Harvard law professor and campaign finance activist Lawrence Lessig published a video Monday night announcing that he might run for president in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
Lessig says that if none of the existing Democratic candidates "commit to making this fundamental [campaign finance] reform the first priority of their administration," and if his crowdfunding campaign (website here) raises $1 million by Labor Day, he will run as what he calls a "referendum candidate." That means he'd promise to only serve as president until campaign finance reform is passed, and resign once it becomes law. Here's a longer video explainer of the "referendum president" idea:
Lessig is a prominent advocate of campaign finance reform, in particular supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and a voucher system in which every voter would get a fixed amount of money (usually $25 to $100 each) to give to candidates of their choice.
His would-be presidential campaign advocates a proposal he calls the "Citizen Equality Act of 2017," which would establish a voucher program, create multi-member congressional districts elected through proportional representation, and enact voting reforms like making Election Day a national holiday, making voter registration automatic, and restoring the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court gutted it. Lessig explains in more detail in the following video:
Lessig is also the founder of Mayday PAC, a Super PAC advocating campaign finance reforms that would render Super PACs like itself obsolete, which raised nearly $11 million to spend on congressional races. The effort was widely viewed as a bust, as six out of the eight candidates it backed lost.
Lessig believes every issue can be tied back to what he calls "citizen equality." He argues that citizens' unequal ability to give to campaigns effectively leads to inequality in political influence. "I would tie every issue in the campaign — from climate change to student debt — to this fundamental corruption," he says. "I would make citizen equality central to this election."
He also suggests that he thinks other forms of inequality are byproducts of "citizen inequality," saying, "it's why we must even say Black Lives Matter." Given that Bernie Sanders has gotten flack for similarly reducing racial inequality to a mere instance of another, allegedly more fundamental form of inequality, Lessig could expect similar pushback.
The beginning of the video analogizes Lessig's would-be candidacy to Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam War run in 1968, which, while ultimately unsuccessful, forced Lyndon Johnson to drop out of the race. But there are some notable differences, not least that Lessig has never held elected office, while McCarthy had served nine years in the US Senate and another 10 years in the US House before that when he made his run.
For more, see Vox's Ezra Klein's interview with Lessig below: