Election 2016: Dumbing down American politics, Lawrence Lessig, and the Presidency

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by the Institute of Governmental Studies. Thomas Mann is also Resident Scholar at IGS.

Donald Trump and the Amen chorus of Republican presidential aspirants may have appeared to monopolize the capacity to make fantastical claims about what’s wrong with America and how to fix it. But a rival has appeared on the scene, outlining a very different fantasy plan to run for president on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig looks meek—a dead ringer for Mr. Peepers—yet is anything but. Lessig built an impressive career in legal scholarship on the regulation of cyberspace, and the mild-mannered, soft-spoken academic became a cult hero among libertarians fearful of increasing legal restrictions on copyright, trademark and the electromagnetic spectrum. But Lessig’s transformation into a political activist was spurred by his personal revelation that money in politics is the root of all our governing problems. Eliminate the dependence of elected officials on private donors and the formidable obstacles to constructive policymaking will crumble. Simple but searing truth, or a caricature of a complex governing system shaped by institutions, ideas/ideologies, and interests?

Lessig became a whirlwind of energy and organization to promote his new values and beliefs, leading efforts to “Change Congress,” convene a second constitutional convention, raise awareness of corruption in politics through the “New Hampshire Rebellion,” and start the “Mayday PAC,” a super PAC designed to end all super PACs. He wrote the bestselling book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and A Plan to Stop It, delivered a series of popular TED talks, and tirelessly traveled the country with his PowerPoint.

With none of these enterprises yet bearing fruit, Lessig has decided to raise the stakes. He has announced that if he receives $1 million from small donors by September, he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, running as a “referendum candidate.” His single-issue platform, built around the concept of “Citizen Equality,” consists of “true” campaign finance reform supplemented by electoral reform (to weaken the influence of gerrymandering) and voting rights. His goal is to use the election to build a mandate for political reform that will cure our democratic ills. Lessig will apparently have nothing to say about anything other than political reform, insisting that his issue should be and can be the number one priority of voters in the 2016 elections. If nominated and elected, President Lessig will serve in office only long enough to enact the Citizen Equality Act and then resign, turning over the powers and responsibilities of the office to the vice president. Recently he generously informed the Vice President that he would happily enable a third Joe Biden term by selecting him as his running mate.

The hubris of the Harvard Professor is breathtaking. In virtually every respect, his strategy is absurd. Lessig’s political reform agenda is stymied by Republicans, not Democrats. Why not direct his energies where the opposition resides? All of the current Democratic presidential candidates support the thrust of these reforms. But saying that this is their highest priority is likely to harm, not boost, their candidacies. Why would even the most ardent supporter of the three pillars of Lessig’s reform agenda cast a ballot solely on this basis? Big and important issues divide the two parties today and the stakes of public action or inaction are huge. We don’t have the luxury of using the election to try to build a mandate for a set of political reforms that would have no chance of passing in the face of GOP opposition and would be of only incremental utility if they did.

Campaign finance does play a corrosive role in our democracy and I have invested much of my career grappling with it. There is no doubt that money in elections facilitates the transfer of economic inequality into political inequality, and the spectacle of several hundred plutocrats dominating the finance of our elections should be a target of serious reform efforts in the courts and the Congress. At the same time it is foolish to imagine that campaign finance is the only route for private wealth to influence public policy or that its reform will dramatically transform the policy process. Money did not prevent the major legislative enactments of 2009-2010—including the stimulus, student loans, the Affordable Care Act, and financial services reform. Nor is it likely to be the critical factor on climate change, immigration, infrastructure or jobs and wages; which party wins the White House and whether control with Congress is unified or divided is key. If anything, the Lessig campaign is likely to weaken the forces for political reform by demonstrating just how small the relative priority for this action is.

Trump offers the country his outsider status, success in building his personal wealth, an outsized personality, a brashness in asserting how easily he can solve the country’s problems, and a hearty appetite for and skill in stoking the anger and fears of a segment of the country. He feeds the notion that a strong, fearless, wily leader, inexperienced and mostly uninformed in politics and governing, can be the man on a white horse saving a great country losing its exceptional status. His claim that all politicians are bought by private interests—a claim Lessig eagerly embraces—fits well with his grandiose claims that he alone can fix what ails the country. A significant segment of Republican voters, presumably not well versed in the American constitutional system are attracted to him, at least enough for him to be a factor in this election campaign.

Lessig is a far less commanding presence but his ambition burns no less than that of Trump. The notoriety, celebrity, and adoring audiences are heady stuff, even if on a much smaller scale. Lessig told Bloomberg that Trump’s candidacy is evidence that his reform message is taking hold. Lessig said, Trump “strikes people as credible when he says all these people (politicians) are bought—I used to buy them …Trump is saying the truth.” Lessig will be a minor figure in this election and the causes for which he fights are unlikely to advance from it. Both Lessig and Trump, despite their differences in visibility and importance in the election, will have contributed to the dumbing down of American politics, a reality that will bring tears to the eyes of civics teachers and political science professors across the country.