If he makes it to the White House, he says, he’ll resign as soon as his number one issue — money in politics — is addressed.
Lessig is framing himself as a “referendum president,” with money in politics as the topic being voted on.
As Lessig told Tech Insider at the Ideas City conference in May, he’s not concerned with the eye-glazing frame of campaign finance reform.
For Lessig, who has garnered a following through TED Talks and books, money in politics is in fact the biggest civil rights issue of our time, because only a tiny subset of the population has the dough to select which candidates get the financing to pursue the White House.
Lessig has a name for the way the way candidates court the ultra-rich for huge donations, thus bending the democratic process to their will: the green primary.
“We’ve allowed a system to evolve for funding elections that shifts the critical power in our political process to the funders of campaigns — and those funders of campaigns are not all of us,” he says.
Lessig, a legal scholar turned political activist, has already shown that he can affect structural change. He helped to bring the Creative Commons licensing program into the world, which allows intellectual property to be shared and remixed across media.
He says that because of the way that money plays kingmaker, huge swaths of the American population are taken out of the democratic process. To Lessig, it’s directly comparable to the status of black Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, today’s social stratification is much less outwardly visible than in the 1950s. As Lessig says, whites-only send a clear signal of ‘you are not equal.’ But today, even if people have a sense that democracy isn’t working, it’s not always obvious that inequality is the source.
“When they had a white primary in Texas, where the law said, blacks can’t vote in the democratic primary, there it was on paper,” Lessig says. “You could see in this stage, that you can’t participate, and that inability to participate defined the inequality. Well, there’s no piece of paper that says, ‘poor people can’t participate in the green primary.’ But they can’t. But there’s nothing that say they can’t, everybody is formally free to write a check for $US5,000 to their favourite congressional candidate, like that’s freedom that’s given to everybody. but that freedom is worthless to 99% of America, because they don’t have the money to write a $US5,000 check to their local congressman.”
For this reason, Lessig maintains that America is largely a “desert of democracy”: representatives that actual represent the interests of their constituencies aren’t present in most places, for few a few “oases” with some sort of public financing.
He cites New York City, which has a public funding system for matching small donations, as an example, as well as Connecticut and Maine, both states with public funding for state legislature and statewide offices.
In places with public funding, candidates are required to take most of their campaign funds from the state rather than private donors. Maine, which passed its public funding act in 1996, has a system where candidates who choose to participate only accept limited amounts of private donations at the start of their campaigns before they start receiving funds from the state — after which they can’t receive further private donations.
“Those are states where 80% of elected representatives opt into public funding, republicans and democrats alike,” he says. “What that means is they’re not having their campaigns funded by this tiny, tiny fraction of the state. It’s funded by everybody. So we have islands, oases in this desert, but most people don’t know about it, don’t think about, don’t see it. So they don’t see the way the default creates this inequality.”
Thus the presidential bid.
And with that, Lessig argues, we’d get closer to a democracy.
“The reason I’ve been driven to this is the constant ’emperor wears no clothes’ feeling about this election,” Lessig told the New York Times. “We need a plan for unrigging the system first, and none of [the other candidates] have given us that plan.”
Watch Lessig’s campaign video below.
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