs. And from 1995 until today, there’s been this ferocious effort by Democrats and Republicans to raise the money they need to regain control. This fierce competition has produced a world where Congressmen have been turned into fundraisers. They used to govern for year, maybe a year and a half, then they’d go off and campaign. And while they were campaigning they were raising money, but they were doing it kind of on the side to their actual job of campaigning, which is to go out and meet people. Now, 24/7, from the moment they’re elected, they are on the phones calling people to raise money. So we’ve changed the institution, from an institution of legislators to an institution of telemarketers. And these telemarketers are different from who they were when they were legislators. In 2008, my Congressman died, I had just started doing this work, and a bunch of my friends were like “you ought to run for Congress.” We launched an exploratory committee, and Joe Trippi, who ran [Howard] Dean’s campaign, showed up at my door, and he said “I’ll run your campaign. But you need to be able to promise me that every day between now and the day you announce your retirement from politics, you will spend 2-4 hours on the telephone.” And I said, that makes this easy, because there is no way I could do that. But then I thought, who are the people who can do that? What is that person like? Is that the person you want to be legislating for the future of America?
Gawker: So tell me your prescription for these problems.
Lessig: The Citizen Equality Act has three parts. The first and most important part from my perspective is changing the way elections are funded. Instead of Congressmen in a Skinner Box pushing buttons of “What do the richest people in America want,” you have Congressmen thinking “How do I get money from ordinary people to run my campaign so that I can win?”... This proposal has systems for small dollar public funding, vouchers and matching funds. The way vouchers work is you give every voter a voucher, and they use that to allocate it to whatever candidate they want to support. Candidates take it if they agree to fund their campaigns with small dollar contributions plus vouchers. Overnight, the business model of fundraising changes. You’re focused on, how do I get money from these constituents? Instead of, how do I get money from these plutocrats? The other part of that proposal is matching funds, where you can match small contributions up to nine to one. Both of those together would radically change how campaigns are funded.
Number two is political gerrymandering. We’ve got this absurd system where politicians pick the voters, the voters don’t pick the politicians. There are only 90 competitive seats in the U.S. Congress. Which means there are 345 seats where, if you’re the minority—Democrats in a Republican safe seat, or Republican in a Democrat safe seat—your representative doesn’t give a shit about you. Why? Because he never needs your vote. The only vote he needs to worry about is his own party... which means 89 million Americans live in a district where their representative doesn’t care at all about them. So when people say “Oh, people don’t vote,” my response is, why would you vote?... so this second change follows the proposals of FairVote, which would radically change the way districts get drawn, and establish something the framers had, which are multi-member seats. Basically, the district would [for example] have five Congressmen, and every voter has a ranked choice of voting. You could produce a system where there’d basically be proportional representation. So if you’re the 20% in that district, you’re guaranteed you’re going to get a seat.
And the third—and for Democrats, the least controversial of these changes—is to guarantee that we have a system where we have equal freedom to vote. Right now, you’ve got a system where ten million voters had to wait more than a half an hour to vote. For families with nannies and iPhones, that’s not much of a burden. But if you’re a working person, and you’ve got a real job, and you’ve got kids to take care of at home, that’s a poll tax that you can’t afford. So you design the system so people in the middle class and poor people basically can’t participate effectively, because you have voting on a day when most people work, and you have systems that make it so hard for them to vote. So these would be some changes that would make it easier for people to vote.
Gawker: What do you think you’re going to get out of running for President? And is it possible to address these issues using the current electoral system?
Lessig: I’ve come to the view that the only way to bring this change about is the moon shot approach. And the reason for that is—we did a poll at the end of 2013, and we found that 96% of Americans believe it’s important to reduce the influence of money in politics, but 91% don’t think it’s possible. That’s the politics of resignation... you ask people what they think about the system, and they hate the system. They think the system sucks. But you ask them why they don’t do something about it, and the reason is they don’t think that anything can be done. So the whole purpose of the presidential run is to give people a picture, a model, of how in fact there is something they can do. Which would unleash a kind of energy for reform which otherwise is really, really hard to imagine.
Gawker: To be fair, the general public is probably more likely to get excited about specific issues like health care than about a sort of meta-issue like this.
Lessig: Right, and that’s why you don’t talk about it as a meta-issue. That’s why you say, “Look, you want health care reform? You’re not gonna get health care reform until we deal with this issue. You want to deal with the problem of living wage, minimum wage? You’re not gonna get that dealt with until you deal with this issue.” Bernie Sanders and Martin [O’Malley] both talk about taking on Wall Street, breaking up the banks, passing Glass-Steagall. Wall Street is the biggest funder of Congressional campaigns! They’re not gonna get a Congress that’s gonna back them in fundamentally changing Wall Street so long as they depend on Wall Street’s money.
