Election 2016

To Curb Big Money's Political Corruption, Larry Lessig Makes Promising Start With a Million For People’s Super PAC

Is Lessig headed in the right direction?

Photo Credit: Lessig.org

Larry Lessig—the Steve Jobs of campaign finance reformers—has thrown his hammer at the political money world’s Big Blue.

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Like Apple’s famous TV ad attacking IBM’s mainframe to launch a new era of individual-centered computing, Lessig has launched the most surprising and contradiction-filled attack yet on the political mainstream’s corrupt money-culture system. On May 1, Lessig announced he was creating “a citizens’ funded and crowd-sourced super PAC to end all super PACs.”

Late Tuesday, it reached its first milestone: raising $1 million in small donations. In 12 days, 11,714 people pledged an average of $85, he blogged

“Yes, we want to spend big money, to end the influence of big money,” Lessig said in his fundraising video. “Ironic. I get it. But embrace the irony—because with enough of us, we can easily build a super PAC bigger and more effective than the super PACs of the billionaires. So please help us. Pledge.”       

Lessig now says he will go to wealthy donors to match that first million. The next goal is raising $5 million more by June 30 through a “Kickstart corruption reform, save our democracy campaign,” which he says he will also match from wealthy donors. Then he’ll hire a CEO and the “baddest” campaign consultants, and try to elect five House members this fall who embrace a series of democracy reforms centered on public financing. If it works, the Washington Post’s Matt Miller has written that Lessig’s team may seek to leverage really big money for 2016. 

“He wants 50 patriotic billionaires to pony up $20 million to $40 million each (provided their fellow tycoons do the same),” Miller wrote a year ago, championing an earlier version of the money bomb. “Toss in contributions from less well-heeled folks who believe in the cause. Presto: You have a $1 billion to $2 billion war chest devoted to making grassroots public funding of campaigns a viable path to office.”

No stranger to big and brash thinking, Lessig isn’t shy about promoting it. He’s a Harvard law professor who became famous as an Internet freedom fighter and joined the democracy reform movement seven years ago, as he explains on his blog. In person, he’s softspoken and earnest. But below that humble exterior lies a super-sharp mind, steely determination and a relentless drive.

Lessig walked into the nerdy money-and-politics world as an Internet star and found it was ripe for a tech-based takeover. He agreed the best reforms were intended to root out the cycle of corruption that comes from public officials raising private money to get elected, and then serving those donors. He saw that the best reforms long pushed by progressives—relying on a base of small donations, tax-funded public financing, timely and full disclosure, real limits on lobbying—were solid, but needed updating. He created a bipartisan team to rewrite those and did. But Lessig increasingly saw finely tuned ideas weren’t enough, even as he promoted ideas such as forcing Congress to hold a Constitutional Convention. That pressure, he said, would provoke Congress to adopt real reform.   

Lessig came to see that reformers needed a different stake in the game, one that was more personal and ultimately financial. He helped create new advocacy groups and lent his support to others. In late 2011, Lessig began talking up super PACs. He upped the ante by talking about curing corruption, not just reforming campaign finances, which generated buzz and offended election lawyers. He led protest marches. This May 1, he declared "May Day— ‘SOS for democracy’" and launched his super PAC, embracing “the irony.” 

“And to be clear: I stand by my commitment that 100 percent of the money raised through our crowd-funding campaign will fund electoral campaign work,” he wrote on his blog as the money was rolling in. “We are covering the other costs (as tiny as we can keep them) through other fundraising. Thanks for any help.”

Make no mistake, the road ahead is not going to be easy. This can be seen as a desperate act in desperate times. Or it can be seen, given the obstacles, as the only way to win—essentially fighting fire with fire. The early phase of any startup is euphoric—and that is the reception he’s gotten in progressive circles.

How will Lessig justify the move in the long run? Perhaps he might have to leave some of the reformers behind. But if he succeeds, he will be come very powerful very fast. It is possible that soon Lessig’s name will be mentioned in the same breath as the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, the Republican casino magnate.   

It’s not every day that the Mahatma Gandhi of the democracy reform movement decides to pick up a gun.  

Critical Thinking?

Most of us will want Lessig to succeed, of course. But before we embrace the irony, as he urges, let’s draw on our experience and lessons of being in this fight for a quarter-century so we can understand the dragon he’s trying to slay.

The ever-increasing and overwhelming influence of private cash in elections—mostly from the wealthy and virtually every special interest you can imagine, often with expectations or strings attached—is one of the conundrums that has bedeviled liberals and progressive reformers since the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted post-Watergate campaign finance rules, notably by equating spending money with free speech.

Many have been aghast and despaired at what we have seen as the fundamental breakdown of the democratic process. Reforming the system has proven virtually impossible, especially at the federal level. Lawyers for profit-minded interests have overturned many laws imposing campaign finance limits in twisted First Amendment cases. Creating and evading loopholes to allow monied interests to do whatever they want in elections and lobbying—fighting dirty, monopolizing media, evading accountability, holding regulators hostage—became a big business. As many people said, what’s legal is the real crime. 

Of course, there has been a major reform movement focused on democracy issues for more than 25 years. Tons of research and sunshine—efforts to open to public scrutiny voting records, voting habits and exposes of special interests’ goals and giving—has unfolded. Hundreds of millions of dollars has been raised from foundations and others and spent on trying to expose and fix the system. These efforts have also included adopting small-donor campaigns and public financing—usually in small, more politically responsive states—to show that there are alternative ways for the political system to function. 

But the big-picture result at the national level has been an utter failure, where the problem has gotten worse in virtually every election cycle in the past three decades. It has been a mostly steady downward spiral leading to today, when so many Americans know that our anti-democratic system is locked up. In every big national election, private money has played an increasingly dominant role. And it seems poised to get worse.

It’s no mystery why. It started in 1976, when the Supreme Court issued one of its worst decisions ever. In that case, Buckley v. Valeo, the Court threw out all limits on personal political spending, saying money equals free speech. It said that campaign donations could be regulated only to prevent the appearance of corruption, or actual provable corruption.   

That’s where the democracy-killing downhill slide began. The Court’s 2010 decision, Citizens United, diluted the legal definition of political corruption, while at the same time opening new loopholes that led to the creation of super PACs. It was met by a loud chorus of collective anxiety about the future, a “sky is falling" kind of decision that affirmed corporations and super donors had more power than average voters.

Since then, the Supreme Court’s attack on democracy has deepened. It issued a ruling narrowing what forms of public financing are allowed—an Arizona-based case. Just last month, the Court did away with an overall limit on how much people can give political parties, in McCutcheon v. FEC. To democracy reformers, this is déjà voodoo—the sky keeps falling. 

And more Court decisions loom that can make this situation worse; such as Orwellian orders protecting the right to lie in campaigns, or possibly a ruling to protect the identity of anonymous wealthy donors, who like to fight dirty as long as they can hide. They say that exposing them to the public could open them up to prosecution like blacks in the Jim Crow era. Soon there will be virtually no restrictions on financing elections.

What Can Be Done?

Two giant political realities face reformers. First is that the Supreme Court on this issue, as in almost all key issues, is captured by radical right-wingers. Let’s not call them conservatives; they are a reactionary activist majority. The decisions are almost all 5-4, with the liberal side of the court almost always losing. All of the right-wing justices have been nominated by Republicans, and the Court is for the first time in many decades an almost pure reflection of the partisanship in Congress, with vast divides separating the sides. Look no further than the powerful dissent in a recent decision on affirmative action where Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the court it was abandoning its historic civil rights legacy.

The second hurdle is the bitterly divided Congress, which is completely incapable of agreeing on any democracy reforms and where Democrats are likely to lose more members in November. This reality is very dark as far as one can imagine, and is why the main reform strategy after Citizens United—until Lessig’s super PAC gambit—was to push for the near-impossible goal of a democracy reform constitutional amendment.

That idea may sound nice and idealistic in the abstract but it requires two-thirds of both chambers—the House and Senate—to pass and then send it to the states, where two-thirds of the states have to pass it before it can be enacted. In hyper-partisan, red-versus-blue America, that’s basically an impossible task. If Las Vegas gave odds on this contest, it would probably be more than 1,000 to one. Recall that the Equal Rights Amendment for women never passed, floundering for 30 years without being ratified.

