On Tuesday Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, announced that he would run for president if he receives $1 million in donations by Labor Day. Lessiga€™s plan is decidedly idiosyncratica€”he has never held political office, and he declares that he will resign and hand over the orb of power to his vice president as soon as something called the Citizen Equality Act is signed into law. But Lessig, who is brilliant and influential (I know him slightly), has approached his presidential campaign with characteristic creativity. And if he can bring some serious worries about the corrupting effect of money in politics to public attention, his efforts deserve support or at least sympathy.
Lessig believes that politicians and lobbyists are decent, law-abiding, and (even) ethical people who are caught up in a system of mutual dependence where money influences political outcomes without leaving any tracks.
Understaffed and thinly spread members of Congress rely on lobbyists to inform them and even write the legislation, depending on the lobbyists more for their expertise, goodwill, and even friendship than for campaign cash. Lobbyists provide much-needed aid but always with a slant, reflecting their particular view of the world, which is not that of most Americans.
It is also worth mentioning that Big Money has not blocked significant progressive legislative accomplishments of recent yearsa€”which have created quasi-universal health insurance, stricter financial regulation, and slightly more progressive taxes. Lessig says that his sole mission as president would be to persuade Congress to pass the Citizen Equality Act, which would implement three reforms to the political system. Second, it would guarantee a€?equal representationa€? by banning gerrymandering of districts.
Third, it would provide for a€?citizen-funded elections.a€? All voters would be given vouchers that they could use to contribute to political campaigns, and small contributions would be matched from public funds. APRepublican presidential candidates from left, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki take the stage for a pre-debate forum.But in the economy of political influence that Lessig describes in his book, none of these things can make much difference.
Many people fail to vote not because of barriers to voting but because theya€™d rather spend their time doing something else. The current disaffection with the government probably reflects the ideological polarization of the electorate, which is an input, not an output, of the political process.


If people feel that they have no influence on political outcomes, thata€™s in part because we live in a huge and diverse country, and so even in an ideal system where your vote counts as much as anyone elsea€™s, ita€™s just one of more than a hundred million. So there is a mismatch between Lessiga€™s meansa€”a dramatic run for office as an unprecedented a€?referendum presidenta€? who resigns as soon as his mandate is legislateda€”and his goal, which is at best incremental reform.
In the past, he has argued with a great deal more persuasiveness that the only way to reform the political system is through a constitutional convention, and it is easier to see the logic of this position than to understand his campaign goals. Constitutional amendments really could go to the root of the problema€”by limiting campaign contributions (and thus overturning Citizens United, which held that the First Amendment banned certain limits on political expenditures), restructuring the Senate (which is a highly unrepresentative body that favors rural interests), limiting the power of the Supreme Court, and perhaps creating a parliamentary system or something like it, which would avoid the twin problems of gridlock and presidential abuse of power that have long been troubling features of our system of separation of powers. But most calls for constitutional conventions come these days from conservatives, who want to impose a balanced budget on the federal government and who have no interest in adopting Lessiga€™s electoral reformsa€”nearly all of which would benefit the Democratic party in the short term.
And the results of a constitutional conventiona€”where moneyed interests as well as all kinds of interest groups would play a big rolea€”are unpredictable.
And while there is a means to circumvent their formal participation, they would probably influence the outcome. APHouse Speaker John BoehnerRepublicans have vastly more control over state legislatures than Democrats doa€”in part because of the gerrymandering Lessig wants to enda€”so we can be pretty certain about the ideological tilt of any amendments that might ultimately be ratified, if not their content. This is probably why Lessig has not adopted his earlier proposal of a constitutional convention to his presidential run.
Even if Lessig cana€™t win, or cana€™t do much more than hand over the reins to his vice president if he does win, his candidacy would bring a rare level of intelligence and political sophistication to the election and much-needed attention to the problem of electoral reform.
Elizabeth Warren, the a€?system is rigged.a€? In his 2011 bookA Republic, Lost, he argues that money has corrupted politics. Nor does Lessig believe that the problem is simply that interest groups obtain favorable legislation by making campaign contributions, bribery with a wink, as one might call it. The result is that, without anyone quite meaning it, law reflects moneyed interests while ordinary Americans are shut out.
Elizabeth Warren In 2016 on April 20, 2015 in New York City.Not everyone agrees with Lessiga€™s diagnosis.


But Lessig is certainly right that money in politics is a problem, and something should be done about it.
First, it would guarantee the a€?equal right to votea€? by enhancing the power of the federal government to control how states conduct elections, requiring states to provide for online or automated voter registration, and shifting Election Day to a national holiday. Lessig also endorses an idea called a€?ranked-choice voting,a€? where voters rank the candidates rather than vote for just one. Unfortunately, if money goes to the root of the problem, as Lessig says, these reforms would have little impact. Most Americans are terribly uninformed about the political process and rely on very crude proxies (such as endorsements or partisan identification) to determine how to vote.
Candidates who suited voters a bit better because of ranked-choice voting (assuming it works as advertised) and who received more small donations from low-income people would still need to rely on well-informed lobbyists with whom they had relationships and would still benefit from massive infusions of cash from big business. People disagree with one another more than in the past, soa€”whatever compromises the government reaches over policya€”they are more likely to be unhappy with it.
Political polarization and loss of faith in government long predate the modern era of money politics, as Ezra Klein has pointed out. Under the amendment process of the Constitution, state legislatures can play an important role in selecting delegates and ratifying amendments.
And Republican-dominated state legislatures would lose some of their power to create safe seats.




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