In May, Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig sent shockwaves through the democracy reform movement by creating a SuperPAC and raising $2 million—half in small online donations; half from wealthy individuals—to be spent on making political corruption a decisive issue in five 2014 U.S. House races. He’s trying to raise another $5 million by July—all to demonstrate that a new way of raising big money and winning is possible. Many reformers see this gambit as being akin to Mahatma Ghandi picking up a gun.
In the Q&A with AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld, Lessig’s explains his fighting fire with fire strategy. He says the campaign finance reform community has backed the wrong remedies for decades. He says Democratics missed their chance to make real reforms when it had that power. And he said why he’s optimistic that Americans—if given a change and pathway—will break the cycle of corruption that starts in fundraising.
Steven Rosenfeld: Let’s start with the basics. How much has the MayDay PAC raised? How close are you to raising the next $5 million by July 4th?
Larry Lessig: The total so far is just over $3 million. I don’t mean $3 million in this cycle (June). In this cycle we are just over $1 million. So we’ve got a long way to go to get to five. We’re trying to pull together a lot of things to make that possible. It’s obviously a tough challenge.
SR: If you don’t get to the $5 million mark do you still go forward?
LL: We’re definitely going forward with something, because we’ve got resources to do a significant amount already. One of the things that I am surprised about is although we set this up as a contingent funding campaign, 40 percent of the contributions have come from people who have clicked the box that says ‘even if you don’t meet your goal, keep my money.’ So think we will be in good shape ro do what we’re trying to do.
SR: You have thousands of small donors and half-dozen big donors—mostly Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. What do the big donors expect?
LL: If we win, if we’re successful, the ultimate goal that they have is to reduce the influence of money in politics. So they should expect that they will have less power. But these are people who believe that the power in the system that they have right now is not doing the system or them much good. They’re spending money to reduce their influence, which is some kind of self-sacrifice, but it’s not a very big sacrifice with how little the government is able to achieve.
SR: Some high-profile people are excited about this. Ben Cohen and Steve Wozniak have YouTube videos. What do they think is going to work here that hasn’t worked before?
LL: I don’t think there’s ever been a campaign like this before. We’ve set a goal. No group has ever tried to set this goal of electing a Congress that will pass fundamental reform in 2016. The conception of what reform is—is very specific. It is tied to what the problem is: the way we fund elections right now is the problem. Literally, it’s never been the case that someone has imagined putting together a large enough Super PAC to deliver on that victory. The critical insight of the analysts who did the first estimate of what it would take to win [that kind of Congress] was that we had to run it in two election cycles. So we have this pilot campaign in this cycle—to convince people that this is an issue that people care about. And after this cycle, we will gear up for a much much bigger campaign in 2016.
The theory of change behind that strategy is this is not the kind of reform that can happen gradually. It’s not the kind of reform where you elect a couple of Representatives this year, a couple next time, and the next time after that. You have to have a massive and powerful intervention at one time to resist the money and forces that are going to try to push back. I don’t know that anybody has tried to do that.
SR: Is your hope that you’ll be able to have as much resources as the Kochs with their $400 million network? Or whatever Karl Rove has? Or whoever else is out there playing at that scale? Is that really your goal?
LL: I do believe in 2016 we are going to have to raise an incredible amount of money. But I think in 2014 we can demonstrate the feasibility by showing with good data how we moved the dial, how victory was possible in places where people didn’t think victory was possible. There’s enough people out there who are eager to see a fundamental change in the way this system works. And I think they’ll fund it at the level necessary to win.
SR: Let’s discuss this theory of change. At AlterNet, we’ve tried to support every progressive democracy reform that’s come along since the mid-1990s. It feels like all we have done is lost in the courts, seen laws gutted, and we haven’t change political culture’s behavior. And we worry about overpromising to people, especially in this fold, could boomerang and further discourage the public.
LL: Sure. Here’s the first point. Campaign finance reform since the 1990s has been fundamentally misguided. The fundamental objective of everything that’s happened in the 1990s has been to restrict people’s freedom to speak. So whether it’s soft-money bans or bans on corporate speech, that strategy has been trying to squish down participation. The Supreme Court has struck that down. And their view is even if they had not struck that down, it doesn’t begin to address the core problem. The core problem is not the speech. It is the way that money is raised. It is the fundraising. And the only way to address the problem of fundraising is to change the way campaigns are funded. So the reforms that we are speaking about are reforms that would change the ways campaigns are funded—through small donor public funded campaigns; whether is is a Republican idea like vouchers or a Democratic idea like (Maryland Rep. Paul) Sarbane’s Government By The People Act.
