Lawrence Lessig doesn't need another job. He's already got a great gig as a law professor at Harvard. So of course he's trying to launch a crowd-funded run for president.
But here's the thing: the founder of Creative Commons and popular TED talker is running for one reason and one reason only. Lessig wants to change the way modern political campaigns are financed with the Citizen Equality Act, which would reshape the system to give every voter an equal say in our elections. And if he makes it to the White House and gets his plan through, he's promised to resign immediately and let his VP take over.
No more Super PACs, no more oil and casino magnates and hedge fund managers dumping their fortunes into the race to help steer the results. The goal is to take the billions in cash donated by the "one percent of the one percent" out of the game and put the average voter back in the driver's seat. Keep in mind, the richest 0.1 percent control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, and many of them are donating millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, to PACs backing the candidates they support.
MTV News spoke with Lessig about his outsider campaign -- which he'll officially launch if he reaches his $1 million crowd funding goal by Labor Day (he was almost there at press time with $777,949 with just four days to go) -- why young voters should support him and, most importantly, what his campaign theme song would be.
MTV: Let's pretend this is a debate and you have 30 seconds to pitch young voters on why they should care about campaign finance. Go!
Lawrence Lessig: It's especially relevant for younger people because if you think about all the big problems we talk about – whether it's climate change... or student debt – these are all issues that direclty effect mainly young people. When you look at the system and recognize that we've lost the capacity to govern and address any of these issues in a sane way, basically we're just kicking the can down the road to our kids. We are completely incapable of dealing with our problems because of the corruption I'm talking about and [if] we're not going to deal with these problems, it will be their problems.
MTV: You're almost to your $1 million crowd funding goal to get into the race. If you make it, what's the best potential endgame to this effort?
Lessig: Step one is getting to the $1 million. Step two is to get enough significant presence in the polls to get into the debates. And if I'm in the debates, then what I get to do is take every issue that they talk about and bring it back to this fundamental corruption of equality. So that you can't avoid seeing that no matter what you care about, we need to solve this issue first. My issue is not the most important issue, it's just the first issue. And that alone would be an enormous success.
MTV: There's something about the Citizen Equality Act that seems so logical it's almost illogical that the answer could be that simple. Is it that simple?
Lessig: That’s exactly right. I've spent so many years thinking about this issue. Because if you think about why the corruption of the way we fund campaigns is a problem it's because it denies us our equal standing as citizens. We should care about that equality not because it was the most important foundational value of our Constitution, but because if we don't have equality as citizens we don't have a government responsive to us. We have a government responsive to those with the most power in this system. You're right, it is so obvious when you see it. And this is why I think it's our opportunity to get everyone to recognize this obvious point and to rally behind it because who's going to argue on the other side?
MTV: So, you're close to the $1 million goal, but that's still $999 million less than Clinton and Bush will raise. How can you hope to even compete?
Lessig: Unfortunately it's not just the $1 million I will need to raise. If I go forward I will be spending an incredible amount of my time raising money. The $1 million isn't anything compared to Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Bernie Sanders. But I'm nobody coming into the field trying to carve a space where I can begin to make a case. The consolation prize is a spot in the debate and even that is an enormous victory.
MTV: You mentioned Donald Trump before. You're both insurgent outsiders determined not to take big money. If you make it, what would a Trump/Lessig debate look like?
Lessig: What we’ve got is an agreement on the nature of the problem. What we don't have is an agreement about the solution. His solution is let's elect billionaires. I get that solution, but we fought a revolution against that idea and that was Britain, that was aristocracy and we fought for a representative democracy. My solution is let's find a way to fund campaigns so that Donald Trump's criticism is no longer correct.
MTV: Young voters are the largest demo in this election and could play a huge role. But you need to find them where they are. If you had to sum your pitch to them up in a tweet or an Instagram caption, how would it read?
Lessig: To college students: the system is screwing you, period. And you have to fight to get back your democracy. I think the biggest inspiration for this movement should be what happened in Hong Kong exactly a year ago. Think about the parallels, which are really kind of chilling. China says Hong Kong's gonna have a democracy where 1,200 people pick the candidates, which the rest of Hong Kong gets to vote on. So that's .02% of Hong Kong gets to choose the candidates and so the students --- high school elementary, college students -- start protesting... saying 'this is not democracy.'
Think about the American system... where to be a candidate you have to win the money primary, to convince the big funders to give you the money you need to run. Only if you win that primary or do very well do you have a shot to run. How many people get to vote in the green primary? At most, in my calculation, .02%, exactly the same percentage that get to pick the candidates in Hong Kong!
MTV: Whether or not this bid works, what can young Americans do to take back their government from special interests?
Lessig: What they need to do is press this issue as firmly as they can. Show parents that they can put two and two together and that every issue they care about is blocked by this issue. And if they push this in every context -- if they're a Bernie Sanders supporter pushing Bernie to talk about 'how are you going to deal with this issue first?' That is the critical work to be done and to make it so when consultants say Americans don't care about this issue, kids say, 'actually, in fact we do care about this issue.'
MTV: You have a great day job and running for president is emotionally and mentally soul-crushing. So what's in this for you personally?
Lessig: I have three young kids (11, 8, 5). But it was another kid that forced me to take this up: Aaron Swartz. Eight years ago he came up to me and said, 'why do you think you'll make any progress on these issues you're working on [copyright] so long as we have this basic corruption.' And he asked in the same way a kid ask that kind of question: not cynical at all, deeply idealistic.
That question was: you see the truth and the truth is there's nothing to be gained until we fix this system, so why aren't you working on fixing the system. I said it's not my field, and he said 'you mean as an academic? But what about as a citizen?' What that moment made me recognize is that I didn't have an excuse not to take this on.
MTV: Have you picked a campaign song?
Lessig: Oh God. That's a great question. I have to think about that one.
MTV: How about a "hope" or "change"-like slogan?
Lessig: "Fixing democracy first" is the thing you have to get people to see, because nothing else is possible if we don't.
MTV: The range of potential running mates on your site is pretty broad -- Jon Stewart, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden -- who would be your ideal choice?
Lessig: Some are serious, some are fun, just to see if people are paying attention. I don't think anyone is imagining Jon Stewart is going to be vice president. The person has got to be somebody committed to this reform and someone who could rally the democratic base. But this vice presidential choice shouldn't be mine alone. Ordinarily, we allow the allow president to nominate the vice president because we never want that person to be president. In this case I want the vice president to be president as quickly as possible, as quickly as we can ge Congress to pass the Citizens Equality Act. I'd have to defer to the judgment of the party at the convention but between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie, I would have a strong preference for a woman as president.
Click here for more information about the Citizen Equality Act of 2017.