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by A. F.

This chapter is a free excerpt from Lawrence Lessig: A Biography.

When Representative Tom Lantos died in California in 2008, Lessig’s admirers pushed him to run for his seat in a Draft Lessig movement. Although Lessig raised more than $60,000 in just two weeks before deciding not to run, he realized that there was no way to change the corruption of the system while living within the system.

Lessig spent $30,000 on an exploratory poll to see if running was a real possibility. Although his work had changed society immeasurably, Lessig had no name recognition among voters.

Nonetheless, Lessig’s career in reform work progressed. He launched a Change Congress movement in 2008, acknowledging that changing Congress would be “the hardest political challenge” facing the nation. The following few years saw a dramatic increase in public interest in government reformationa.


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When Representative Tom Lantos died in California in 2008, Lessig’s admirers pushed him to run for his seat in a Draft Lessig movement. Although Lessig raised more than $60,000 in just two weeks before deciding not to run, he realized that there was no way to change the corruption of the system while living within the system.

Lessig spent $30,000 on an exploratory poll to see if running was a real possibility. Although his work had changed society immeasurably, Lessig had no name recognition among voters.

Nonetheless, Lessig’s career in reform work progressed. He launched a Change Congress movement in 2008, acknowledging that changing Congress would be “the hardest political challenge” facing the nation. The following few years saw a dramatic increase in public interest in government reformationa.

In January 2010, the Supreme Court considered Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case that ruled on the issue of whether Congress has the power to limit corporations in their political speech independent of a campaign. The Court held that Congress had no such power to limit corporate speech due to the First Amendment.

Two years later, Lessig commented:

“Democracy was already broken in 2010 [when Citizens United was decided] because the tiniest slice of Americans, .26 percent, funds more than $200 in a Congressional campaign. .05 percent max out in a Congressional campaign. The tiniest slice of the top 1 percent funds elections in America and that reality, whether corporations are persons or not, will corrupt Washington.”

Lessig calls for an amendment that pushes for public funding and limits independent expenditures.

In Republic, Lost, Lessig outlines a proposal called the Grant and Franklin Project. In the Grant and Franklin Project, the first $50 that anyone pays in taxes is submitted to a pool for distribution to congressional candidates in exchange for a voucher that the individual taxpayer can distribute to his or her candidates of choice in addition to a limited cash contribution. In order to participate, candidates must opt-in to the system and opt out of receiving any outside funding.

Although Lessig proposes four possible strategies for creating the system, it’s his fourth that commentators like The Atlantic Monthly seem to take most seriously: a Constitutional Convention. Generally, Congress proposes amendments to the Constitution and then the states ratify these amendments. However, under the Constitution, another way to pass an amendment is for states to ask Congress to call a Constitutional Convention that can propose an amendment for reform. The only Constitutional Convention that has ever occurred in the United States was the one that brought our existing Constitution into being.

Early in fall 2011, around 400 people gathered at Harvard University to talk about key issues at the Conference on the Constitutional Convention. While consensus was not reached, Lessig believed that most attendees “even those from some pretty austere and established institutions including the Goldwater Institute” wanted to keep exploring the idea.

While tackling IP reform, Lessig operated on the principle that if the parties discussed the issue without talking about money, they would be able to reach a suitable resolution. His approach to governmental reform is similar, but broader; he believes that stakeholders will be able to reach agreement, if they discuss the issues without focusing on their financial concerns. However, critics of his efforts emphasized the fact that the diverse group at the Conference failed to agree upon even one agenda item about which to seek a Constitutional Convention. Specifically, Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler told The New American Magazine, “We have different ideas of how to fix our problems... I have a fundamental disagreement with what I saw.”

President Obama also spoke out strongly against the Citizens United ruling. And at the end of Obama’s first term, Lessig has expressed extreme disappointment with the sum of his presidential decisions so far, particularly those related to ethics in government. On February 5, 2012, Lessig wrote at Salon Magazine,

“While there is a strong division among Americans about whether any one group should be silenced, there is overwhelming support for the idea of limiting the role of independent expenditures in political campaigns. The president needs to appeal to this cross-partisan outsiders movement. He needs to inspire them to dream about the real reform that they could make possible.”

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