Campaign-Finance Crusader Lawrence Lessig Thinks We Have a Lot to Lear – Vanity Fair
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Harvard law professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig declared his unlikely candidacy for president, last summer, on a single-issue platform: campaign-finance reform. He was forced to drop out before the second Democratic debate and has since been overtaken by his better-known (and, to be sure, better-financed) competitors. But that doesn’t mean he is done agitating, especially since the American public has caught on with his anti–Citizens United v. F.E.C. message. Here he expresses his admiration for Donald Trump, frustration with Bernie Sanders, and speculation on the future of both parties.
Vanity Fair: Is it surprising that that the candidates who raised the most super-PAC money this cycle, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, either performed terribly or worse than expected? Does this suggest that the Citizens United case has had an adverse effect on voters?
Lawrence Lessig: I never thought money was a problem because it corrupts the voters. I thought money was a problem because of how fundraising corrupts candidates. And I don’t even think it’s such a big problem at the presidential level. The real place where this is a problem is in Congress, when you spend 30 to 70 percent of your time calling people to get money to run your campaign or party. So whether or not money can buy you votes, raising money in a completely humiliating way, it turns you into a sycophant, or somebody who isn’t a leader.
Donald Trump likes to point out that he is self-funded. Does this benefit the cause of campaign-finance reform?
Absolutely. It’s enormous progress. I think he’s made it possible for Republicans to acknowledge what those in the party outside of the Beltway all understand to be a critical problem: the dependence that big money has produced inside of our political system.
There are a lot of public figures speculating that the G.O.P., in its current iteration, may not survive past this election.
I think it’s too early to see what exactly the consequence of this election will be for them. But I do believe that we will see another round of Republicans in the next election cycle who are more open to explicitly talking about how to address campaign-finance reform in a constructive way. Already you see groups developing, like Take Back Our Republic, which is comprised of right-wing organizers trying to pull people together to support changing the way campaigns are funded. I think you’ll see more of that.
Do you think the Democratic Party faces a similar shake-up?
People have framed this issue as a fight between the right and the left. I think that what we’re seeing is a fight between the inside and the outside. So, Donald Trump is a quintessential outsider, and his effort has, I think, made it more possible for people on the inside to talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics. And I think you’re going to see the same thing on the Democratic Party’s side, too. I think that Bernie, and the pressure that has been raised about this issue from the outside, is going to force more pressure on insider Democrats to address this problem aggressively.
Has Bernie Sanders been as good an advocate for campaign-finance reform as everyone says?
Well, he has been great at identifying a problem with big money, and in the fifth debate, he was fantastic in saying this is going to be the first thing he addresses. But when you ask, “O.K., so how? What are you going to do?” Nobody has any sense of what he’s going to do, and the things that he would say first will not solve the problem.
I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, which sort of pointed, in the first place, to his wonderful statement in the first debate that campaign finance will be the first thing he does. But the very same day, his campaign released an answer to a crowdsourced question that says “O.K., what would you do?,” and the answer was [essentially] “In the first hundred days, we’re going to enact the following transparency regulations in the federal government, and the idea of changing the way campaigns are funded is something we will move to in the long term.”
In the long term? What are you going to do in the short term? If you don’t change the way campaigns are funded, then none of the things you’re talking about are even credible! When people in the Beltway roll their eyes when he talks about single-payer health care, that’s because people in the Beltway realize that the power of money will make it impossible for it to have any traction in that political system. So I think he’s been fantastic at rallying people to know there is a problem. But we need for people to rally to the fact that there is a solution, and this is what it looks like.
So are you feeling a very mild Bern?
I guess I’m feeling a mild Bern in both ways: I’m frustrated that he’s not crystallized for the public what changes would actually matter. For every five attacks on the billionaire class, I think Bernie should be getting at least two or three words beyond “We’re going to amend the Constitution.” Because we’re not going to amend the Constitution in the next five years. We need to be real about what would solve the problem, and talking about it, I think, is the critical step we have to take.
Do you think there’s a judicial solution to Citizens United? With the death of Antonin Scalia and his vacancy, that’s going to be a massive component of the battle.
I think that there’s a real chance that the Supreme Court will change the rules that create super-PACs, at a minimum. And with the change of Scalia, there’s a chance that they’ll go further and overturn Citizens United. But, you know, super-PACs were not created by Citizens United. They were created by the lower-court decisions and the D.C. Circuit. And the Supreme Court has never ruled on that question of whether super-PACs are constitutionally required.
But what we really have to do is develop the awareness that we will not solve this problem until we make the more fundamental change, which is the way campaigns are funded. That’s the thing that the candidates are not willing to take up.
I read the New Yorker article about how the D.N.C. boxed you out of the debates. With all that’s been going on in the past month or so, do you feel validated?
I think that I feel validated that the gamble, despite its personal cost, was worth it. I never expected that they would play the games that they did. [Ed. note: Lessig claims that the D.N.C., having promised to let him on a debate stage if he received 1 percent in three national polls, suddenly changed the rules on him at the last minute, preventing him from standing onstage next to Sanders and Clinton in the second debate.] The reality is that we qualified to be in that debate, it would have been powerful to have been in that debate, to make the argument, in that context.
But I do feel that people are recognizing what, a year ago, nobody would have acknowledged: the frustration Americans have with corruption is overwhelming, and I think the one thing that unites Bernie and Donald Trump is that they are appealing to people who are so tired of the insider politician, and are willing to accept the warts of both candidates, if they could get somebody who would be credible about trying to change the system.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Campaign-Finance Crusader Lawrence Lessig Thinks We Have a Lot to Lear – Vanity Fair}