Professor-in-Chief: Was Larry Lessig’s Presidential Campaign Destined to Fail?
Larry Lessig wanted Americans to “Feel the Nerd” in 2016. At least that’s what the coffee mugs and laptop stickers for sale on his campaign website declared, bearing a cartoonish drawing of Lessig’s face complete with round glasses and a crisp white shirt alongside the motto.
Lessig’s campaign merchandise captured a bold image. But did Americans really want to elect a Harvard Law professor, a certified “nerd” by anyone’s standards, to the presidency? For Lessig, it wasn’t something Americans necessarily should want–it was something that they needed in order to fix an electoral system hopelessly corrupted, in his view, by moneyed interests, gerrymandering, and barriers to voting access. Yet by early November, Lessig’s campaign was over.
As an academic whose work over the past years has focused almost exclusively on electoral reform and the citizen inequality, which he asserts is the root of all other inequities, Lessig appears as the ultimate outsider. In the last election cycle, he jumped into the political process by founding Mayday PAC, described as the “SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs,” which tried to support candidates who prioritized campaign finance reform. He failed miserably. The launch of his presidential campaign heralded a bolder approach: changing the system from the top.
On one hand, Lessig’s talk of a “rigged” electoral system and broken Washington seemed to fit right in with the anti-establishment rhetoric characterizing this election cycle. However, Lessig’s brand of politics is different from the fiery speeches often heard at Iowa campaign stops this time of year. His speeches over the past year seem more like TED Talks, with Lessig delivering his fast-moving case for electoral reform backed up with charts and an air of authority.
Lessig’s plan to reform the electoral system seemed simple. If elected, his first priority would have been to pass the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 – a landmark piece of legislation bundling a variety of campaign reforms, including automatically registering voters and giving vouchers for all citizens to donate to federal candidates. Lessig would have then stepped down and retreated from public life having “saved” American democracy, leaving the day-to-day running of the country to his vice president, who would have been chosen to represent the platform of today’s Democratic party.
For those who agree that the influence of money in electoral politics has grown to a dangerous level, Lessig’s targeted approach seemed attractive. Thania Sanchez, an assistant professor of political science teaching international law at Yale, admired Lessig’s bold solution to an issue that politicians have been unable to address.
“Some of the reasons why this came about are really hard to deal with, like Citizens United,” says Sanchez, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave an official stamp of approval to Super PACs. “I think that’s probably why [Lessig] and other people think we need a president that’s going to tackle this in other ways, because it legally allows for so much money to be part of politics.”
The campaign got off to a fast start, successfully bringing in the one million dollars Lessig said he would need to raise before throwing his hat in the ring. Yet even after Lessig backtracked on his promise to resign and announced that he would govern as a conventional president in order to draw support from those who found the idea of a “referendum president” too hard to swallow, the move failed to save the campaign. Most polls did not include Lessig as a candidate, and those that did had him hovering around one percent. His numbers sidelined him during the first Democratic debate, the best opportunity for a candidate to introduce himself to millions of viewers. The entire Democratic Party, as Lessig lamented in a video announcing the end of his campaign on November 2nd, had “changed the rules” in a way that appeared bent on squashing any chance of a Lessig candidacy.
Emaline Kelso ’17, cofounder of Yale Students for Bernie, a group backing Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, believed that even politically active students invested in electoral reform didn’t get excited about Lessig.
“I only heard about him in brief and mostly in jest. I don’t think people took him very seriously.” she recounted.
In an election cycle in which even Donald Trump, the crude and irascible real estate mogul dominating coverage of the Republican campaign, is considered serious competition, Lessig’s call to action was quickly dismissed by both party elites and the media. Is teaching and researching in the classrooms of the Ivy League on the issues that affect the United States not a legitimate preparation for political leadership?
Electoral politics and academia certainly can intersect, and Lessig wouldn’t be forging an entirely new path. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 320 university professors have served in Congress since 1774. A few presidents began their careers as professors, including Woodrow Wilson, who launched his campaign in 1912 after many years teaching at Princeton, including a tenure as the university’s president.
Professor Eitan Hersh, who researches U.S. elections, campaign strategy, and voting behavior at Yale, doesn’t think that professors face an electability problem in today’s political climate.
“One of the most popular politicians in America today is Elizabeth Warren, who is a professor,” he said of the current Democratic senator from Massachusetts. “I think that if Elizabeth Warren decided to run for president, as many people hoped, she would be a very prominent candidate. Of course professors can [run and do well], if the right person chooses to run with the right experience.”
Warren, who was a colleague of Lessig’s at Harvard Law before successfully defeating the Republican incumbent Scott Brown in 2012, benefitted from her experience chairing the Congressional Oversight Panel established to oversee the TARP program. Having made a name for herself as a Wall Street watchdog, she ran as a champion of the people, a politician who could use her background to fight for everyday Americans.