So you’re right: what it takes is to get people to think one step beyond what they initially thought. I’ve been doing this now for almost nine years. It doesn’t take much for them to come to the point that they realize this is true. And the other you recognize is, there’s a certain group of people who show up to a Democratic convention in New Hampshire, and they rally and cheer because they’re so excited about what someone’s talking about. But for every one who show up there, there are ten who would never show up to such a thing. And why? Because they are the people who think “This is bullshit. There’s nothing you can do with this system. The system doesn’t work, it’s not a democracy. Why should I waste my time on that.” I feel, because I deal with it every day, the challenge of getting those people who say “We’re gonna elect Bernie because we’re gonna get single-payer health care” to recognize: you’re not gonna get single-payer health care until you fix this first problem.
Gawker: People who defend the current political fundraising system will often say that, one, the power of money in politics is overstated, and two, money is speech. What do you say to that?
Lessig: I don’t have any argument about money is speech. Because nothing I’m talking about is limiting the ability of anybody to speak. But defenders of the system say there’s no relationship between money and what Congress does. Here are the facts: the largest empirical study of actual decisions by our government in the history of political science, published last year, related what our government did to the attitudes of the economic elites, organized interest groups, and the average voter. What they found was, what our government actually did was strongly correlated with the views of the economic elites. If zero percent of the elites support something, very low chance it’s going to pass, if 100% support something, very high chance it’s going to pass. Same thing for organized interest groups. But for the average voter, it’s a flat line. Which says it doesn’t matter whether zero percent of the public believes something or 100% of the average voters believe something—it doesn’t affect the probability that that thing will be enacted.
So what is the economic elite’s power here? Its power is manifested through its participation, in money and other ways, in the political system. There’s a whole raft of studies that look at the voting behavior of Senators. And they relate their voting behavior to the average views of voters in their district, to the party view, and to the funders’ or donors’ view. What they find is: almost no relation to what the average voter wants, some relation to what the party wants, but a very tight relation to what the donor wants. So people who assert that money’s not having an effect, it’s just pure ideology. There’s no empirical basis for that.
Gawker: Is getting into the Democratic debates extremely important for your campaign? How’s it going?
Lessig: Absolutely. There’s a lot going on right now. [Lessig will not be included in tonight’s debate]...There are two problems with the whole structure. One is the bizarre problem that we never anticipated of not being acknowledged as a candidate. On September 9, we launched our campaign. Every single time a Democratic candidate has launched a campaign, the Democratic Party has said “welcome to the race,” and from that moment on all the pollsters are polling. We launched, and the Democratic Party was crickets. They said nothing. And the pollsters said, if the Democratic Party doesn’t think he’s a candidate, we’re not gonna poll him... You’ve got to have a rule that divides who you’re going to have on stage versus who you’re not going to have on stage. Cause there are like 160 candidates for president. But of course, none of the 160 non-recognized candidates has raised a million dollars and gotten ten thousand people’s support in such a short time [like me]. I start late in this process. I demonstrate more support than Martin O’Malley, [Lincoln] Chafee, [Jim] Webb, in a shorter period of time. The consequence of that is, in some really important sense, my campaign is more viable than their campaigns are right now...
That rule [for getting into the debate] makes it easy for billionaires, or Jon Stewart, and politicians to run. Billionaires can spend two years running for president to build the recognition necessary to qualify. Jon Stewart would have it on day one. Politicians, when they’re supposed to be Senators, can actually be out there running for President. But a person like me, who doesn’t have $5 million in the bank—when I announced, I had to quit my job. I had to step away from being a professor at Harvard. And I’m not allowed to be paid by my campaign until like two months before the first election. There’s this period when you’ve basically got to do it for nothing. And most people could not do it for nothing. So the system is set up in a way to make it really hard for an outsider to step in who’s not a billionaire or a media personality or a politician.
Gawker: You’ve said that if elected, you would resign after you pass the Citizen Equality Act. That could take a while. What would you do in the meantime?
Lessig: There’s a tradition the president gets a signature legislation quickly. Obama got stimulus in three weeks. There’s the standard idea of the the hundred days. But as we’ve tested this idea and pushed it, the thing that’s been most surprising to me has been the pushback to the idea of limiting my own power. People don’t get that. They’re like, why would you ever limit your own power? The answer is, it’s actually the only way to create a sufficiently strong mandate to do anything... My commitment is to do this in a way that makes reform possible. And I want to serve as long as it takes to make reform pass and to enact it and make it sustainable. In order to do that, I’ve got to convince people that I can be President while that’s happening... there are other things that in the context of this campaign I will address and make clear what my position is. And every time I talk about that, I’ll also talk about how that position is not achievable so long as we have this corrupted system.
Gawker: Who would be the vice president that would take over for you?
Lessig: What I’ve said is that the vice president would be somebody that we’re not even going to begin to select until six or eight months from now at the convention. It should be a person who the party supports. I know people that I’m excited about—people like Bernie, or Elizabeth Warren, or other people that rally the Democratic base. But that’s a question to address then.
Gawker: What happens if we don’t address these problems? Is this a dynamic that’s getting worse?
Lessig: It’s gotten so much worse just in the last four years. Concentration of funders has only increased. The business model of super PAC funding of elections has only gotten more extreme. There’s no reason to think it’s gonna stop. In fact, what’s gonna happen is both parties are going to resign themselves to it, and we’ll get to a world where a thousand families are funding political campaigns. And that’ll be the banana republic-ification of America.