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We Need to Fix Our Democracy: Lawrence Lessig Weighs Presidential Run to Rid Money from Politics

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The 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be the most expensive political race in history. Experts predict as much as $10 billion could be spent by candidates, parties and outside groups on the campaign. A recent analysis by The New York Times shows fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised to date. The vast majority of the $388 million raised so far has been channeled to super PACs which can accept unlimited donations in support of candidates. According to the Times, the political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign. That figure dwarfs how much the Republican National Committee and the party’s two congressional campaign committees spent in the 2012 election. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has a set a fundraising goal of $2.5 billion. Today we are joined by a law professor who is considering challenging Clinton in the Democratic primary. His platform is simple: Get money out of politics. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig says that if he won the presidency, he would serve only as long as it takes to pass sweeping campaign finance reform. Then, he says, he would resign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be the most expensive political race in history. Experts predict as much as $10 billion could be spent by candidates, parties and outside groups on the presidential campaign. A recent analysis by The New York Times shows fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised to date. The vast majority of the $388 million raised so far has been channeled to super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations in support of candidates. According to The New York Times, the political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign. That figure dwarfs how much the Republican National Committee and the party’s two congressional campaign committees spent in the 2012 election. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has set a fundraising goal of $2.5 billion.

Today we’re joined by a law professor who’s considering challenging Clinton in the Democratic primary. His platform is simple: Get money out of politics. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig says if he won the presidency, he would serve only as long as it takes to pass sweeping campaign finance reform legislation. Then, he says, he would resign. In 2012, Lawrence Lessig launched Rootstrikers to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics. He’s a legendary figure in the world of cyberlaw, credited with helping to create Creative Commons, an alternative copyright system.

Lawrence Lessig, welcome back to Democracy Now! Are you announcing your candidacy for president of the United States?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, what we’ve said is that if by Labor Day, September 7th, two weeks from today, we’ve raised the initial million dollars that we’re kickstarting to fund this campaign, then I would run. And I would run on a platform not of campaign finance reform, which is kind of like referring to an alcoholic as someone with a liquid intake problem; I would run on a platform of fundamental citizen equality, because what we’ve allowed to happen in this democracy is a radical inequality in the way citizens are represented. And since—the way we fund campaigns is just one example, but it’s the most grotesque example, of why we don’t have a democracy that works.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the problem right now. Talk about the amount of money that is going into this election, and put it in some kind of historical and global context.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, you set it up perfectly, Amy. I mean, the point is, when you have a system that raises its money from such a tiny, tiny fraction of the public—400 families for all of the money raised or 130 families for half the money that’s been raised in the Republican Party—that tiny, tiny number have enormous influence inside of our political system. And the influence they have is not some rational influence of the elite; it’s a completely destructive vetocracy that they create, veto-ocracy, where they’re able to block any kind of reform. So if you want climate change legislation, what we know is we won’t have climate change legislation until we fix this corrupted inequality. If you want to deal with the problem of Wall Street, we’re not going to deal with the largest contributor to congressional campaigns until we change the way campaigns are funded. Every important issue gets tied to the way we are finding these campaigns, this inequality. And what I’ve said is, until we address that first, all of these other things that people are talking about, things that excite us, things that especially excite us progressives, all of them are a fantasy. And we’ve got to stop with the fantasy politics and address the reality that we have to fix our democracy if we’re going to have a democracy that works.

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you do it? And how do you deal with money being equated with free speech?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, the reforms that I’ve proposed, in what we’re calling the Citizen Equality Act, do not trigger any of the concerns the Supreme Court has talked about. What the Supreme Court has said is you can’t be restricting speech. So the step, the first step, that we’re describing is a way to dilute that incredible concentration of funders. So, by increasing bottom-up, citizen-funded elections, either through vouchers, which you could give to every voter that they could use to fund elections, or matching funds, the way John Sarbanes from Maryland has described, all of these would radically change the way campaigns are funded, and radically disempower the lobbyists and the special interests inside of our political system. That’s the first step.

