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Why Are Democrats So Afraid Of Lawrence Lessig?

Why Are Democrats So Afraid Of Lawrence Lessig?

Originally published on Slant.

Tonight's Democratic debate is sure to feature a number of juicy moments ripe for slicing, dicing, and perpetual replay in the 24-hour news cycle.

How will Bernie Sanders appeal to a national television audience? What will Hillary Clinton offer in terms of substantive policy proposals to help the middle class? Will Lincoln Chaffee, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb just stand, smile, and try not to forget why they’re even up there in the first place? Will Joe Biden make a surprise entrance by jumping out of Air Force Two and arriving at a podium via parachute?

No matter how tonight pans out, the debate will be sorely lacking one candidate who’s vision of democracy squarely matches up with large swaths of the American people: Lawrence Lessig.

Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself

Brad Barket/Getty

Brad Barket/Getty

Lessig, a Harvard professor running as a referendum candidate, has made the focus of his campaign to address the corrupting influence of money in politics. And despite being left out of the first debate, Lessig’s campaign has experienced its fair share of successes thus far.

For one, Lessig has raised more than $1 million in less than three weeks via crowd-funding. For reference, Lincoln Chaffee has raised a mere $29,000 in six months. 

Lessig has also been aggressively reaching out to voters, both by pursuing media opportunities and by spending serious money on ad buys in Iowa and New Hampshire. Compare that to Jim Webb, a candidate who’s been so passive and off-the-radar that a staff writer at Mother Jones assigned to cover Webb’s campaign isn’t really sure if he’s even actually running.

And it’s not as if the Democratic debate stage will be crowded with 5 total candidates (Lessig would make it 6), a far cry from the cramped GOP debates that are so voluminous that they’ve required special “thanks-for-playing” debates. While DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants the Democratic debates to allow for “maximum inclusion,” it seems they can’t make room for one more candidate with actual momentum.

Lessig is More

Scott Eisen/Getty

Scott Eisen/Getty

So why are the Dems keeping Larry Lessig out of the debate and effectively stifling an opportunity to present his ideas to a national audience?

On a call Monday morning, Lessig admitted he was disappointed that he would not be a part of the first debate, but that he was far from pessimistic.

“We’ve done an enormous amount in a very short time. The issue that I’m talking about, we know from many, many polls, is an issue that’s incredibly significant.”

That issue is campaign finance reform. According to Lessig, all of the issues that will be discussed Tuesday night are meaningless without first addressing the broken machine of American democracy.

“It’s not great politics to talk about that issue. It’s not an effective way to win votes,” said Lessig. “But we need to have the integrity to tell people the truth.”

While Lessig expects that the candidates will discuss issues that resonate with the Democratic base, like Glass-Steagall, healthcare, and challenging Wall Street, all of these plans are empty promises that are “ignoring the elephant in the room.”

Lessig will not be on stage at CNN's debate. (Joe Raedle/Getty

Lessig will not be on stage at CNN's debate. (Joe Raedle/Getty

Professor Lessig has plenty of criticism for candidates who may allude to campaign finance reform in their platform, but refuse to place the proper emphasis on the issue.

“Martin O’Malley has announced he has 15 projects he’s going to get done in office. Number 15 is addressing corrupting money in politics. Why not do this before all of those other projects?”

And while he agrees with many of Bernie Sanders’ positions, he thinks Bernie's policy proposals will come short, simply because “they’re not credible if Wall Street are the main funders of our legislation.”

Believe it or not, Lessig had some words of praise for Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, whom he says has done the most to give campaign finance reform mainstream attention in the media.

Lessig says Trump has brought attention to campaign finance reform. (Getty)

Lessig says Trump has brought attention to campaign finance reform. (Getty)

“Trump did an enormous service by opening this issue on the debate stage and calling out his opponents,” said Lessig.

At the same time, he referred to the disconnect between some of Trump’s ideas and the manner in which he deploys inflammatory rhetoric. “The two Donalds don’t seem to be in the same room,” Lessig said.

What If?

If Lessig’s campaign were to gain steam and he was elected President, his platform outlines that he would resign and transfer power to his vice president as soon as the Citizen Equality Act was passed. The act would realize Lessig’s dream of true democracy in action by ensuring the equal right to vote, equal representation in government, and citizen-funded elections. Should that law pass in Congress, says Lessig, it would be the “biggest legislative accomplishment since the Voting Rights Act.”

But he will have no opportunity to voice his opinions to a national audience if he can’t get on the debate stage. And while many people might say that Lessig is a gadfly who has no chance of actually winning the nomination, that’s precisely why the DNC should give Lessig a podium. A man who is putting policy before personal ego, championing a position that is shared by a vast majority of the American people, and fighting for the essence of democracy itself should not be met with a closed door.

Regardless of how you feel about her politically, Carly Fiorina’s campaign would be dead in the water if she didn’t get a debate podium in that first “kids-table” debate. Insurgency might scare the DNC, who are trying their best to avoid the bumps in the rat race in the GOP. But if 2015 has taught us anything about the state of American politics, it’s that people are connecting with message of insurgents, be it Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or Donald Trump.

American democracy is nothing without a forum for candidates to express themselves and connect with voters. By excluding Lawrence Lessig, the DNC is severing that connection and perpetuating the very ideas about power that Lessig supporters have come to rally against. 

Cover photo: Getty

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