Lawrence "Larry" Lessig is an American academic and political activist. He is a proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright, trademark, and radio frequency spectrum, particularly in technology applications, and he has called for state-based activism to promote substantive reform of government with a Second Constitutional Convention. In May 2014, he launched a crowd-funded political action committee which he termed Mayday PAC with the purpose of electing candidates to Congress who would pass campaign finance reform. Lessig is director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a professor of law at Harvard Law School. Previously, he was a professor of law at Stanford Law School and founder of the Center for Internet and Society. Lessig is a founding board member of Creative Commons and the founder of Rootstrikers, and is on the board of MapLight. He is on the advisory boards of the Democracy Café, Sunlight Foundation and Americans Elect. He is a former board member of the Free Software Foundation, Software Freedom Law Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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UPDATE 3: Back to answering as many questions as possible, and, understanding the evolving arc of the conversation. Tons to learn and lots to understand. Thanks for the continued thought.
Lessig is a law professor and activist, who on August 11 announced an exploratory committee to determine whether he'd run for president as a "referendum candidate" — promising to fix the democracy, first, and then step down. If the campaign raises $1M by Sept 7, he will run. If not, the money gets returned. [lessig2016.us] (http://lessig2016.us) [Wikipedia] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Lessig)
Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia, all around great Internet citizen, and chairman of the Lessig2016.us Exploratory Committee. [Wikipedia] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Wales)
Our Proof: [proof] (https://twitter.com/lessig/status/636205184402726913)
Hi Dr. Lessig: There is concern that your presidential bid will dilute the vote for Bernie Sanders (see /r/Maydaypac for threads and conversation on this).
I myself am torn. I recognize campaign finance as a core systemic issue affecting all aspects of American society, both domestically and abroad. But at the same time, if Sanders is doing well in the polls and needs my vote, I’ll likely vote for him, and not you. What is your answer to this dilemma, which surely many others in support of campaign finance reform also face?
If you want to support Bernie (and I love Bernie too) then get Bernie to run a campaign that gives him a chance of achieving real reform. His current campaign does not do that. It rallies the base. It makes us angry. It will turn out the vote. It could well mean he wins. But does it leave us with a democracy capable of fixing its most fundamental problems? It doesn't. Not the way he's fighting it. Not by a mile. I love him. But I hate the idea of yet another reformer boxed out of the possibility of actually fixing anything. Remember Obama. He spoke as often and as passionately about the need to fix the system. Then he did nothing. Because his campaign too didn't have the courage to fight the campaign in a way that gave them a shot at fixing the system. We cannot make this mistake again.
Hi Lessig - will you join Bernie Sanders in pledging not to run if you lose the Democratic nomination, and if not, why?
I'd like to know your stance on Net Neutrality. I ask this question in the context of your support to Facebook's Internet.Org in my country India where Wikipedia has decided to ally itself with FB which violates net neutrality and gives an upper-hand to established internet companies.
Back when you started Wikipedia, do you think Wikipedia could have ever grown if another encyclopedia like Britannica had tied up with telecom providers to either shut Wikipedia out or charge selectively for data?
I would like to hear your opinion as well. Do you support net neutrality or you do not?
since the very beginning. See The Future of Ideas.
I'm also confused. Somehow Larry is suggesting that Bernie winning, with campaign finance reform as one of his major policy issues, will handicap his ability to enact campaign finance reform?
Thanks for the followup. I think Bernie can win. I think his campaign is in the direction of winning. But I believe unless he builds the expectation that reform happens first, none of the other things will happen either.
It takes a different kind of campaign to build that expectation. It needs one that says, "look, we have to fix this corruption first, and that's what I'm going to do." Because if he's not committed to that, then what will happen is what happened with Obama: they'll get to DC, they'll look at the list of issues they campaigned on, they'll pick the one that's most popular first, and reform will never be that one.
You might think we can get by just find with things as they are. If you do, then my argument should mean nothing to you. But if you believe reform is necessary, it cannot be one issue among 8. If it is, it will never be the one that wins.
We can't pass reforms to end crony capitalism (subsidies, reductions in unnecessary military spending, tax breaks, etc.) until we pass campaign finance reform, because candidates are reliant on corporate donors. In fact, all populous legislation is impossible unless it has support from America's wealthiest individuals. Lessig wants to pass campaign finance reform in order to empower the public, so candidates are beholden to voters and not dollars. Then, the idea is that we'll be able to elect candidates who are there to work for the people, rather to enter a revolving door system or handouts and cronyism.
man, can we hire you as a speech writer?
Say you're elected, and the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 isn't passed by Congress. Now What?
not an option. With 50 referendum representatives, and a president that doesn't care about what's next, it gets passed.
