Skip to main content

Lawrence Lessig Will Never Be President—Here's Why He Needs to Run Anyway

The Harvard professor wants to be elected president—and to give it away.
Lawrence Lessig giving a lecture at Stanford. (Photo: Joi/Flickr)

Lawrence Lessig giving a lecture at Stanford. (Photo: Joi/Flickr)

Lawrence Lessig wants your vote.

The renowned Harvard University legal scholar and leading voice for campaign finance reform is waging a presidential campaign unique to the post-Citizen's United era. But it's not just that Lessig isn't rolling in super PAC donations like all those GOP candidates (plus Hillary Clinton) vying for oxygen in the ever-expanding 2016 field. Last week, Lessig launched a committee to explore the possibility of his running in the Democratic primary under a central promise: If elected, he'll quit.

Well, sort of. Lessig wants to run on a platform of disrupting "lobbying-industrial congressional complex" that dominates American politics and upending the "rigged system," via a single piece of legislation designed to roll back the unlimited campaign spending enabled by Citizens United. Once that's done, he'll bow out of the Oval Office. "My plan is a referendum," Lessig wrote in the Daily Beast. "My candidacy would be a referendum. Elected with a single mandate to end this corrupt system, I would serve only as long as it takes to pass fundamental reform. I would then resign, and the vice president would become president."

This is insane. But then again, so is running for president with the singular objective of passing a Citizen's Equality Act to limit political donations by billionaire donors—a platform that, in the modern money-flush electoral landscape, is the equivalent of political suicide. It's not the first time he's succumbed to this particular strain of reformation mania; his attempt to fight fire with fire and form a super PAC for the sake of sticking it to the plutocrats ended up squandering $10 million, much to the glee of the Washington establishment.

Lessig launched a committee to explore the possibility of his running in the Democratic primary under a central promise: If elected, he'll quit.

Lessig, despite his intellectual prowess and righteous cause, is a political moonshot by any measure, especially given his potential opposition within the Democratic Party. "Hillary Clinton, the prohibitive frontrunner, has solid views on these issues," points out the Week's Scott Lemieux. "She could certainly be pushed further, but this could be done by people already in the race. Bernie Sanders is a strong proponent of publicly financed elections. Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton's largely forgotten challenger, has tried to make the right to vote central to his campaign." Then again, presidential candidates usually just take aim at "big money" to polish their populist bona fides early on in a cycle; an analysis by the Washington Post reveals that campaign finance simply isn't a winning issue for candidates running on broad platforms.

But. This election cycle has arrived on the heels of one of the most polarizing presidencies in United States history, and likely marks the mellowing of a long political epoch that began with the toppling of the World Trade Center. This is also an election cycle that began nearly two years before Election Day, a long slog that inevitably warps the practice of governing and bears down on the electorate like a high-pressure system. And, lest we forget, this is an election cycle where deranged hairpiece Donald Trump and progressive angel Bernie Sanders are dominating the polls, despite the fact that both are seen, like Lessig, as relative longshots by Washington cronies. American politics has reached a zenith of insanity, and this furious pathos has turned the 2016 election into one focused on authenticity, even if Bernie Sanders is a socialist in everything but name and Donald Trump is authentic in the same way a derecho is authentic when it knocks out your power and spits on your children.

The time has never been better to have a clear, resonant message with no chance in hell of winning the primary.

This means everything for Lessig, who, despite proving to be ineffective at catalyzing a push for campaign finance by other means, is now presented with a strange opportunity to make it a central aspect of the 2016 election cycle. The righteous anger is simmering within the electorate—Americans in both parties support campaign finance reform—and voters are incredibly wary of the political dynasties embodied by frontrunners Jeb Bush and Clinton. And luckily for wildcards like Lessig, the revenue-starved media is all-too-happy to focus on fringe candidates who could bring in that sweet, sweet Facebook traffic, like venture capital-funded-Facebook-centric digital media darling Bernie Sanders and cable-news-friendly Donald Trump.

Simply by announcing a run and hammering home a single issue, Lessig can help drag the national discourse in the direction of campaign finance. A significant body of research has shown that mainstream news sources have been ceding control of the "national conversation" and voter behavior since the 2008 presidential election; while third-party candidates have long toiled in obscurity (Lessig is smart to run as a Democrat), all he needs to do is gain some level of viral traction to help pivot the conversation back toward what he sees as a matter of national concern. The time has never been better to have a clear, resonant message with no chance in hell of winning the primary.

So no, Lessig won't win; his plan is just a bit too absurd, especially with the Republican Party likely in control of Congress in 2016. "Precisely because of the democratic defects Lessig identifies, Republicans will almost certainly control the House in 2016," Lemieux explains. "The magic word 'mandate' is not going to compel Republicans to pass legislation that would be politically suicidal for many members and opposed by most Republicans in principle." Lessig can pledge to serve as a modern-day Cincinnatus as long as he wants, but the political tension between his administration and the coming Republican Congress will make it impossible for him to carry out his one campaign promise. At least Bernie Sanders has eight major issues, even if, as Lessig notes, their order of importance changes with the location and audience of his stump speeches.

In the West Wing, the essential political saga of idealistic political Millennials (House of Cards is the playground of the jaded), Martin Sheen's Jeb Bartlett ran simply to make a statement, expecting to get his ass whupped on Super Tuesday and return home to New Hampshire. He ended up winning the White House. Yes, it's fiction, and yes, it's a Democratic fantasy, but that's always captured what Lessig believes is core to the American electoral process: That sending a message, having your voice heard, matters most. He’ll never sit in the White House, but in the perfect storm that is the current campaign cycle, Lessig has a chance to make sure voters and candidates alike hear his words—and listen.