© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fanciful'? Meet Lawrence Lessig, The Candidate With A Single Issue

Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig speaks at WIRED BizCon in New York City in 2014.
Thos Robinson
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig speaks at WIRED BizCon in New York City in 2014.

Most Democratic voters have probably never heard of Lawrence Lessig. He's running on one issue — campaign finance reform — and he didn't make it into last week's Democratic debate.

Lessig has raised more money than some of his Democratic rivals such as former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. But so far, polls show Lessig at under 1 percent of the vote. Still, he's a favorite among some in Silicon Valley.

Lessig made a name for himself among the techies as a Stanford Law professor who specialized in copyright law, which certainly doesn't sound like a launching pad for national office.

But Lessig says his failed efforts to reform copyright law turned him into a passionate advocate for campaign finance reform.

For a decade, Lessig stood at the crossroads of a war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood over copyright laws. He became a sort of rock star among young people who worshipped new tech and used it to remix songs and lip sync to pop music on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet.

He even made an appearance on the Colbert Report, where host Stephen Colbert mockingly challenged his viewers to make a remix of the conversation.

"I will be very angry and possibly litigious if anyone out there takes this interview right here and remixes it with some great dance beat," said Colbert. Of course, viewers did exactly that and made Lessig one of a rare breed of law professors to have his talking points set to EDM (electronic dance music).

Lessig believed remixes and mashups were a form of creative expression born of the Internet age. But the entertainment industry started suing people for copyright violations. Lessig argued for a more rational approach.

For example, Congress has increased the length of a copyright from its original 14 years to longer than a century. Mickey Mouse is still protected by copyright.
"For many years, I thought we could battle this by good arguments," said Lessig. "So I wrote five books and hundreds of articles and literally a thousand different lectures around the world."

Lessig says his arguments in favor of copyright reform seemed to fall on deaf ears. "Congress unanimously extended the term of existing copyright because millions of dollars were being invested by the owners of the copyrights of Disney and Robert Frost and all these other old copyrights that continued to benefit from this extended term."

I think trying to make the argument [that campaign finance reform] is the No. 1 issue, which if solved would do away with most of our governing problems, is fanciful.

One day in 2006, Lessig said, his friend Aaron Swartz — the late Internet activist — asked him, "So why do you think you're going to make any progress on these issues you're working on so long as we have this deeply corrupted political system?"

Lessig gave a very law-professorlike answer. "I said to Aaron, 'You know this wasn't my field.' And Aaron said, 'I get it; as an academic it's not your field, but what about as a citizen?' "

In 2009, Lessig left his post at Stanford and moved to Harvard. He turned his attention to campaign finance reform. He believes that despite public opinion nothing changes because of the money in politics. Take reforming banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis — while there's been some reform, Lessig believes it hasn't gone far enough.

"When the Democrats talk about taking on Wall Street ... you're not going to take on Wall Street and break up the banks so long as Wall Street is the biggest funder of congressional campaigns," says Lessig.

Last year, Lessig raised over $10 million for his May Day superPAC to support candidates who vowed to reform the campaign finance system. But in 2014, most of his candidates lost. So now he is running for president, on a one-issue platform.

If he wins, Lessig says, he will enact the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. It would provide every voter a voucher to fund the campaign of his choice. The act would provide significant amounts of money to candidates but in smaller contributions from a lot more people. Lessig says he would also make Election Day a national holiday so everyone could get to the polls.

He had described his candidacy as a "referendum," saying that if he was elected he would pass campaign finance reform and then step down. He recently took that idea back, writing in The Atlantic that he would stay on if elected and "the resignation idea was a total bust. No one liked it. At all."

But the issue of campaign finance reform isn't on the top of everyone's agenda — and it shouldn't be, says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the issue. "I think trying to make the argument it is the No. 1 issue, which if solved would do away with most of our governing problems, is fanciful," said Mann.

"Our problems right now are that we have highly polarized parties and midterm elections that routinely produce gridlock. And it isn't money that's gridlocking the system — it's hyperpartisanship."

Lessig says he just wants a chance to debate this in front of the American people and be included in the rest of the Democratic debates. Even though he has raised more money than some of his rivals, his poll numbers still don't qualify him. Which may mean that means that money can't buy everything.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 18, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Lincoln Chafee's last name as Chaffe.
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, andNPR.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.