These would ways to radically change the ways that candidates fund their elections. And we have seen the effects of these funding schemes. Connecticut, when it adopted small dollar public funding system; in its first year 87 percent of the elected representatives opted into that system. People from the 1990s who don’t want to focus on what’s different here can be cynical and depressed—I get that. But we have to focus on what’s different, which is we want to change the economics of funding a campaign. And then we change the behavior of candidates, which is right now obsessively focused on what the tiniest fraction of the [richest] 1 percent care about.
If you look at the relevant numbers of funders of campaigns today, it no more than 150,000 Americans. That tiny faction candidates spend 30 to 70 percent of their time talking to. That’s their obsessive focus. Until we change that, we don’t change anything. We don’t change that by saying corporations can’t speak, because they (the 150,000) are not corporations. We change that by changing the way we fund elections.
SR: What’sd the reception been from the political culture? Have people like the Mitch McConnells or Jim Bopps said, more or less, ‘Great. Welcome to the system. What took you so long? Good luck?’
LL: Right now, they are not paying much attention at all to this. Because they think it is impossible to imagine rallying Americans to care about this issue. They might be right. That’s the bet. That’s what we’re trying to prove wrong. What we think is that if you look at the attitudes of Americans about the basic corruption of the system over the past 20 years, it has never been as profound and deep. There is such profound skepticism on both the left and the right about the way that this government actually functions. There is no way that people believe that when the government is acting, it is acting except in the interests of people who are deeply connected to the funding of their campaigns.
It is not just a perception. There was a study that came out of Princeton earlier in the year confirming exactly that idea. It was the largest empirical study ever done in the history of political science of American policy decisions. It found that the average voter has no independent influence on policy decisions that Congress actually makes. So Americans are skeptical. They are right to be skeptical. It has never been as profound and as deep. We think it’s a perfect moment to try to rally them to pick people [candidates] on the basis of this issue, and to elect people on the basis of change.
SR: Raising campaign money is one thing and spending it another. One of the things that happened in the ‘90s in Massachusetts was people gave clean money dollars for a public financing system and the top candidates ran the same old negative ads. That gave people in the Legislature, who didn’t want public financing, an excuse to kill it. How can you avoid that with your candidates in 2014?
LL: These are two different issues. One issue is about whether we’re producing a government that is captured by the funders of campaigns. That’s the corruption in my view. There’s a separate issue of whether campaigns are actually informing the public about anything that’s edifying or effective. The unfortunate fact about American politics is that non-edifying, non-informative campaigns are the most effective.
We, in fact, are experimenting. We have an amazing tech community behind what we are doing. We’re experimenting with different ways to think about engaging people politically. I think if we are successful in 2014 then 2016 will be demonstrating these in a really significant way. Right now the objective is to win in ways that surprise people—the model of Eric Cantor’s defeat. And if we can achieve that, and thereby convince people that there is a reason to be in this fight, then we can convince lots of people to help think about how to do politics differently. But doing politics differently is not the problem of corruption in our system. The problem of corruption in our system is the ways campaigns raise their money.
SR: But at a certain point you’ll have to start spending that money in some ways. So what does the tech community see that can be done differently and be effective?
LL: The standard model for politics right now is to hope that people don’t show up, because you have this nicely polarized politically active class. And when they are polarized in the ways that they are, it’s actually more manageable. The great disruptor in that kind of poltics is to try to find a way to engage people who are typically not engaged. I’m not saying it’s possible. But I’m saying that there are a million new ways to try to think about trying to do that.
The very community that is most connected and most engaged in technology is precisely the community that needs to be targeted and effectively mobilized. So that’s the hope. It’s an open question whether it can be done. But I do think that if it’s true, as many people in our tech advisory group believe, that the only way will move people on this issue is to bring a different group of people in. That’s what we’re trying to do.
SR: Are there candidates tout there who are winning primaries that can be these change bearors? Because when I last looked, a lot of the best progressives lost this spring.
