By John Ludwig
This past Sunday, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig announced his run for the presidency. Lessig, having attained his crowd-funding goal of a million dollars to finance his campaign, is hoping to get to the next stage: to participate in the democratic presidential debates, but in order to do so he’ll have to gain at least one percent in at least three national popularity polls in the six weeks leading up to the debates, currently scheduled to begin in October. Now, assuming that Lessig can get the poll numbers, which at the moment seems certainly achievable, it will be very interesting to see him interact with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Lessig previously served as an adviser to Sanders before exploring his own presidential run, and his Harvard Law credentials suggest (if Elizabeth Warren is any indication) he possesses the rhetorical chops necessary for debate.
Lessig’s single proposed bill, the Citizens Equality Act of 2017, is aimed to “hack the system” by calling for an Article V convention to by-pass Congress and propose amendments to the constitution by referendum. The primary changes Lessig seeks are campaign finance reform, redistricting, and voter access changes. These changes would be implemented in the way of automatic voter registration, elections made into national holidays, ending gerrymandering, publicly funded campaigns, and others. These three issues, he says, are the primary problems that make our government dysfunctional and unresponsive, and until these changes are made, raising the minimum wage, improving the criminal justice system, reigning in Wall Street, refinancing student debt, reversing the country’s decaying infrastructure, and all the other good, necessary changes can’t be done, because in order to make those changes we need a responsive and functioning government.
Lessig’s position seems somewhat persuasive to me. If having Barack Obama as our president for two terms taught me anything, it’s that having a president who wants to do a lot of great things doesn’t mean they’re going to happen. Furthermore, I agree with most everything Sanders advocates but am vexed with the skepticism that even if he’s elected, he similarly won’t be able to make all the good things he talks about a reality. Lessig is speaking to this worry and is trying to shine a light on the mechanics of attempting to repair our government. To wit, below is a transcribed segment of Lessig in an interview with Brian Lehrer just last week:
“If you imagine Bernie Sanders being elected—or really any of the candidates being elected— and they have a list of seven or eight things they’re going to work on and on that list somewhere is reforming the system, when they show up in Washington, they’re not going to have the kind of power they’re going to need to take on the most powerful interest groups that there are in our government today … But what you’ve got to do is show us how you’re going to win this reform first. Because if you don’t win this reform first then everything else that we’re talking about is not credible because we kind of engage in this almost fantasy political stage every four years where we kind of imagine everything is going to work out and have a government that actually functions, like we’re planning our vacation, forgetting the fact that our car broke down, and we’re not going to get there. So I think we have got to step back and say, “How do we fix the car? How do we fix the democracy?” So the idea of this referendum run is to create a mandate powerful enough to achieve the pressure to get congress to fix the democracy. It’s not a guarantee; I think it’s the best shot. And I also think it’s about a thousand times more likely to succeed than making reform just one issue of seven on a list.”
And what’s more, the thing that makes Lessig’s position hard to ignore is his promise to step down as president after his reforms are passed, allowing the vice-president to take on the role. I think it’s fair to assume this isn’t a double-crossing scheme of the Francis Underwood variety, so this promise carries a lot of weight. It raises eyebrows. It gives people pause. This is because it gives Lessig a way to prove that his motivations are genuine and that serving the American people is his sole mission. And granted, it only makes sense that he step down after getting the reforms passed; he’s not a politician. But then that’s why he would have a politician as VP. So, a potential Lessig-Bernie or Lessig-Hillary or even a Lessig-Warren ticket might be a win-win situation that democrats could get behind and it might just be the ticket the country needs.