And so, what we need is a mandate strong enough to get that first step. And what I’ve said is that none of the other candidates, even if they’re talking about the right issues, which I think only Bernie and Martin O’Malley are even getting close to talking about the right issues—even if they’re talking about it, they can’t begin to describe a process, a plan for them to have the mandate to actually get this enacted. They have a great plan for getting elected, but they don’t have a plan for actually getting us a democracy back.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you do it, if you were elected?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So if I were elected, what I’ve said is I would serve only until we passed this thing we’ve called the Citizen Equality Act, which would establish citizen-funded elections, number one. Number two, it would end the political gerrymandering that creates an incredible disempowerment for a vast number of Americans because of the way we design districts. And number three, it would end the ridiculous systems that try to disempower or disable people from being able to vote. That would get us the first steps of a democracy back. And when that’s passed, I would resign. And the vice president, the elected vice president, would become president.

But the point of this mandate is it would be a referendum on this reform, and this reform for citizen equality is the kind of equality that all of Americans should affirm. I mean, I agree with Bernie about the need to deal with wealth inequality, and there are many in the progressive left who agree with Bernie about that. But what I know is that America is not yet of the view that we should become Sweden. And the fact is, we can’t rally America unanimously to this—to that idea. But I think the idea of citizen equality, and the idea which is at the core of what representative democracy is, is an idea we could rally people to, and if we did, we could build a mandate powerful enough to begin to get us the democracy we deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Since you say, Lawrence Lessig, if you became president, you would resign after you achieved your goal, your vice president would be particularly important. Who would you choose?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I personally would love to see a vice president that excites the Democratic base to create the kind of passion and energy that would be necessary to get elected. People like Bernie have done that, Elizabeth Warren have done that. But what I’ve also said is that the referendum president, which I’m describing here, trying to create, actually should have different power for picking the vice president from a regular president. You know, a regular nominee selects the vice president assuming or hoping that vice president is never president. But I want to select a vice president who I want to be president the very next day after I am inaugurated. So this person is a much more significant person in the traditional balance. And I think that means that the convention, the party, has a much more significant role in selecting and deciding who that person should be. So we would select based on what the party ratifies as the values of the party, based on also what they think is most likely to succeed in November.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken, for example, with Bernie Sanders or any of the presidential candidates about your possible bid, your run for the presidency?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I tried to reach out to Bernie before I announced. I haven’t had a chance to connect with him about that. But that’s the only person I’ve tried to reach out to, because Bernie is somebody who I have enormous respect for. He’s been a hero in the movement for the right kind of change for many, many years. And I had worked with him in trying to describe what kind of change would make his campaign credible. So I tried to reach out to him, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet.

But I think the critical thing is to recognize that as much as people love what he is saying—and for good reason, they should love what he is saying—what we need is a way to make what he is saying possible. And what we don’t have right now is a way to make this change or any change, frankly, possible. And so that’s what I’m trying to focus this campaign on.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, 10 leading Republican presidential candidates faced off in the first debates of the 2016 presidential election. During the debate, Donald Trump defended his record of donating to Democratic candidates in previous races but admitted that the election system is broken.

DONALD TRUMP: I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken system.

CHRIS WALLACE: So what did you get? So what did you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. With Hillary Clinton, I said, “Be at my wedding,” and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice, because I gave. I gave to a foundation that, frankly, that foundation is supposed to do good. I didn’t know her money would be used on private jets going all over the world. It was.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Donald Trump. Lawrence Lessig, your response?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So I think Donald Trump has been the biggest gift to this movement since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, because what it’s done is crystallize a recognition that this system is deeply corrupted. You know, there he is, pulling back the curtain on the way the system works, making it possible, even in the Republican primary, for people to begin to talk about the corruption of the system. And I agree with him absolutely: This system is deeply corrupted. The difference between Donald Trump and me—well, there’s $10 billion in difference, at least—but in addition to $10 billion, the difference is that Donald Trump’s solution is that we elect billionaires, and my solution is that we actually have the representative democracy our framers gave us. The idea of electing billionaires was what we fought a revolution about, and Donald Trump’s side in that revolution lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton talked about campaign finance reform when she kicked off her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