LL: The strategy is not let’s get Superman to Congress so they can bring about the change. The strategy is actually to have elections be recognized to turn on this issue. So that when members get aroud to 2016 they start thinking, ‘I don’t want to be on the wrong side of this issue because I don’t want to be the potential target of one of these really aggressive corruption campaigns.’ So, it would be great if we elected a whole bunch of Elizabeth Warren types who were incredibly aggressive in mobilizing people. But that’s not what the strategy depends on. What it depends on is political consultants in 2016 saying , ‘Gee, you need to be on the other side of this issue, because if you’re not we’re opening up a really powerful potential attack and there’s no reason to do that.’
SR: Yesterday, I got several press releases after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted out a proposed constitutional amendment on campaign finance reforms. The activists all said what they’ve been saying for years—the size of one’s bank account shouldn’t decide how big one’s political voice is. That is so different from your approach. What is this school of regulation-based campaign finance activism missing?
LL: A core idea that we have here is that we are not going to win this in a partisan way. If it’s framed in a partisan way we’re guaranteed to lose it. So, when people are pushing the [Sen. Tom] Udall amendment; when Sen. [Majority Leader Harry] Reid is pushing the Udall amendment, he’s pushing in an obvious way that will benefit the Democratic Party because this issue is captive to the Democratic base. In Congress, where, to get amendments sent out to the states requires 67 votes in the U.S. Senate, no sane person thinks that we are anywhere close to amassing 67 votes. There’s not a one Republican who has cosponsored any of the Citizen United amendments. I don’t really read this strategy as a strategy of being about reform. It’s about building a Democratic base.
Now, I’m a Democrat. I’m not opposed to building a Democratic base. But I’m not in the business of building a base for the Democratic Party or a base for the Republican Party, certainly. I am in this because I think we need to build a reform movement and the reform movement needs to be independent of the interests of Harry Reid.
SR: So what’s your anti-corruption campaign going to look like?
LL: In 2016, how people fight against this is an open question. It kind of depends on how big and how significant this is. In 2014, we’re talking abut five House races. There’s not going to be an organized, mobilized opposition to corruption reform based on the impact of five races. We’re going to see how the message works. We’re going to show how it moves the dial. We’re going to win in these races. And then in January 2015 there will be some very serious discussions about whether this demonstrated that thare’s potential with the right funding to win the number of seats we need to win to get a majority to pass this kind of reform. A majority—we’re not talking about two-thirds, the way an amendment requires. We’re talking about a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate.
SR: What do you tell people who want this kind of change but are skeptical?
LL: I push hard on it’s incredibly easy to generalize from the whole sweep of ideas that [have previously been tried that] there’s nothing to do here. My view is even if you could prove that this is an almost impossible task, you have a moral obligation to do absolutely everything you can to achieve it. The critical change that we have to have here to make it possible to govern is not just one choice among a bunch of different reforms we might be trying to do. Nothing else makes sense until we do this. I guess sometimes when I hear the kind of cyncial pessimistic reaction, I think, ‘What is your idea?’ ‘What is a better idea?’ There isn’t a question of whether we are going to do this. The question is how.
SR: Let’s talk about that how. The best idea in the 1990s was small donor public financing. It seemed like it was gaining traction in small states and cities. But it’s been slightly dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Arizona decision.
LL: No-no-no. Let’s be clear about this. It was the Democratic Party that stopped public financing for Congress. The Democratic Party. And where there was a push for small donor public financing, it was an unwillingness to confront the real need for change that led people to what seemed like an easier reform solution, which was to pass [donation] limits on the ability of people to engage in speech. So the only thing that the Supreme Court has taken apart are those limits. The Supreme Court has again and again affirmed the constitutionality of public financing schemes. The kind of public funding scheme that I am talking about is even more consistent with what the Court has said recently.
I think it was a mistake to pursue limits on speech in the 1990s. It was a mistake not to push for small dollar public funding. And it was a really important mistake that the Democratic Party made not to support the change when they had the chance to do it. They could have done it. They didn’t.
SR: So it comes back to changing the fundamental nature of fundraising—the matter of who’s in the room, who’s listening, who feels invested?
LL: That’s it. This is the thing that is most important about understanding the confusion that exists in the reform community. People are not being precise enough on what is the problem, because if you think the problem is that Americans are being corrupted by the speech that is thrown at them, then the solution is different than if you believe that the problem is the way that campaigns are funded—or fundraising. I think it is the latter problem.
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