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Larry Lessig: Bernie Sanders has been "seduced" by consultants, is too focused on winning

Lawrence Lessig speaks at South by Southwest earlier this year.
Lawrence Lessig speaks at South by Southwest earlier this year.
Sandra Dahdah/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

When Harvard law professor and campaign finance reform activist Lawrence Lessig announced he'd explore a Democratic presidential bid this month, many observers had one question: Why isn't he just supporting Bernie Sanders? After all, the Vermont senator has long been an outspoken critic of the influence of corporations and the superrich, has repeatedly called for an overhaul of the US campaign finance system, is drawing big crowds, and has taken the lead in New Hampshire.

On Tuesday, Lessig gave an answer: He thinks Sanders has been "seduced by the consultants" into "running a campaign to win, not to govern" — a campaign that would make him "Obama v2.0" and end in his ultimate failure to achieve change in office.

Lessig's argument — made in deep in Bernie Sanders country, at a Reddit Ask Me Anything session — that the candidate who proudly calls himself a "democratic socialist" is too obsessed with winning seems rather odd. Yet Lessig is arguing that Sanders's focus is divided between too many issues, and that he hasn't come up with a good enough plan to achieve the lofty reforms he's promising.

Lessig's case for why he has a plan and Sanders doesn't

Instead, Lessig has become enamored of a plan of his own, which he's referred to as "a hack of the political system." He wants to focus both his campaign and his possible presidency overwhelmingly on one piece of legislation — to the extent that he'll resign if and when he manages to enact it into law. Only an incredibly unorthodox strategy like this, he thinks, has a chance of building up an overwhelming public mandate to get a serious reform law through Congress.

As for what would be included in that law, Lessig hasn't completely nailed that down yet. Campaign finance reform will be part of it — Lessig wants to give small donors vouchers for campaign donations, among other changes — as will reforms intended to make voting easier and an overhaul of how House of Representatives members are elected. But he says further details will be "crowdsourced" if he ends up running — which he says he'll do if he raises $1 million by Labor Day (he's currently above $600,000).

"Sanders is great, but he is running a campaign to win, not to govern," Lessig wrote on Reddit. "Like Obama 8 years ago, he is talking about the problem, but not giving us a plan for how it will be fixed."

But Lessig got a very skeptical reception

Bernie Sanders enthusiasts met Lessig with a great deal of skepticism. Some commenters mocked Lessig's plan as being incredibly unlikely to succeed:

Others didn't believe Lessig's argument against Sanders made much sense:

As that last commenter says, Sanders does in fact have a plan, or at least a hope — but it's focused primarily on mobilizing people, not on a "hack" of the political system. Sanders regularly points out that half the public is politically apathetic, and that the key to major reform will be mobilizing these disenchanted and disinterested voters. "Sixty percent of the American people are not likely to vote in the coming election," he said in Waterloo, Iowa. "You think you can bring around change with that dynamic? You can have the best human being in the world in the White House fighting all the right fights, and he or she will fail."

Beyond that, Lessig's idea that a candidate for president should just focus on one issue seems flawed, even in the context of his odd plan to be a temporary president. There are many important issues out there that different members of the public care about. Even in this AMA, Lessig offered his views on citizenship for immigrants (for) and defunding Planned Parenthood (against). He also tried to define the causes of "Black Lives Matter" as playing into his main issue of "equality," even though the movement's issues aren't currently included in his reform bill. In one heavily downvoted response, he struggled to explain how he'd handle other issues that arise.

Lessig later elaborated, saying he'd "say what I would do with a long list of specific proposals," but that response was also blasted as too vague. "Larry, I'm a huge fan of yours," redditor constoryr wrote, "But I find this response very troubling. ... Now that I see your actual campaign, I'm going to need a lot more convincing and explaining before I can support you."

Another redditor then asked, "Now that you've successfully alienated Sanders supporters, Clinton supporters, and still plan on running as a Democrat, where do you see your broad coalition of supporters coming from?"

Lessig responded, "Great point."

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