Larry Lessig steps into this depressing vortex, where there have been few new big ideas in a long time. In February 2010, he said forget about the traditional constitutional amendment route requiring two-thirds passage. Instead, he called for a constitutional convention—the other way to pass one—arguing that would force Congress to act, because it won’t want to be pre-empted. 

That idea didn’t catch on, but like a relentless Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he’s kept looking for software and hardware that will work and will shake up the status quo. He has relationships with wealthy reformers, including his students, and has decided to fight fire with fire. His super PAC, which seeks to raise $12 million for five House races, would be one of the biggest, according to OpenSecrets.org.  

One way to look at Lessig’s strategy is that deciding to play the game by the big money rules seems hypocritical, and perhaps undermines the hopes of thousands of activists who have been drawn to this issue as a fundamental one. Moreover, given how much money conservatives now throw around—hundreds of millions in presidential years—using the Koch brothers’ model, the pro-democracy side would be hard-pressed to compete.

On the other hand, with reform such a distant star in the sky, it can be argued that the only way to succeed is to balance the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and Karl Rove and go to the people, as Lessig is modeling in his experiment. There are some precedents. Howard Dean’s campaign for president in 2004 used small donors to become competitive. For a short time, he was viable with tens of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers.

It was thought that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was following those lines, but then Obama raised huge sums from wealthy donors. Perhaps the best recent example of a liberal small donor campaign is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's recent race where $20.5 million of the $43 million she raised was in donations of $200 or less, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The notion that there is sufficient money in the liberal sector to compete with the right is certainly accurate. But it’s likely that just small donors are not going to do it alone. Progressive millionaires and billionaires are going to play a big part. Tom Steyer has stepped up as a role model in this regard, with a special focus on climate change and elections, pledging to spend $100 million. There is huge liberal money in America, to be sure, such as billionaires David Geffen, Herb Sandler, George Soros and even Michael Bloomberg, with his relentless fight against gun proliferation. Even the two richest men in America, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, have consistently contrasted themselves with right-wingers and more conservative forces of the Chamber of Commerce and that ilk.    

Lessig’s Gambit

Lessig seems to know this. He said his next step is matching the first million he’s raised from wealthy donors, and then doing the same with the next $5 million he hopes to raise by the end of June.

But, of course, there are some big problems with this approach. Since the system is locked into the campaign establishment and dependent on corporate media, often large amounts of money gets raised, only to end up in the hands of consultants and media companies, as most of the money goes to advertising.

The paucity of good candidates is another factor. Often the money goes to help elect marginal Democrats who end up voting against donors' interests for a range of reasons. And an overriding question remains: does the Democratic establishment, with Obama's fundraising prowess as an example, really want to change? Already Hillary Clinton, with her huge fundraising network, is the leading Democrat for 2016. The other Democrat who gets talked about with excitement, Elizabeth Warren, has become a prodigious fundraiser. Does that party really want fundamental change? Probably not.

The focus on money in elections obscures the fact there are so many other huge anti-democratic problems in the system, which wouldn't be addressed with campaign finance reform. Washington’s lobbying industry, where there were more than 22 lobbyists for every member of Congress in 2013, and was paid more than $3.2 billion last year, is barely scrutinized. Members regularly resign their seats for lucrative jobs in the industries they regulated. The groups Lessig works with know these problems well and have model reforms, even putting ex-lobbyists convicted of influence-peddling on their advisory board. 

For now, Lessig is comfortable and confident that he can raise enough money to make democracy reform a campaign issue in at least five House races. He’s building his program one step at a time.

“If we’re going to ransom back this democracy, you must answer this mayday call,” he said, closing his super PAC appeal. “We’ve made promises to our children and promises to our parents. But we have a government that is more worried about promises to itself and its lobbyists, to keep itself in power. We still have the power to change that, and we will, if you help.”

Where all this goes next will be risky and telling. Lessig’s path is compelling and gutsy. His quest is to do better than Sisyphus, the ancient Greek myth in which a man is forever pushing a stone up a mountain only to see it roll down. But whether the democracy reform movement’s equivalent of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. will be an ultimate game-changer remains to be seen.

Those leaders didn’t fight fire with fire.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).