A Harvard Professor Is Crowdfunding a Super PAC to Save Democracy from Money

By Matt Taylor

Lawrence Lessig at the 2011 PICNIC Festival in Amsterdam. Photo via Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg

Harvard Professor Larry Lessig, friend of the late hactivist Aaron Swartz and a longtime advocate for net neutrality and ending political corruption, has been on a tear. This winter, he led the New Hampshire Rebellion, a 185-mile walk across the freezing Granite State intended to draw attention to the problem of money infecting everything our government does. He recently celebrated his birthday with likeminded activists in California, where he joined the March for Democracy, a 480-mile hike through the state in protest of what the group calls America's current "plutocracy"-based government.

Now Lessig is talking the talk as well as walking the walk—he's starting a Super PAC to end them all, a sort of Kickstarter campaign he hopes will raise enough unregulated cash to oust some of the entrenched assholes who run Congress with an eye toward making themselves rich. He plans on collecting $12 million by November in order to unseat a handful of legislators who are particularly in the thrall of big money, and intends to seriously step up his game come the 2016 election and radically change what Washington looks like—potentially complicating the ascent of Wall Street favorite Hillary Clinton. I called up Lessig to find out whether this is different from all those other lofty bipartisan reform projects that seem to inevitably flame out.

VICE: How bad is the influence of money in politics right now?
Larry Lessig: It's become almost catastrophic for the capacity of government to function. There's a great line in The Sun Also Rises, something like—the question was how did we go bankrupt, and the answer was slowly at first, and then all at once. And I kind of think that's what happened with the way money influences Washington. The problem that I'm focused is a problem that I think begins in 1995 when the Gingrich Republicans take over control of the House—the first time Republicans controlled the House in 40 years. They begin this perpetual campaign to raise money, to continue to keep control, and the Democrats then match that by having this war to raise money to take back control.

So the fact that this is a deeply competitive system where each year control of Congress is up for grabs means there's an enormous energy directed toward creating the resources to make that victory possible. And over the course of the 20 years since then, the norms of Congress have changed radically so that the presumption is that their job is to raise money—that's their number one job. Just after the start of the last Congress, we got a leaked document from the Democratic campaign committee telling new members of Congress that they're supposed to be spending four hours a day raising money. And members of Congress were like, "What the hell? Why am I here? I didn't want to become a telemarketer, I didn't want to be fundraiser." And it makes it almost impossible to get anything done. It's very hard to pass anything in Congress, but it's pretty easy to stop things. And so basically a technique of fundraising becomes the ability to promise you're going to block something your client doesn't want passed.

If you're on the right you say things like you want the government to shrink taxes and the size of government, but that will never happen so long as we fund campaigns the way we currently do. If you're the left, you want healthcare or climate change legislation—that is just not going to happen given the way we fund elections. So until we confront this reality and do something about it, we're going to continue to see stalemated government. And the truth is regardless of your politics we can't accept stalemated government. So I think it's bad as it could possibly be.

How is that different from the last century's Gilded Age, when robber barons would cut deals in smoke-filled rooms that impacted the whole country?
The Gilded Age corruption was old-style corruption. It was Standard Oil sitting down with the leaders of the Republican Party and handing them money and saying, "Here's what you're going to do." That's the standard notion of what people think of—what the Supreme Court thinks of—when they talk about corruption. But that kind of corruption doesn't exist in any significant sense anymore. The corruption we have now is in plain sight. It's not hidden, it's not illegal, there's not even shame associated with it. It's an elaborate dance of influence that both parties engage in that in my view is actually more destructive. Because the thing about bribery, the thing about the old-style corruption, is at least there was shame—at least a kind of internal limit to how far it could go. But the current system there's no limit. When the Democratic Party takes out the public option on healthcare in order to avoid tens of millions of dollars being spent by insurance interests against Democrats in the 2010 election, nobody's embarrassed by that—that's just what we call politics. But it's only what we call politics because we have a system of elections where money matters in a way that is inconsistent with representative democracy. So it's a different kind of corruption. It's not as bad in the sense that it's not criminal, but it's worse in the sense that it actually does more harm than the old criminal corruption.

How is this new thing different from your past attempts at purging money from the system?
I've been working in this field for seven years, but this is the first time I've been on a project that has an endgame. What we want to do is build a Super PAC powerful enough to win a Congress in 2016 and enact fundamental reform. What that'll mean is passing legislation that would change the way elections are funded. So we did a study of how much that would cost—it turned out to be a smaller number than I thought it was gonna be—but what the report recommended is the most important thing we could do is to run a pilot of this campaign in 2014. So we want to run a give-race campaign to demonstrate the salience of this issue, kind of take the Eric Cantor defeat and multiply it and add some context, but also help us understand how to refine the message and the techniques so that in 2016 when we've gotta run many more races in order to win, we've got a better sense of what to do. So we've got an endgame and that's something new.

Is this all on Congress, as opposed to the president, and Barack Obama in particular?
I see Congress as an essential step in solving the problem. I was excited about Obama in 2008 largely because, at least before Hillary Clinton was out of the race, he spent so much time focused on this issue, talking about needing to change the way Washington works. And then when he was elected that issue basically disappeared—it wasn't something he did anything about in the whole time he's been president. But one of the reasons why it's not surprising he did nothing about it is that he didn't have a Congress that would do anything. So that's why the strategy we're focused on is to create the conditions for leadership, to create the conditioins fo the president to pick up the baton and say, "OK, it's time for us to finally end the corrupting influence of money in Washington, or at least time it's time for us to make our generation's contribution to this struggle to end the corrupting influence of money in Washington." Because this problem has been with us in different forms since the beginning of the republic. It seems every 100 years the republic has to kind of come together and figure out how to adjust itself in a really dramatic way. And that's where we are now.

