Want Money Out Of Politics? Put Some Money Into Politics With Lawrence Lessig's Super PAC
Want Money Out Of Politics? Put Some Money Into Politics With Lawrence Lessig's Super PAC
By Sydney Brownstone / fastcoexist.com

The Harvard professor has already raised $1 million from thousands of smaller donors who he's asking to spend big money to make sure that no one can spend big money again--and instead politicians have to listen to regular people.

Harvard professor Larry Lessig’s business pitch seems backwards, at first. It goes something like this: Invest in his super PAC, and get money out of politics. Donate enough money to render all the other money in politics meaningless.

So what’s the return on an investment, that, by definition, wants to ruin big, private financial investments in politics? “A return to something like a representative democracy,” is how Lessig puts it.

Larry Lessig via Wikipedia

That business pitch is now a $1 million idea. After launching a formal super PAC on May 1, thousands of small dollar donations flooded MayDay PAC’s servers, crashing them temporarily. It didn’t matter. Lessig and the MayDay PAC raised $1 million in less than two weeks, well ahead of their June 1 crowdfunding deadline, and the first in a series of fundraising goals to spur a mass movement towards campaign finance reform in the 2014 midterm elections. Marshaling 20,000 donations between $5 and $5,000 (the average was less than $100), Lessig now has his sights set on the end of the next month for another goal: $5 million, plus another $5 million in donor money to match if the crowdfunding campaign’s successful.

Armed with those dollars, Lessig’s MayDay PAC will try to influence five midterm races, and, in doing so, try and test a last-ditch, clinical intervention for democracy. If MayDay PAC sways enough legislators into making campaign finance reform a priority in 2014, then in 2016, its funders hope to make the issue unavoidable.

A week after the $1 million mark, I asked Lessig how he felt. “Elated,” he said. “Elated and under a lot of pressure, because the next step is getting the match and lining that up. The fact that we’ve succeeded means we have to take the next leap.”

If all goes according to plan, those leaps will culminate in a “super PAC to end all super PACs.” But Lessig, who admitted to being a little freaked out by MayDay’s initial success, is still securing donors. He’s also looking for a CEO.

It’s no small ambition. But what does an intervention for democracy even look like? According to Lessig, it requires using the very tool that many blame for concentrating political influence in the hands of the few in the first place. By creating a super PAC that tries to undo its own genetic code, Lessig hopes to show politicians that enough people are fed up with billionaires shaping American politics. “I think this is the first super PAC that’s received contributions from people who are complaining about the fact that they’re out of work,” he says.

In terms of spending, Lessig isn’t trying to go head-to-head with, say, the Koch brothers, who, in 2012 alone, mobilized some $400 million in support for conservative candidates. Part of the campaign is symbolic; it’s meant to demonstrate that campaign finance is indeed a viable platform on which to run.

“In 2016, number one, there will be fewer fights that we have to have, because people will get on the right side of this issue just out of fear,” Lessig says. “And number two, we’ll have a whole bunch of people more interested in investing, because they see a potential return here.”

The way MayDay PAC sees it, both Republicans and Democrats are stymied by the influence of money in politics. It’s a topic that’s long been close to Lessig’s heart. In 2011,the law and ethics professor, renowned for his contributions to the free culture movement, published a treatise on the issue, citing Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United as critical injuries to the democratic process. So what’s the alternative? One could be contributions in the form of vouchers that every citizen could cash, up to $50, to diversify elected politicians’ campaign finance portfolios, he says.

“[Vouchers] would radically change the business model of fundraising overnight,” Lessig says. “You would not have candidates spending their time talking to the tiniest fraction of the 1%. They’d be thinking about the ways to attract a wide range of contributions from everybody who has a voucher.”

A mass movement built on small donations might seem impossibly optimistic, but there’s some evidence to support the idea that it could work. In 2012, Missouri candidate Claire McCaskill used the Koch-funded bullseye on her back as a selling point. While super PAC attack ads scoured her on TV, McCaskill was busy amassing an army of small donations to show that she didn’t have to rely on the influence of big money in politics to get her elected. That summer, she broke a fundraising record. (Though later, her opponent Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” surely helped bury his campaign.)

Only time will tell whether Lessig’s message can also appeal to heartland voters, people in places where his Ivy League celebrity doesn’t carry as much currency. But Lessig is hoping that the populist ideal of restoring voting power to the little guy shines through. Even the big-dollar matchers, he contends, are working toward that end.

“[The people who match] are people who are making a strong commitment to us. And what’s ironic but important to remember is that if they make a large contribution to the MayDay PAC, they’re spending their money to reduce their own political influence,” Lessig says. “There’s something deeply credible and inspiring about that.”

As credible as Lessig might believe that is, we know from history that rarely is privilege abandoned voluntarily. He knows that’s a risk. But it’s also one that comes with outsized rewards.

“I feel like I’ve leapt off a building and not really made sure there’s somebody below to catch me,” he says. But in some ways, he adds, it wasn’t really his choice at all. Lessig cites his late friend, coder, and activist Aaron Swartz, as inspiration for much of his cause. “Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been forced into this fight by him. And I don’t have an easy way out,” he says quietly. “So I’m going to do everything I can to win it by his 30th birthday, which turns out to be the day people vote in 2016. And we’ll see if we can.”


Sydney Brownstone is a New York-based staff writer at Co.Exist. She’s written for the Village Voice, Mother Jones, Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine, and has contributed to NPR. Continued

[Image: Capital Building via Shutterstock]

3.5 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 28,529 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 10,518 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,557 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Why I Didn't Vote Trump or Hillary
Joe Brewer · 2,639 views today ·   This is my ballot. It arrived in the mail where I live in Washington state — and I’ve already sent it back to the elections committee. Note how I didn’t vote for either...
How Big Banks Launder Money and Get Away With It
9 min · 2,577 views today · 'I wrote about how money laundering was actually done... they spiked it.' Parliamentary Candidate David Malone was a popular second choice in the UK Green Party leadership...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,888 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Heartbreaking Animation Reveals Plight of Animals Under Threat of Extinction
3 min · 1,799 views today · This stunning and heartbreaking animation gives voice to animals under threat from human activity. Made as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, it features a...
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 1,550 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 1,338 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
A Beautiful Reflection on What It Means to Be Human
8 min · 1,241 views today · Hello! We are Oh Wonder, a musical duo from London. We believe that everyone is equal. We are all human. We all deserve the world. And we can build that equality by sharing...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 976 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 914 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 809 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 667 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 639 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 483 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 419 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 415 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 357 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 351 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Want Money Out Of Politics? Put Some Money Into Politics With Lawrence Lessig's Super PAC