I get the anxiety here. I really do. But here's the reality: We have a government that doesn't work. We need the best shot to getting a government that does work. Making "reform" one of 8 issues on a platform is not a plan. It's a wish.
Would you mind briefly explaining why this is a good thing? Don't we want candidates we like to run regardless of party affiliation?
There isn't a deep principle here. There's a practical read of the current political situation. I was critical of what Nader did — not in running, but in not withdrawing. Those principles in this context (e.g., the potential war with Iran) would lead me to fight for this cause in a different way.
As President, you would have a range of unilateral powers at your disposal to implement reforms and gain political leverage.
You could offer clemency or pardon Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and other whistleblowers. You could require radical transparency from government contractors. You could pursue federal-state, public-private partnerships to incentivize public and private experiments in anti-corruption reforms across the country and beyond.
What executive orders have you drafted?
What beneficial-but-unnecessary executive orders could you issue and promise to rescind in exchange for a recalcitrant Congress passing your essential reforms?
If your reforms are completely frustrated by Congress, what executive actions would you take before you resign?
You're right. The president has enormous power — especially if s/he has just one goal.
I would use those powers to the end of getting the CEA enacted. Re powers unrelated to those — pardon, etc. — I have said that I personally believe the next president should pardon Snowden. But it isn't appropriate to make promises about pardons one way or the other.
You expressed support for Jon Stewart moderating a DNC debate.
What other efforts would you support to make the debates more small-d democratic?
The White House has their We the People petitions. Why can't the DNC put together a similar effort to solicit questions from voters and let us choose what questions should be answered?
Why should a handful of media and party elite get to determine the contours of our national discussion?
Doesn't that reinforce the strong upper-class bias our national conversation?
It does. PCCC has been experimenting with Open Debate formats. That would be a fantastic complement.
Lockhead Martin doesn't need to bankroll a politician to get government money.
They can just divide up their missile construction project across multiple congressional districts and lobby for contracts & subsidies to help them 'create jobs.'
What reforms are necessary to prevent incumbent corporations from securing regulations and subsidies that give them unfair advantages against current & future competitors?
That's a really great and hard question. (Remember Eisenhower warned us about the "military, industrial, congressional complex" (that was the first draft). I think the most we can do is to allow members of congress not to be dependent on defense contractors for money; then the rest of Congress needs to determine whether they are too dependent on other stuff.
Professor Lessig, thank you for taking the time to do this. I read Republic, Lost when it was released and it motivated me to start working in politics, so it’s sort of surreal to see it come to life in this campaign. That being said, I have a few questions:
Do you intend to include the DISCLOSE Act in the first proposal of the Citizens Equality Act?
Your campaign is essentially strategy 3 of 4 in Republic, Lost (“An Unconventional Presidential Game). If this does not succeed, do you plan on pursuing the fourth strategy, pushing for an Article V Convention?
This is a bit longer, so I apologize. The campaign finance reform community seems to be split into two camps: those like yourself who believe a bill like the Citizens Equality Act needs to come before overturning Citizens United and those like Wolf PAC who believe the reverse. What worries me about your approach is that even if CEA is passed, Super PACs and oligarchical donors will still exist, just alongside a public system. And while having such a system is important, Mega-Donors will always create the “distorting influence” you talk about in your book and the “gift economy” of Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America. While we can say overturning Citizens United would be the “next step” for reformers, we know the kind of issue fatigue Congress gets after passing a big reform and calling the job done (e.g., Dodd-Frank didn’t break up Too Big to Fail, the ACA didn’t directly control high hospital costs…), let alone momentum for a constitutional amendment. So: why not include an amendment like the one Congress voted on last year (Tom Udall’s S.J.Res.19) and restore donation and expenditure caps contingent on its passage by the states? I guess the point I’m trying to make is I feel like reformers will only get one shot at this, so they might as well aim to achieve everything: reverse McCutcheon, reverse Citizens United, reverse Buckley and truly end Big Money in politics.
Do you intend to include the DISCLOSE Act in the first proposal of the Citizens Equality Act?
Disclosure would be part of the election funding bill.
Your campaign is essentially strategy 3 of 4 in Republic, Lost (“An Unconventional Presidential Game). If this does not succeed, do you plan on pursuing the fourth strategy, pushing for an Article V Convention? Absolutely, I do whatever I can to push an A(V) convention, and have worked with Wolf-PAC to get legislatures to pass resolutions a bunch of times. That work will continue after 2017, but will be made much easier by the CEA.
why not an amendment first First, because we can't wait. Second, because an amendment couldn't sensibly address all of these issues. Third, because even with an amendment, you still need legislation to implement. But fourth, I think the best way to get the Supreme Court to come around to sanity is to manifest a broad political movement for sanity. That's been the history of the Supreme Court forever. And my prediction is that if we passed the CEA, they'd find a way to reverse the rule that gave us SuperPACs (though not Citizens United).