What's at stake in the ongoing net neutrality fight, and how does it relate to corruption?
It's a great thing to talk about in this context because it is both literally the product of the money in politics problem, and it's a perfect metaphor for why we've got to solve the money in politics problem. The whole reason we are still fighting about network neutrality is because Comcast and the other carriers have so effectively deployed their lobbying and financial resources that have neutralized the basically universal political moment that happened in 2008 when both political parties said yes the internet needs to be neutral. They've stalled and stalled and filed lawsuits and the FCC has employed the dumbest techniques for imposing network neutrality it could have. They got a former lobbyist as the chairman of the FCC and he started saying, effectively, "Well, actually we don't believe in network neutrality." Going into the 2014 election, you can be damn sure that no one in the leadership of the Democratic Party has any interest in getting Comcast and Time Warner to spend their money against Democrats. Democrats are not going to rally around network neutrality—to the contrary, they're going to try to run away from this issue. This is a problem created in large part by the enormous influence of money in politics.

But it's also a metaphor for why solving this is so important. Silicon Valley wants government to work way it wants the internet to work, which means it wants a kind of neutral playing field. [Silicon Valley entrepreneurs] don't want to have to go get permission from network owners to innovate. And they don't want to have to get lobbyists to go get permission from Congress in order to innovate. That, Silicon Valley feels—I think rightly feels—is a deeply inefficient way of running a government. In the same ways that we need a neutral network, we need an honest government.

Do you have any qualms about the matching funds you're poised to accept from some of the big honchos in Silicon Valley, given that they are stepping up their own political activity and doing more lobbying in DC?
I couldn't be happier with the people who matched. In the short term, I'm sure all of them think the chance of us ultimately winning is not high. So in the short term they're going to do what they need to play the system the way it has to be played. I don't believe in universal disarmament. I think [hedge fund manager and environmentalist] Tom Steyer spending $100 million to fight climate change is a good thing because I believe climate change legislation needs to be passed. I have enormous respect for people like [libertarian billionaire] Peter Thiel spending their money in ways that if we're ultimately successful means they have less political influence. People might ask, "Well, isn't that big money going to corrupt you?" But the Super PAC has a pretty clear objective. We're not a political party. Our mission is singular—changing the way elections are funded. And If we succeed in doing that, then these people who paid for our Super PAC will be more like regular citizens and less like the kind of nobility that the current system treats them as.

How do you prevent the cesspool of political consultants—whom you've said you will need to oust incumbent members of Congress—infecting what it is you're doing?
I'm not a campaign manager. I'm not in the business of running campaigns. When we get to the point that we've raised the money we want to raise—obviously we have a big hill to climb to get there—a lot of people might say, "Couldn't you find a different way to run a campaign?" One part of me says, "Yeah that'd be great! I'd love to see us find a way to educate the American people that didn't involve political ads." But our objective in 2014 is to win five elections in a way that convinces people this issue matters. And after we're done with that and we do succeed, and kick this into an order-of-magnitude-bigger project next election cycle, then we've got lots of projects we're talking about that involve changing the way politics functions. But for now we're going to turn to the people who are experts on campaigns now and get them to win five of them for us.

Hillary Clinton sort of typifies this system with her relationship with donors (and her husband's relationship with donors). Like Mitt Romney, she seems better suited to dealing with the donor class than interacting with voters. Do you see this project eventually colliding with her personally or politically and to what extent does she and the incredible amount of money she has behind her stand directly in your path?
I don't know. In the paperback edition of my book Republic, Lost, I do an afterword where I talk about the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2008 I was a big critic of Hillary Clinton because she didn't take up this issue, she kind of poo-pooed this issue, and both Barack Obama and John Edwards obviously really nailed her on that. Afterward, it might have been that Hillary Clinton was just right. It might have been she was just saying there's no way a president can take up this issue and do anything about it. To take up this issue is to take on Congress, and to take on Congress is to basically guarantee you're taking on your own party. If you take on your own party, you're guaranteed not to get anything passed. And if you don't get anything passed, you're not going to get re-elected. And if you don't get re-elected, you're going to be a failed president. So the idea of making this the central issue of a presidential campaign is just crazy.

That's a way of saying I think she's for this reform, but I think she's actually smarter for recognizing what the president's role in this reform could be. If that's who Hillary Clinton is, then what we're trying to do is make it possible for us to actually take a leadership role in this reform. Because if we produce a Congress by the time she would be sworn in as president that's committed to this reform, then why not? Why wouldn't she grab the reins of this movement and claim victory?

Her critics might say because she's personally corrupt. That even if a reform were possible, that she's just not the kind of person who can be trusted to carry it out.
I don't think she's personally corrupt. She's got all the money in the world she wants. Now she wants to be a great president. I think the more instructive example to look at are people like LBJ. In 1960, if you had said Lyndon Baines Johnson is the only chance we have for getting civil rights legislation passed, people would've laughed at you. That was a crazy idea. But what Johnson realized was that the way he was going to make himself world-historic was to do exactly the thing nobody thought he ever would do.

Now, I don't know if Hillary Clinton is that great—is great in that sense—but she might be. She's obviously incredibly smart. Were I to advise her and she were to become president and we had created the political conditions under which she could actually bring about this reform, I'd say, "Look, Hillary, this is your Civil Rights movement. This is your chance to be LBJ without the Vietnam War—to do something nobody imagines you would do because everybody imagines you're just in the system and you don't care about making this kind of change." Because then she would really become the transformative president Barack Obama said he would be.

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