HILLARY CLINTON: We need to build the economy of tomorrow, not yesterday. We need to strengthen families and communities, because that’s where it all starts. We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment. And we need to protect our country from the threats that we see and the ones that are on the horizon. So, I’m here in Iowa to begin a conversation about how we do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Lessig, how do we do that? And what is your response to Hillary Clinton’s approach to campaign finance reform?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, we haven’t seen a lot. She’s talked about a constitutional amendment, which of course I support the idea of a constitutional amendment, but I think we have to recognize that that’s not going to be a solution in the short run. And in the short run, we have a critical number of problems we have to have the ability to solve. She’s also pushed the idea of disclosure. In that statement, she said “unaccountable money.” But I’m not sure what accountable money does. I don’t know why it’s any better to have billions of dollars that we can account for than billions of dollars that we can’t account for. I mean, of course I want to account for it, but still it’s the billions of dollars that’s calling the shots. What we need is to change the way elections are funded. We need a commitment to a very simple idea, that we, in a democracy, in a representative democracy, need to be represented equally. And she has not yet articulated any plan that would get us that in any time short of when we need to get there to deal with the critical problems that we face as a nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Lessig, I wanted to get your response to Mark Schmitt, the senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect. He was on Democracy Now! explaining why he’s opposed to a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

MARK SCHMITT: I view it as a real distraction from some real progress that we can make on money in politics, because while you can build a movement around these various—there are like 17 different versions of the amendment. While you can build a movement around this concept, the message it sends is: We can’t do anything until we have a constitutional amendment. And under the current circumstances, “We can’t do anything until we have a constitutional amendment” is exactly the same as saying, “We can’t do anything.” And so, I think that’s just sending the wrong signal to people and overlooking the tremendous progress that’s actually being made.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mark Schmitt at the Roosevelt Institute. Your response, Lawrence Lessig?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: I think he’s completely right. I think the talk about constitutional amendments has excited an incredible base, and I think the movements that have pushed that have done enormous good to our democracy by getting people to recognize the fundamental problem we have to address. But the truth is, we can address a vast majority of that problem tomorrow in a statute. And so, when I talk about passing the Citizen Equality Act, that is a statute, that’s not amending the Constitution. It’s a first step that would have an enormous impact on the ability of democracy to actually function.

And I think if we can give people a sense of what’s possible, we can excite an incredible amount of energy. We, in 2013, did a poll and found 96 percent of Americans believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics. But 91 percent didn’t think it was possible. So that is the politics of resignation. And if you constantly talk about the constitutional amendment, or you make it sound like that’s what’s necessary to win, then those resigned people will stay resigned. They won’t show up to try to change the system. And that’s exactly the resignation we have to find a way to thaw.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, people are resorting to all sorts of efforts to change the system. Earlier this year, the U.S. mailman Doug Hughes made national headlines when he flew a tiny personal aircraft, known as the gyrocopter, onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in an act of civil disobedience. He was carrying letters to every member of Congress urging them to address corruption and to pass campaign finance reform. The letter began with a quote from John Kerry’s farewell speech to the Senate: quote, “The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself,” Kerry wrote. In April, Democracy Now! spoke to Doug Hughes and asked him to elaborate on the message he hoped to convey.