That didn’t stop Republican incumbent Senator Scott Brown from taking a swipe at Warren’s academic credentials during one of their debates. Responding to Warren, who had laid out his congressional voting record and attacked his “lock-step” unity with the national Republican party, Brown delivered a soundbyte reprinted in headlines next morning throughout the country: “I’m not a student in your classroom.” The interjection reflected an underlying narrative that Brown wove throughout the contentious campaign – that “Professor” Warren’s line of work disqualified her from serving as an effective political leader. Senator Brown’s comments recalled the chant made popular by Pink Floyd: “Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone.”
Warren managed to overcome the notion that academics in politics are out of touch with everyday Americans’ concerns, something that plagued President Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago before entering national politics, on the campaign trail and even into his presidency. At the inaugural National Tea Party Convention in 2010, Sarah Palin railed against the new president’s academic credentials and suggested that they made him incapable of holding the nation’s highest office.
“They know we’re at war, and to win that war we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern,” she told an enthusiastic crowd.
“There is a bit of an anti-intellectualism culture in the United States,” explained Sanchez. “The likely Republican voters who like people like Trump or Carson like them because they think they’re more like themselves. Academics usually don’t pass the ‘this is a guy I’d want to have a beer with’ test.” And it’s certainly difficult to imagine having a beer with Larry Lessig.
The distrust of academia in American politics is not new. William Frank Buckley, Jr., who graduated from Yale in 1950 and quickly rose to prominence as one of the most articulate voices in the conservative movement, was sharply critical of the homogeneously liberal attitudes cultivated at Yale and other universities – and feared what that meant for the nation’s political future. Buckley famously declared that he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”
It’s this anti-intellectualism that seems to have stopped Lessig’s campaign before it even began. Although President Obama and Senator Warren managed to sell their time at the lectern as part of a larger narrative of service and pointed to past political activity, Lessig could not.
Of course, Lessig’s campaign had deeper issues than the difficulty of running on an academic record in a political environment that distrusts academia. Though Sanchez agreed that though Lessig’s concerns are important, the campaign’s initial insistence on one issue made it unfeasible.
“I think this is the moment when you realize that as an academic, with some of the things that we think are really important and needed, the realities of how you get there get really complicated,” she said.
Lessig failed to consolidate support even in the world of academia, where many such as Hersh remain skeptical of his conclusions and methods.
“I think that [Lessig’s] view is wrong. It’s mostly articulated to drum up the liberal base but the empirical evidence shows that there is no relationship between outside spending and a candidate’s electoral prospects,” Hersh pointed out. “Everything he says about politics is completely off the wall. He’s so far off his area of expertise that it’s a little embarrassing.”
It also didn’t help that the cornerstone of Lessig’s campaign – electoral reform – wasn’t a particularly exciting or relatable issue for many Americans.
“I think that people don’t find campaign finance reform as universally sexy [as other issues],” Kelso shared. And unlike Warren and other successful politician-academics, Lessig wasn’t able to change his language to lend such “sex appeal” to complicated problems.
Kelso thought that even if Lessig had more media coverage, she doubts that he would have polled higher.
“I don’t think it was a particularly intelligent campaign,” she said. Nevertheless, the issues that Lessig would have brought into the arena made his short-lived campaign a disappointment.
“I do think it’s a shame that the media didn’t take it more seriously because I think it’s something that people could have talked about more, and I would have loved to see him pushing the other candidates on this issue,” she added.
Lessig’s national electoral prospects appear to be over. While he hasn’t ruled out a run as an independent in the general election, there is no indication that he would fare any better. Yet in an age where national elections are charged with sensation and spectacle, perhaps politics isn’t the best place for an academic to advance a national conversation.
In Sanchez’s view, today’s strenuous campaign trail doesn’t make it a great avenue for a campaign to purely push thought.
“You’re basically on the phone all the time,” lamented Sanchez of the demanding dependence on fundraising, the aspect of campaigning that Lessig ironically seeks to change. “I think a lot of academics know that there are so many others ways to help make or change policy. They become academics for a reason.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to tell what comes now for Lessig, who rejects the notion that professors should just remain at the lectern. Even though academics like him tend to sink rather than swim in today’s media and money-driven political system, Lessig’s provocative track record of thinking big and taking long-shot risks to address huge systemic problems challenges how we view political institutions – and who participates in them. His Mayday PAC is still in action, even if it seems far away from its ultimate goal of electing a congress capable of passing sweeping reforms. And with a time-sucking campaign behind him, who knows what out-of-the-box, unfeasible yet imaginative political venture Lessig will embark on next.