Somewhere in between these poles is Larry Lessig, the Harvard Law School professor who became a celebrity in Silicon Valley intellectual property circles but then discovered how America’s system of privately financed political campaigns and the follow-up toxic culture of insider-driven lobbying has corrupted our democracy.
In recent years, Lessig has moved from a pro-democracy critic on the TED Talk circuit, to a protester marching across wintery New Hampshire calling for structural fundraising reforms, to the irony-embracing creator of a super PAC funded by 50,000 Internet-inspired small donors and a handful of tech millionaires. His super PAC backed congressional candidates (Democrats and Republicans) in 2014 who pledged they’d put campaign finance reform at the top of their agenda if elected (most lost).
Today Lessig is a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who said that if elected, he would resign after Congress adopts three sweeping democracy reforms: guaranteed voting rights, ending gerrymandered districts, and most important, ending private fundraising.
Lessig’s critique that the root of American political corruption primarily lies with the way the candidates for public office have to raise private money and then service donors is true. His prescription— adopting nationwide publicly financed campaigns—has been the agreed-upon solution among progressive reformers for decades. However, as the takeover of American elections by the wealthiest Americans keeps spiraling out of control—as witnessed by the rash of million-dollar-plus donations underwriting many of 2016’s presidential contenders—Lessig is becoming the embodiment of the old cliché: desperate times require desperate measures.
In his case, the latest example is not launching a 2016 presidential exploratory committee where he pledged to resign as soon as reforms are enacted. It’s his recent endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, including offering to join his ticket, because he believes Trump has been speaking the truth about how money corrupts politics and politicians.
“Donald Trump is the biggest gift to the movement for reform since the Supreme Court gave us Citizens United,” Lessig told Politico.com, referring to Trump’s boasts that he’s given big sums to candidates in both parties and then called in favors as needed. “What he’s saying is absolutely correct, the absolute truth. He has pulled back the curtain.”
“I’ll make a promise,” Lessig said in Politico’s report, after stating he would not “rule out a third-party run with Trump” should that offer be made. “If Trump said he was going to do one thing and fix this corrupted system, then go back to life as an entertainment figure, I absolutely would link up with Donald Trump.”
In many respects, Lessig is the Trump of the campaign finance reform universe, grabbing the spotlight and agenda from less attention-getting activists who have been promoting structural democracy reforms for years. His creation of the MayDay PAC in 2014 that rapidly raised more than $10 million from 50,000 donors was unprecedented in this fold, where there has been long-simmering demand for constitutional amendments, public financing and revived congressional authority to regulate money in politics.
Lessing said he would run for president as a Democrat if he raised $1 million by Labor Day. The LessigForPresident website reports he’s raised $639,000 from 5,200 donors.
Given the arc of Lessig’s activism, it’s not surprising that an individual who is driven to address one of the fundamental flaws in American politics is willing to embrace one of America’s most divisive politicans because he’s saying the right things about his issue. While that may be predictable or inevitable, it also a bit desperate and naïve—which has always been the danger of single-issue politics.
Let’s imagine that Lessig somehow links up with Trump. Are people who want to see a fundamental restructuring of interplay between private money and political candidates suppose to ignore Trump’s racism, sexism, elitism, and war-mongering, just because Trump has been bombastically telling Americans that he’s invested and gotten results from politicians, and “that’s a broken system”?
This is the danger of single-issue politics: seeing the light and being blinded by it. The problem is not that Lessig’s analysis of the problem is wrong. His remedies, including a national system of publically financed elections, are also correct—that, too, has been proven over the years in states and cities to be a generally better approach than the endless dialing-for-campaign-dollars status quo.
The problem is the most public leader of the democracy reform movement in 2015 is not showing political skill or judgment by jumping on the coattails of the ever-unpredictable Trump. It looks like a desperate measure in a desperate time, and cheapens the issue—and his compelling analysis—by flirting with today’s biggest political bomb-thrower.
The problem with political bombs is they may feel good to throw, but they often go nowhere. There is a reason for that. The political world does not have the same DNA as Silicon Valley, where one of the favorite myths is that creative destruction and rapid change are welcome. The political world, at least what’s evolved over the decades in America, is not built for speed. At it’s best, it’s a system of checks and balances, and at its worst it’s a system where arcane laws and rules favor special interests over public interests. Either way, it resists rapid change, especially when power is at stake. That’s partly why democracy reform is so difficult. Another part is politicians don’t want to dismantle the system they’ve mastered; they want to stay in power and use it.
All of that suggest that the business of democracy reform needs leadership with a firm moral compass, not someone who creates a super PAC to end all super PACs in 2014; then jumps into the 2016 Democratic presidential race in early August; then several weeks later flirts with the unpredictable Republican frontrunner.
Lessig’s commitment to reform and willingness to take public risks is worthy of respect. Most people would not put themselves on that line. But there also comes a time when others who care about the same issue need to ask, What are you doing? Where is this going? Lessig’s endorsement of Trump is such a moment.