DOUG HUGHES: What my letter actually said to the Congress critters was they’ve got to decide whether they’re going to deny that corruption exists, or they’re going to pretend that they’re doing something about it, or they’re going to really roll up their sleeves and be a part of reform. But I’m looking to the local media, particularly the print media, OK, at the local level, to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire and force them to take a stand on real reform and whether or not they’re going to vote for it or whether or not they’re going to try and take a halfway, mealy-mouthed stand on it, which means they’re going to try and preserve the status quo. The idea is, the voters can decide well if they’re informed. The national media can’t and won’t inform the voters about where the candidates stand. But the local media, which has been, you know, very weak and impotent in the political process, can really take the ball, and they can be the moving force in informing the voters.

AMY GOODMAN: And earlier this year, activists carried out a rare protest inside the Supreme Court chamber to oppose the ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case critics call the “next Citizens United.” In a 5-to-4 vote last year, the court’s conservative justices eliminated a longstanding limit on how much donors can give in total to federal candidates, party committees and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. Without any aggregate limit, a donor can now give millions of dollars directly to candidates and parties. In early April, the five activists with the group 99 Rise stood up inside the court to call on justices to reverse their decision.

99 RISE PROTESTER: Justices, is it not your duty to protect our right to self-government? Reverse McCutcheon! Overturn Citizens United. One person, one vote!

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the five activists with the group 99 Rise. And then you’ve got Doug Hughes. I believe he’s going to trial—he wouldn’t take any plea deal. A lot of the media didn’t even report he was doing this for campaign finance reform; they just said he flew a gyrocopter onto the grounds of the Capitol. Lawrence Lessig, talk about what groups are doing.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: I think there’s been an incredible amount of creative protest that’s been focused on this issue. Doug Hughes is a hero. We just opened up a kickstarter on Indiegogo to raise money for his legal defense fund. We said we needed to raise $10,000 in 30 days. In one day, we raised the money that he needs to defend himself against the felony charges that he’s now facing. And 99 Rise has done an extraordinary job raising the attention of this issue in a lot of contexts, not just in the Supreme Court.

But what I think we need to do is to raise the level of the debate. This is not just about telling some people they can’t speak or trying to silence the ability of certain interests to be in the political process. This is about achieving the fundamental equality of our democracy. And I think that if we raise the level of the debate so we’re not talking about campaign finance, which is just one corner of this problem, and instead talk about the commitment of a representative democracy, as Madison said, one that would, quote, “be not where the rich would have no more power than the poor in this democracy,” we could build the political movement we have to build to win, because that’s what this has got to be a fight about, not in the court, not in the—not in the court at the Supreme Court, not in a court that’s deciding whether a protester should go to jail, but in the court of public opinion, where if the public is reminded of this commitment of equality in our democracy, they could see how we could get a democracy that could work again. And if we did, then these problems that all of us roll our eyes about, of climate change or the debt or student debt or Wall Street or gun control, all of these problems would be problems we could actually solve. We could actually have a democracy that’s responsive again, because this inequality, this corrupted inequality, has been removed. And it wouldn’t be a world where you’ve got to stand and say, “Black lives matter,” because we would have an equality in this system where that statement would be crazy to even imagine the necessity of uttering.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Lawrence Lessig, again, to summarize, your timetable on when you will announce your candidacy for president of the United States, under what conditions?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So we’ve just crossed—we’re at about $550,000 of the million dollars that I said we needed to raise within two weeks. And if we get there and the two—the major candidates have not said this would be their primary focus, then I will enter the race. And I will enter the race, and we will also try to recruit 50 referendum representatives to also run, to make it so that on day one of 2017, of the administration in 2017, we would have the majority necessary to pass this equality act. So, as of—in two weeks, we’ll know whether this race will happen. And if it does happen, I’m going to give it every ounce of my energy to make it possible for this democracy to utter the words that are so obvious and self-evident, that in a democracy all of us should be treated equal.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lawrence Lessig, I want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Lessig is considering running for the Democratic nomination for president in order protest money in politics, professor at Harvard Law School. His most recent book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Sarah Shourd joins us. She was in solitary confinement in Iran for more than a year. She’s going to comment on the Iran nuclear deal and also talk about solitary confinement in the United States. Stay with us.

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