It is likely that the vast majority of people have never heard of Lawrence Lessig. He is not particularly famous, and he has not spent his life pandering to the lowest common denominator. He is, in many ways, the polar opposite of a politician. And yet earlier this month, Lawrence Lessig announced that he would be seeking the Democratic nomination for president. He just may be the most interesting and, I would contend, most important candidate in either party, because the Lessig campaign is based on one thing and one thing only: leveling the voting playing field.
Professor Lessig, who teaches copyright law at Harvard, has long been a political activist. He came out strongly in favor of net neutrality and has been fighting corruption in politics for years. This is the first time, however, that he has decided to actually run for office, and he has done it in the most anti-establishment way possible: by crowdsourcing funds for his campaign. When he launched his campaign on August 11, Lessig announced that if one million dollars or more are contributed by Labor Day, he will run for president. (If you are so inclined, you can donate to his cause here.) Furthermore, he says, if he wins the election he will stay in office only long enough to pass the Citizen Equality Act, a law which would curb gerrymandering, expand voter registration and access, and set new limits on campaign spending (to see more, click here). After that, he says, he will step down and turn over the country to his vice president.
Why that issue, you ask? Why not education, or infrastructure, or economic inequality, or any of the other myriad issues which desperately need addressing? I would submit that voter equality is more important than all of them for the simple reason that it would give actual choice and electoral control back to the voters. No longer would our representatives be beholden only to mega-donors; no longer would they represent hyper-partisan districts carved out for them by hyper-partisan state legislatures. It would allow us, the voters, to vote for candidates who actually represent our interests and to actually hold them accountable if they don’t.
Would it solve all our problems? Of course not. The Senate remains a woefully out-of-date institution and needs to be reformed—perhaps more on that in a future post—and even with more voter equality, there is no guarantee that we could or would elect people who would make a difference. And perhaps more than anything, voters would still have to be informed and engage in the political process. But it would be a big step in the right direction.
Personally, I doubt that Lessig thinks he can actually win the nomination, let alone the presidency. But having someone like him—a candidate who would shine light on this devastatingly important issue—on a stage with people who actually could win the presidency would be an immense blessing to American democracy. We have already had a glimpse of it this campaign season, when in the Republican debate Donald Trump said for all to hear that he donates money to political officials on both sides of the aisle so that, when he wants something, they will be there for him.
I do not like Donald Trump. I do not like his personality and I do not respect his positions. But I liked that moment, and it provided a taste of what giving Lawrence Lessig his shot on-stage could look like: shining the brightest spotlight our nation has to offer on an issue no one in power would touch with a ten foot pole.
Our democracy is badly distorted. The government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” if it ever existed, is gone, replaced by officials beholden to corporate interests and big-money donors. But like it or not, it is our government, and fixing it is up to us. An outsider like Lawrence Lessig is exactly what is needed to reset the electoral process and, in the words of the Lessig campaign, to make democracy possibly again.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.