Why you should care
Because the road to political irrelevance is paved with good intentions.
Remember how The Hunger Games would honor its fallen tributes? In this occasional series, OZY predicts which presidential candidates will be the next to fall — whether they know it or not.
Fix democracy first. That’s your pitch, Professor Lessig. And you have a bold plan to do so if elected president. But first you had to enter the race, and you gave yourself until Labor Day to raise $1 million before you’d officially contend for the Democratic nomination. Congratulations! Your Kickstarter-like campaign cleared that goal over the weekend. Savor the experience; it’s likely to be the last real victory you taste for some time.
So, let’s review your mild-mannered plan to kick-start democracy and purge the land of corruption and political inequality. Your sole mission if elected president, you say, is to convince Congress to enact a single piece of legislation, the Citizen Equality Act, which would include provisions to enhance equal representation (by ending political gerrymandering), strengthen the right to vote (through automatic registration) and create citizen-funded elections (by giving voters vouchers for campaign contributions). Then, you claim, you will pull out once the job is finished and, like some sort of presidential praying mantis, offer up your office as a postcoital treat for your running mate and party progeny.
What happens when you run into a hostile Congress that has fed for years from the hand of the system you’re trying to destroy?
It’s true, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren — once a Harvard law professor like yourself — puts it, that we live in a realm of “fantasy politics” in America right now. This is where we delude ourselves into thinking that candidates from either party can deliver on their promises within such a “rigged system.” So why should we believe that even you, a “referendum candidate” schooled in the intricacies of constitutional law and campaign finance, can deliver on yours? You just can’t trump one fantasy with another, unless perhaps that fantasy’s name happens to be Trump.
So now you’re going to hit the campaign trail. What then? Well, first you need to crack the 1 percent level in three national polls just to get into the debates. Most of your Democratic competitors already support key planks of your Citizen Equality Act (which would most likely benefit Democrats), though they’re not single-issue candidates the way you are. As a result, they’ll have way more to talk about at the debates. You? Your own website declares your position on other issues “not relevant” and suggests you’ll basically punt them to your vice president — though, of course, you won’t even have a nominee during the primaries.
And even if you make your way to the White House, what happens when you run into a hostile Congress whose members have fed for years from the hand of the very system you are trying to destroy? You do have some street cred with libertarians and conservatives — you once clerked for Justice Scalia, after all — but do you really think that seasoned GOP leaders in Congress like Mitch McConnell will cede an inch to a Democratic president elected with a “mandate” for change? (We may never know; your campaign’s PR team didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
At best, you may get incremental reform after months of haggling; at worst, the reforms will be deep-sixed and you’ll serve out the remainder of your term as a punching bag for the right, portrayed as an ivory tower egghead whose knowledge of copyright law can’t keep the country safe. You’ve responded to all of the haters, though, and acknowledged that your strategy won’t be easy. “However ‘absurd’ my idea may be, the ultimate question is this: If not this plan, then what plan?” you recently wrote in the Huffington Post.
Fair enough, and I get it — sometimes you have to win the game to change the rules. But this is America and, as the Summer of Trump proves yet again, we love the game and our fantasy politicians (even if we despise the real ones). And, let’s face it, most of us don’t know the rules, nor do we want to start learning them now.
Democracy must, in the end, fix itself, and that’s not to discount your motives or your ideas. But it is to discount you. Your campaign may just be beginning, but it’s hard to imagine it ending well. A hymn to the fallen for Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard. May the odds be ever in your favor, even when the voters aren’t.