If we are reforming the way we vote, why switch to ranked-choice voting rather than range voting (link)?
A proportional representation system with range voting (a.k.a. score voting) allows voters to express a finer gradation of preferences - allowing for more small-d democratic feedback - and solves for the problems of spoilers & strategic voting.
The Citizen Equality Act of 2017 right now incorporates packages of reforms proposed by others. As we get into the fall, we want to use that as the baseline for a conversation about what other stuff we should have. The goal is to have a final text by Jan 1. So I'd be open to considering these alternatives.
Convicts are a highly politically marginal group, so it seems deep structural reforms may be necessary to protect them.
Do you support restoring voting rights to felons?
Given the racist history and on-going disparate impact of this disenfranchisement, it seems necessary.
More broadly, how do we secure the rights of current and former prisoners?
Particularly, how do we end the modern debtors' prisoners created by our bail system?
Can we make sure everyone is tried by a jury of their peers and not have huge racial disparities in the make up of our jury pool?
The current state of public defenders - underfunded, overworked, the salience of plea bargaining, being unable to view all evidence gathered by prosecutors in advance of a trial - reveals the limits of Gideon and the inability of the current system to safeguard the right to a fair trial.
Absolutely. The absurd way we disenfranchise felons is just one example of how the system denies equal citizenship to all. I believe a criminal should pay his debt to society. (And I believe corporate criminals should pay a higher debt than they have). But once that's paid, we should welcome them back into society — warmly and fully.
Larry... Why is $1 million at Labor Day the decision point for running or not?
We needed a number to determine whether we could make a credible run. I didn't want to take anyone's money unless we could make a real go of it. That was the # recommended. So we jumped...
I saw on a video that you called on Obama to pardon Snowden because he's an American hero. If elected, would you pardon him?
I did say that. I do think that's what the next president should do. I don't think it appropriate to make promises -- one way or the other -- about pardons.
I'm running for U.S. 16th Congressional District of Illinois I'd like to use your videos to help educate prospective voters. Would you mind?
All my videos are CC licensed. Just give attribution, and use them however you like. And THANK YOU for your service. Too many think a corrupt system means corrupt politicians. But every politician I've met is a great person in an awful system (except one).
Senator Warren – then Prof Warren – was able to make the CFPB a reality by making common cause with independent community bankers against Wall Street bankers. She won because she exploited fissures in dominant political and financial coalitions.
Looking at the coalition arrayed against your reforms, what fissures do you see that you can exploit to win allies and divide your opponents?
Where do you see their interests diverging from each other?
How can you exploit those divergent interests to further your reforms?
Our task is, in one sense, easier than hers. The public is united in its view about the corruption of the current system. The challenge is to unite them in the context of a partisan election, which will be hard. That's why I want a Republican to do the same thing I'm doing – so reform can be assumed, and then we can get back to the partisan question of who should control the next gov't.
What impact did Martin Gilens' research have on your decision to run for president as a referendum candidate?
For those who are not aware, Gilens compared policy views of the general public by wealth with political influence, and found that policy influence is almost purely determined by wealth, with the bottom 70% of Americans having zero impact on public policy, because their views are not supported by dollars.
Gilens made me see the urgency. We can't afford 8 more years of not solving this problem.
Most congressional Republicans are ideologically opposed to any reforms that would circumscribe the influence of money, and generally see a partisan advantage in the status quo.
They not only agree with Roberts & Scalia, but while Democratic presidential candidates have offered some proposals to reform the system, Republicans haven't even offered a fig leaf.
How could you effectively negotiate with people who not only oppose you, but would be willing and even happy to damage the government (shutdowns, sequesters) to break you?
Do you have any Republicans who you can hold up as competitive primary candidates for House or Senate races who could break with their caucus and support you in office?
Most are opposed when they are described piecemeal. But if they are part of a citizen equality package, it becomes harder. And our plan is to encourage 50 "referendum representatives" to run in districts where the incumbent has not pledged to support the people's reforms. They could run as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents (and I'd really encourage the independent run).
Why did you decide to create the Citizens Equality Act instead of trying to get a Consitutional amendment passed like Wolf PAC is trying to do?
