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The Elizabeth Warren Presidential Campaign Is Still Candidate-Free

Campaign finance reform crusaders are trying to convince the progressive heartthrob to join the 2016 race, but even without her involvement there's still a lot of energy on the left.

Lawrence Lessig addresses the crowd at Civic Hall. Photo by the author

Presidential campaigns usually begin with some degree of hubris—they 're announcements made by people declaring their intent to rule us, after all—but the video Hillary Clinton released last week was more so than most. After a series of "everyday Americans" describe their charming hopes and dreams, the candidate appears onscreen as their champion. In comparison to them she looks just about extraterrestrial, unable to shake the aloofness learned from years as a first lady, then a senator, then a secretary of state, all the while raising money from fellow masters of the universe around the world. And yet, as everyone says, she's inevitable. The polls, as meaningless as they may be this far away from the election, agree.

Hillary Clinton's campaign launch video

"If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him," said Voltaire. And although Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has refused to enter the Democratic primary, the dreary situation has compelled the party's remaining idealists to invent her campaign anyway. Reportedly, no presidential hopeful thus far has a more extensive volunteer network ready to roll in Iowa than Warren. According to Ben Wikler of MoveOn.org, whose job is to follow the vagaries of progressive clicktivism, "People respond to Elizabeth Warren in a way that they don't respond to anybody else."

On April 20, MoveOn's Run Warren Run campaign stepped up its game at Civic Hall, a socially minded co-working space in New York City. There, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig presented his case for why the only person who can "pierce the veil of cynicism" is Elizabeth Warren. He was introduced by Van Jones, the Robert Moses of green jobs and an erstwhile Obama adviser, who in turn was introduced by Zephyr Teachout, the anti-corruption crusader who mounted an impressive challenge against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in last year's primary.

"The cage that politicians are in right now is something that we have to break open." –Zephyr Teachout

The evening could have come off an especially gratuitous instance of political theater; Lessig has been a longtime friend and colleague of Warren's at Harvard, so it might have been more parsimonious of him to simply invite her over for dinner and discuss her candidacy privately. But Jones and Teachout are two of the most compelling orators the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has to offer, and Lessig's energetic slideshows never fail to inform and entertain. They conjured an air of conviction strong enough to make it seem possible that Warren might appear from a cloud of smoke and duly accept the mantle being offered her—though, at the evening's end, there was only an open bar and hors d'oeuvres.

Winnie Wong, an organizer of the event, was among those who started the Ready for Warren social media campaign, which she describes as "an Occupy offshoot." ("Her authenticity speaks to everybody," Wong says of Warren, "even anarchists.") In case the senator doesn't bite, however, Wong and her collaborators are already preparing a backup operation, still not ready for public consumption. Naturally, they call it Plan B.

When Lawrence Lessig talks about a "veil of cynicism," he has a very particular veil in mind. For a number of years now, Lessig has devoted himself to the cause of campaign finance reform, which he prefers to call a struggle for "citizen equality." It was a passion he gleaned from his friend Aaron Swartz, the late hacker and activist, and it is the subject of his past three books, starting with 2011's Republic, Lost, which details the corruptions caused by the unrelenting money pouring into Washington and a few possible means of stemming it. His suggestions include restraining corporate contributions and securing public funds for financing campaigns. "Nothing gets fixed in this fantasy policy-land until this gets fixed," Lessig said at Civic Hall.

That politicians are more or less rented the rich was commonly understood in the United States even before the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which made the flow of money into electoral campaigns even more unrelenting and unaccountable. The rich have a hugely outsized effect on what policy proposals get considered, debated, or tossed out. But most people don't feel they can do anything about the problem; after all, they're not the ones with the disposable income for $10,000-a-plate dinners. And thanks to the Supreme Court's conviction that buying politicians is a form of speech, and therefore sacrosanct under the First Amendment, changing course will likely take no less than a constitutional amendment. The same politicians who are raking in so much cash under the current regime are the ones who would need to vote such a thing into being.

But Lessig has an unusual knack for turning his theories into accomplishments. His previous obsession was with intellectual property in the Internet age; at the same time that technology enabled information to be shared more easily and more cheaply, corporations and governments—bound by their shared love of campaign donations—were drawing up ever more stringent laws against such sharing. (One of these laws would later help set in motion the events that led to Aaron Swartz's suicide.) Together with Swartz, Lessig developed Creative Commons, a series of legal hacks that enabled people to hijack intellectual property law to protect their right to share their creations more freely. These licenses are now basic fixtures of the internet, at work on websites including Wikipedia and Whitehouse.gov.

Now Lessig is trying to replicate that success in campaign finance reform. Last year, he unleashed Mayday, a "super PAC to end all super PACs," which raised $10 million to dump on reform-friendly congressional candidates. But the candidates didn't do so well. Mayday conceded defeat, retreated, and plotted out a new strategy that will commence on May 1 this year. Rather than fighting money with money, this time Lessig wants to mobilize people. Through a "citizen lobbying platform," volunteers will A/B test a range of tactics—letter-writing, petitions, what have you—for lobbying their existing representatives to make campaign finance a priority. They'll then double down on what works, targeting the most vulnerable and sympathetic politicians. The group 99Rise, meanwhile, will carry out creative protests to heighten the drama. Surely there will also be more lone rangers, like the concerned postman who landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn the other day.

It's an adventure Lessig likens to the civil rights movement—except, he says, "there will be no fire hoses, there will be no German shepherds."

Related: Watch Politico's Ken Vogel talk about big money in American politics

Onstage at Civic Hall, all the speakers agreed that the solution is Elizabeth Warren, but from the sidelines one could notice some variance in how they conceive of the problem.

Teachout, like Lessig, geeks out about corruption. She wrote a history of the subject, Corruption in America, that was published last year. "The cage that politicians are in right now is something that we have to break open," she says. "We're trapping our politicians in a terrible system."

The cage, to Teachout, results from concentrations of corporate power. This is something she saw evidence of wherever she went on the campaign trail in New York State—monopolies everywhere, suffocating small businesses and leaving workers with little choice of where to work. Her hope is in resurgent forces that can help to challenge the corrupting effects of big money: minimum-wage campaigners, anti-fracking activists, and unionized teachers impressed her in particular. And they were calling for deep change to the economic order, not just tweaks to the rules for running elections. "If you talk about inequality but you don't talk about power structures," she told me, "people feel like you're not going to do anything about it."

Lessig sees things differently. Once a teenage Republican, it doesn't keep him up at night that some people amass a lot more wealth than others. "I'm a more conservative reformer," he said. "I don't think the problem is changing the economy. I think the problem is changing the incentives that people in the economy face." He wants to reduce the return on investment for campaign contributions. Rather than buying off politicians in order to secure favorable policies, he'd like businesses to focus on making money the old-fashioned way—making stuff and selling it. From the start of his campaign-finance efforts, Lessig has sought the support of the right as well as the left, though with only limited success; it's not equally evident to everyone that the outsized influence of the rich is a problem.

"There is a sense in which we've kind of learned our helplessness," he told me. "We see reformer after reformer—quote-unquote—and we see nothing reformed."

And yet we are to believe Warren will be different. Her entry certainly could certainly throw a wrench in the Hillary machine. But that would mean giving up a kind of campaign that is so far more energetic, and probably more democratic, than the one with an actual, declared candidate.

Nathan Schneider is the author of God in Proof and Thank You, Anarchy. His website is TheRowBoat.com, and he tweets here.