The Mancunion

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American anti-politics

Jessica Chow-Lau takes a look at the campaign of Lawrence Lessig and his belief in the need for campaign finance reform


On the 2nd of November 2015, Democratic candidate Lawrence Lessig dropped out of the 2016 Democratic primaries. This was largely unnoticed by the media, and therefore by many people. He was radically different from the Republican multitudes in that he ran on one issue that determined his stances on climate change, foreign, and domestic policy. Lessig joined the race to reform campaign financing and increase the influence ordinary citizens have in determining which candidates get funds. And yet, this selfless endeavor was eclipsed by rambunctious candidates spewing non-solutions, competing to produce the best sound bite.

A Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig previously advised both Republicans and Democrats, campaigning for President Barack Obama before criticizing him of selling out. A frustration with the disproportionate amount of money—and therefore influence—being traded between private hands and members of Congress led him to explore the possibility of candidacy. He points out the flawed logic, “When the Democrats talk about taking on Wall Street… you’re not going to take on Wall Street and break up the banks so long as Wall Street is the biggest funder of congressional campaigns.” More than 10,000 donations came in as a response to his exploratory committee for candidacy. Lessig raised $1 million (or £662,923) in less than 30 days.

In American politics, how much funding a campaign has is a huge factor in determining whether the seat will be won. In 96% of the cases examined, money decided election outcomes. With money comes access, access leads to influence, and influence dictates how decisions are made. At the moment, SuperPACs are the deciding body.

Independent spending drastically rose in 2010 after SpeechNow v. F.E.C. ruled that people could spend however much they wanted on any independent political action committees so long as there were no coordination with campaigns. As a result, the Federal Election Committee created SuperPACs, unregulated bastions of anonymously donated money being funneled into campaigns through back door loop-holes. In 2014, less than 2% of America gave money to any members of Congress. For those that did, the top 100 gave as much as £3.14 million. 100 Americans gave 70% of the SuperPAC money spent through the 2014 election cycle. When Senators and Representatives rely on a small minority to keep their position, policies will reflect the agendas of the donors.

Currently, American politicians being funded by SuperPACs are influenced not only by their own convictions—the ones that constituents vote on—but the motives of the less than 1%. Securing funds for the next election cycle takes precedent over the well-being of voters and promises become irrelevant. Democrats and Republicans talk about all the marvelous things they’re going to do, but until a single statute changes the way elections are funded, the system of distortion will continue to perpetuate the interests of wealthy donors.

Originally running as a referendum president, Lessig decided to go “all in” when polls showed enthusiasm for a political outsider initiating systematic reform, but disagreed on them resigning after said reforms were implemented. To show that he was more than a dreamer, Lessig proposed the Citizens Equality Act of 2017. The proposal exists in three parts, equal right to vote, equal representation, and citizen-funded elections. It focuses on citizen’s equality by streamlining the voting process; eliminating the manipulative act of redrawing districts (gerrymandering); and ensuring that average people have the same influence over policy as incentivised elites by giving voters a voucher to contribute to congressional or presidential campaigns.

Despite his pure intentions and willingness to give himself to improving a democratically flawed structure, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) refused to endorse him as a viable candidate. He doesn’t pander to scripted stances like the famously composed Hillary Clinton, and the DNC sees Bernie Sanders as their “alternative” candidate; there was no need for Lessig. But Lawrence is a saint among demagogues. While he could run on rehashed platitudes, he chooses to swim against the tide. No other politician will venture into campaign finance reform because it is exactly this process that benefits them.

Without the support of DNC, Lessig was shut out of polls, media, and debates. This led to his inevitable exit earlier this month and a sigh of hopelessness from the Americans that wanted to believe. Shortly after his announcement though, Lessig communicated his perseverance: “If the party won’t allow me to run as a Democrat, that creates a lot of pressure to think about a different way of running that would allow me to make this case to the American people”. And now, we wait; for a future where ideas hold weight, or a continuation of dark money.