Because (1) we need reform NOW (not 3 years from now), (2) a majority in Congress is more likely than 2/ds (to propose), or 3/4ths (to ratify), (3) because changing the way campaigns are funded is something Congress could do tomorrow, and should. An amendment may well be necessary — if the Supreme Court doesn't fix the superPAC problem it is certainly necessary — but we can't afford to wait. We need to act through Congress now.
What are the best ways for us (the public) to advance the issues you're campaigning on beyond supporting your candidacy? [These issues are too important to put all of our eggs into just one basket.]
Great organizations to add to your reformer portfolio strategy...
the group Aaron Swartz helped found, Demand Progress.
You should work with all of them to help fix our democracy.
> But does it leave us with a democracy capable of fixing its most fundamental problems? It doesn't.
And yours does? I'm sorry - because I'm aligned to your values as well - but how can you defend your strategy of achieving this? Do you really think your single point, single value platform is going to rally a majority in this country?
Imagine your Uncle Sam was an alcoholic. He's losing is job, his liver, and his wife.
Imagine you say, Sam, get it together! And his response was: Ok, I'm going to work harder at my job, and I'm going to drink more water with my scotch, and I'm going to spend more time showing my wife I love her, and I'm going to try — really try — to stop drinking.
I'd say to Sam: Sam, fix the drinking first. ONLY then could the other changes be possible.
Do I think we could rally America to that (metaphorical equivalent)? Absolutely. You're going to rally more Americans to the idea that we need to "fix democracy first" than to almost any of the ideas we progressives imagine the next progressive president adopting.
Here's the vid link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTouf2Bsqfg
So look — I get how in this context in particular, me saying, "I'm going to pardon xxxx" would earn me cred. But I think it is wrong for a candidate for president to promise one way or the other. So I can't, regardless of the cred lost.
How can we connect issues of campaign finance and voter equality with the day-to-day practical & emotional realities of regular Americans?
The pundits think Americans are stupid. I don't. I think that if you connect the dots, they'll get it. Start with the issues they care about — health care, social security, student debt, minimum wage, the environment, network neutrality, copyright (ok, a guy can dream) — and show them how EVERY ISSUE is linked to this one issue. Try an obvious metaphor: An alcoholic could be losing his liver, his job, his wife. Those are the worst problems someone can have. But unless you solve the alcoholism, none of those problems is going to be solved.
Do you think Jon Stewart's hilarious, timely, satirical look at serious issues helped or hurt reform? I wonder if it gave people a release valve for their frustrations instead of something more hands on, or even worse - had them cheer on dysfunction for entertainment's sake.
They definitely helped. It was the only context in which those issues could be discussed seriously (weird as that sounds). That and Colbert.
Don't say I'm not responsive:
What do you think of Donald Trump?
Have we really lost our democracy?
What's wrong with Bernie's proposal?
Will you pick your own vice president?
How do you know this will work?
Why don't you believe Bernie?
Is a vote for you a vote against other Democrats?
What can people do to help?
Why a "Referendum President"?
How will you deal with attacks from people like Trump?
could Elizabeth Warren be your vice president?
Yes, absolutely. Politically, it would make sense for one of us to move out of MA (and that would be me since she's the senator). That's because the constitution wouldn't permit MA to cast its votes for both of us, and so if the election were close, that would risk one of us not making it. But constitutionally, there is no bar (except the rule that forbids a state to vote for two people from that state).
Will you mention this if you get in the debates?
Point out how the party is not living up to its values of small-d democracy?
It's not even "special interests". There are a host of issues people want dealt with. Lessig seems to be saying that if he wins everyone will be so focused on this one issue that they won't care if nothing else ever gets done.
This is not how people or the government works. Government shutdowns don't get results.
No I actually think that if the referendum won, people would be keenly focused on Congress respecting it, and quickly. The public doesn't focus on the details. But the arc of this story is pretty clear: Will Congress do what the referendum says.
Any comment on Aaron Swartz's legacy? Is there good to come from his death? Could it ever outweigh what could have come from his life?
No, nothing could outweigh losing him. All we can do is do as much with the inspiration he left us. That should be enough to get us a democracy again. If it does, that loss will hurt less.
I watched your video. I think your idea of stepping down once you've fixed democracy grabs headlines, but has little substance. How are you going to fix democracy and what makes you think you can in the face of a hostile congress and/or the next President reversing your efforts? Also, I can't vote for a one issue candidate, especially when fixing democracy may take you an entire term. Are we suppose to put the rest of this country's issues on hold in the mean time?
With referendum representatives (https://medium.com/equal-citizens/the-plan-part-2-referendum-representatives-4c6c5e341c5f ) we would fix this quickly. But however long it took, I would be president, making decisions that respected two trustee-ships – to the people (to pass the CEA) and to the VP (since hers would be the administration that would take over).