Why you should care about Lawrence Lessig's long-long shot presidential ambitions

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Harvard Law Professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig wants to run for President, and he's running on a single issue: reforming the way campaigns are conducted by eliminating the corrupting influence of money in politics. He promises to resign when he's made this happen.


Chances are you’ve probably never heard of Lessig, even though he was once played by Doc Brown himself in an episode of The West Wing. He founded the nonprofit organization Creative Commons and is generally seen as an internet hero for advocating a free and open internet. In the past several years he has dedicated his time to starting a grassroots movement to solve what he calls “not the biggest issue our democracy faces, but the first: the systemic and legal corruption fueled by big money in politics.

Studies show that the United States has become a full-fledged oligarchy. Basically, a piece of government policy will pass only if it enjoys the support of the country’s elites. To the extent that any legislation passes with true popular support, it is typically only because it coincidentally has the support of the elites and average Americans.


Moreover, a 2014 Rasmussen Reports survey reports that 53% of American people don't feel represented by the Republican or Democratic parties.

Chances are, if you ask around, you’ll hear that Lawrence Lessig has no chance at becoming the next president of the United States and you should therefore not give a shit about his potential campaign. However, we often dismiss what is “right” for what is “possible.” Take the bandwagon effect, a powerful influence on American voters that causes us to go with the majority because we like to be on the “winning side.” Political journalists suffer from this as well, often underestimating “fringe” candidates because they don’t fit into the established Way Things Are.

But there's plenty of evidence suggesting that even doomed campaigns can have an outsized effect on presidential nominees. Contrary to every political cliche, research shows that politicians actually keep their campaign promises. That’s why when movements such as Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, or the Tea Party can force “mainstream” politicians to take up a position they may have otherwise not taken up, they’re actually doing a lot to achieve their stated goals, even if the movement itself fails to elect any politicians or dies out completely.

Anti-police brutality activism is a good example of this. In the two years since George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, activists have put pressure on Democratic politicians to take up detailed positions on systemic racism in the United States, and have succeeded in forcing the three leading candidates in the Democratic primary to do that.


There are also historical examples of fringe candidates losing elections but having their platforms adopted anyway. Lessig himself points to the 1968 Democratic primary in which Eugene McCarthy ran on anti-war platform and ended up forcing Lyndon Johnson out of the race. Considering that Richard Nixon won that election and the war raged on as a result, a better example may be Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in the early 20th century. Members never won an election, but most of their platform, including women’s suffrage, regulation of big business, child labor laws, and minimum wage for women would end up being absorbed and passed by the New Deal Democrats.

And when it comes to campaign finance reform, there has not been a more eloquent and consistent advocate than Lessig. During the 2014 midterm elections, he was able to raise roughly 12 million dollars for his anti-PAC SuperPAC Mayday.US, which is impressive given the fact that the issue of campaign finance reform is boring as hell and few people pay attention to politics during during the midterms.


As of now, the issue of campaign finance reform has not been a major issue in the race. Sure, Bernie Sanders has talked about it, but that's about it. Lessig wants to change that. He’s already trying to nudge Hillary Clinton, who almost everyone assumes will be the next president, in his direction. By actually running for president, Lessig hopes to force other candidates to stake out an aggressive position. And if he does, he’ll have at least helped us take a step in the right direction towards saving our doomed democracy.

Nando Vila is Vice President of Programming at Fusion and a correspondent for America with Jorge Ramos.

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