Larry Lessig Launches Presidential Bid to Reform Campaign Finances and Then Resign

The Paul Revere of campaign finance reform rides again. 

Larry Lessig, the Harvard professor-turned-constitutional reformer who for years has been publicly banging his head against our corrupt campaign finance system is forming an exploratory committee to run for president.

In a three-minute YouTube video posted Monday, Lessig said that an “intervention” was needed to break American political culture’s addictive dance with rich donors, that “hack[ing] the system” was the only way it could be destroyed and democracy restored.    

“Most Americans think the way we fund campaigns in America is crazy and corrupt,” Lessig began. “Did you know the number of relevant funders in campaigns today represents a tiny fraction of one percent of the population? The consequence of that system is a democracy that’s responsive to those funders only.”

Lessig is making a serious critique, but then turns to a novel remedy that invites ridicule: running for the White House and promising to resign after Congress enacts sweeping reforms. His video quickly puts the blame on Congress and then calls on people to help him blow up the system.

“Congress, however, has done squat little to fix this corrupt system,” he said. “They whine a bunch about it, but Congress has not voted on a proposal to change the way campaigns are funded in more than 20 years. A representative democracy is supposed to represent us, but sometimes it can’t. Sometimes it gets stuck and can’t hear us. Sometimes it needs an intervention. They’re stuck in a corrupted and unequal system. They need an intervention. And that’s why we are going to have to hack the system to intervene.” 

Then Lessig made his pitch—launching a single-issue presidential campaign based on the promise to pressure Congress to replace the current fundraising regimen with what presumably would be a system of taxpayer-funded grants, which would make elected officials more responsive to average Americans.   

“Imagine someone ran for president with the single promise to remain as president until Congress acted to end this corrupt and unequal system by enacting fundamental reform to fix it,” he said. “And when that happened, this referendum president, really just a trustee for the people, would step aside, and the elected vice president, a kind of president-in-waiting would step in.”

In other words, Lessig is saying that if elected, he would resign once he saved American democracy from its demons. (The Huffington Post reported he would be running as a Democrat.) 

“That referendum president would have the clearest mandate to fix this corrupted system that’s possible within our constitutional system,” he continued. “A regular president, even one elected with a landslide, has a divided mandate. He or she was elected for five or six different reasons, but the referendum president would be elected for just one. That single purpose would put overwhelming political pressure on Congress to do what the people have demanded. They couldn’t pretend not to hear this.”

Even Lessig’s video suggested he didn’t quite believe this theory of change. 

“Now that’s not a guarantee,” he continued. “But it may well be the only way we’ve got short of storming Capitol Hill with muskets to build the political power necessary to take on this death star they call D.C. So that’s the hack. And as I look around to the various options that reformers have described, I increasingly think this is our best shot at fixing this corrupt system and giving us back a democracy that represents us equally. A referendum so clear that even Congress would hear it, through a president with the mandate to make Congress act. This is how we could reclaim a democracy. Help us make it happen.”

Lessig told other media outlets on Monday that if he raised a $1 million in Internet donations that he would campaign full time. He defended what would be a symbolic campaign, and said he expected to be ridiculed.

“Raising the salience of that issue is enormously important,” he told the Huffington Post. “I think there is more of a chance that we do more than just raise the salience... It is a shot worth taking regardless of the criticism that will come.”

It is very likely that Lessig will succeed in raising the funds he needs to launch his quixotic campaign. He is a legal star in Silicon Valley intellectual property circles and in 2014 raised more than $10 million—a mix of thousands of small donations and $1 million checks—to back a half-dozen congressional candidates who pledged to put campaign reform at the top of their agenda. Almost all  lost, although Lessig said that experience taught him that single-issue campaigns have the most impact in the primary phase of the election cycle.  

It is easy to criticize Lessig’s gambit as fanciful, naïve, even vain—before moving on to more serious criticism of his tactics. For example, even as Lessig’s video admits, there is no guarantee that Congress would revise the rules of running for office—especially after the winners mastered the demeaning and grueling fundraising dance. More seriously, one has to note that there is another Democrat in the 2016 presidential contest, Bernie Sanders, who already is effectively railing against America’s oligarchs.

But as Lessig told the New York Times, Sanders isn’t offering sufficient solutions.

“The reason I’ve been driven to this is the constant ’emperor wears no clothes’ feeling about this election,” he said, saying he would also raise the issues of partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression. “We need a plan for unrigging the system first, and none of them have given us that plan… You want to rail against Wall Street, as O’Malley does or Bernie Sanders does? Great… [but] unless you fix the way we fund campaigns, we’re not going to take on the largest funder of congressional campaigns in America.”

Lessig also said a symbolic campaign was worth waging, saying there “were 100 successes short of" winning. He pointed to the way Sen. Eugene McCarthy didn’t win, but made the Vietnam War an issue in 1968 and prevented President Lyndon B. Johnson from seeking re-election. Needless to say, in 1968, Republican Richard Nixon won, and that war continued for years.

But none of this may matter to Lessig’s techno-disruptor base. When trying to access his campaign website Tuesday morning,, either the server was down or it was overwhelmed with traffic.

There’s nothing new about single-issue presidential campaigns, even for 2016. On the right, Sen. Lindsey Graham is running on launching a new ground war in Iraq and Syria to take on ISIS, and is pushing the other contenders toward that hawkish stance. We’ll see what impact Lessig has on the Democrats. 


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