Lessig for Congress

It’s immensely exciting to see Larry Lessig thinking about a run for the House, filling the vacancy left by the passing of Tom Lantos. As Lessig notes, the other candidate in the primary is an exceptional politician, and he isn’t considering the run because of any animus against her. I’ve no doubt they will work together as colleagues if she wins the primary.

If he runs, and I suspect he will, it will be to fight against the corrupting influence of cash on politics. A political system where individual citizens giving small donation dominate the race for political office is a far better system than one where the citizens’ watchdogs have to look to corporate interests for large donations. Barack Obama is showing that a presidential campaign can be run largely (though not yet entirely) off of small donations. Lessig wants to show that the same is true of House races, even in expensive media markets like the California 12th. I expect he’ll have to raise a couple million dollars between now and mid-April if he wants to win.

There are those who try to demonize such grassroots fundraising. Josh Gerstein complained recently about secret money flooding campaigns:

A torrent of secret money is flooding into the leading presidential campaigns, with more than $118 million, or one-quarter of the total raised in this cycle, banked without disclosure of who gave the funds or where the donations originated.

The money is coming from hundreds of thousands of donations of $200 or less, which have been widely praised for democratizing the system for funding White House bids. However, the surge in low-dollar gifts has come at the cost of transparency, since federal law only requires campaigns to itemize donations when a donor gives more than $200.

Obama recently got his half-millionth donor of the year, and are approaching the millionth donor of the campaign. By Gerstein’s numbers, and assuming that the average donation for all the small donors is $100, 1.2 million people have made such small donations to a candidate (though that assumes that no one donated to multiple candidates). That’s an amazing number, and it speaks to the power of direct democracy.

What does my $100 donation to Barack Obama or a similar donation to Professor Lessig buy me?

At best, I and the other small donors can expect a successful candidate who raised so much money in such small increments from so many different people to remember that there is a great mass of people who believed in her or him early on, and as a result will conduct himself or herself in a manner that the general population would approve of. Hardly a bad thing.

Lessig, for those who don’t know, is one of the nation’s great public intellectuals. He is a respected law professor and author of important books exploring the relationship between mass media, intellectual property, and individual rights to reuse elements of our shared culture. He argued before the Supreme Court against a retroactive copyright extension. After ten years building a powerful movement for copyright reform, he recently announced a shift in focus to a broader look at the sort of legal corruption our campaign finance system allows.

If you want to show that it can be a different way, there is a “Draft Lessig” movement, a Facebook group and you can donate to the campaign through Act Blue. If he decides not to run, the money raised will be donated to Creative Commons, a group Lessig founded that uses copyright to create a more open society and encourage sharing of ideas and content. TfK is published under a Creative Commons license.

Having Lessig in Congress would be marvelous. There was a time when Congress was the place where great minds and great speakers went to hash out the great challenges of the modern day. Somewhere, that debate moved out of Congress. The issues are still there, and the nation would be stronger if more of our great minds would take a few years and serve the public good by tangling with the tough details of turning principle in practice. Lessig’s campaign has a chance to make real change, and his presence at the seat of power will make this a better and stronger nation.


  1. #1 McDawg
    February 21, 2008

    Neat post Josh.

    I think you’re the first SciBling to blog about this development.

    I too think that he will indeed run and let’s see what he has to say when he makes his (decision) announcement on 1st March…

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