Larry Lessig: I’m All In

The Democratic presidential candidate explains why his campaign for a “referendum presidency” hasn’t gotten the traction he had hoped for—and how he plans to change that.

Jim Cole / AP

I had an idea. It proved right. It proved wrong. Can I act on the right bit, despite the wrong?

In July, I decided to try something that no one else had done: to launch a campaign for a “referendum president,” focused on ending the system of corruption that has crippled our government. Whether it’s a minimum wage that’s a living wage, or making social security secure, or assuring clean air and safe water, or taking on Wall Street, or health-care reform that would make health insurance affordable—none of these issues, or any other important issue, can be addressed sensibly in America until we fix this corruption, first.

This corruption has a cause. Its cause is inequality. Not the inequality of wealth—though that is made more extreme by the inequality I mean. Instead, the inequality of citizens. Americans have allowed an extraordinary inequality among citizens to grow within our so-called “representative democracy.” The consequence is a “democracy” ripe for capture by cronies and worse, while unresponsive to average voters. Corruption is the disease. Equality is the cure. My campaign would be a referendum demanding the changes that would restore citizen equality, so as to crack the corruption that has crippled our Congress and hence our government.

The idea of a “referendum president” has three parts:

  1. First, it is focused on the need to fix our democracy first—to take it back from the billionaires and corporations, so we’d have a chance of addressing sensibly the host of critical problems that we face as a nation.
  1. Second, it would be led by a political outsider, someone we could trust who was not tied to the system, and was thus free to change it.
  1. And third, it would be self-limiting: Once the reform was enacted, the referendum president would step down.

On August 11, I launched an exploratory committee, promising I’d enter the race if we raised $1 million in commitments in less than 30 days. We crossed that line early, with more than 10,000 donations. On September 9, I entered the race at an event in Claremont, New Hampshire. Immediately after, I began campaigning across New Hampshire and the country.

But from the start, the idea hit a wall—or at least part of the idea did. People understood the corruption bit; they were willing to assume the reform would fix it. But they didn’t get the resigning bit. It caught people’s attention, and the attention of hundreds of media outlets. But it weakened the credibility of the campaign. Was I really trying to be president? Or was I just trying to make a point?

The Democratic Party took advantage of this skepticism. And fueled it. It refused to acknowledge me as a candidate in the way it had with the other five. That led pollsters to exclude me from their polls. That led the media to drop me from their stories. Granted, it was a busy news month, with All Donald All The Time. But the result was almost no national media focused on a campaign that was actually more viable than that of at least two of the other Democratic candidates, and which featured a platform that was different from those of every other candidate.

The resignation idea was mine, so naturally, I resisted the skepticism. But I was wrong to resist it. And just how wrong was shown to me in the first poll we could run after our campaign was funded.

In a 1,008-person survey about the idea of a referendum presidency, Drew Westen, perhaps the Democrats’ most influential messaging guru, tested both the idea of a campaign focused on fixing our democracy first, and the idea of a president resigning once that work was done.

The resignation idea was a total bust. No one liked it. At all.

But the idea of an outsider making fundamental reform the central issue of the campaign blew the race apart.

After a careful description of the idea, and me, the poll found that my support didn’t just increase. It dominated the field. And while the survey was not designed to test the ultimate strength of one candidate against the other—so the (insanely high) numbers it found supporting me can’t be read as a measure of actual predicted support—the survey did show the astonishing potential for such a campaign in America today. This fundamental issue, properly presented, totally changed the race.

This fact presents me with a difficult decision.

Had Westen’s survey shown that both ideas were a flop—the idea of a reform campaign, and the idea of resigning once reform was passed—then it would be back to the drawing board, and home to my family.

Had the survey shown that both ideas were winners, then I would power on, more disciplined about controlling the message, but reinforced in the truth of the ultimate plan.

But what’s the right thing to do when the substance of the idea is confirmed, but its implementing strategy rejected? Is there a way back from the commitment to both?

(Cue Lyle Lovett, from “Here I am”:


I understand too little too late

I realize there are things you say and do

You can never take back

But what would you be if you didn’t even try

You have to try

So after a lot of thought

I’d like to reconsider


If it’s not too late

Make it a cheeseburger.

Okay, the last line doesn’t quite work. But the rest was written for this story.)

America gave birth to the idea of a representative democracy. We don’t have one now. And all the promises about what the next Democratic administration will do don’t mean squat diddly if we don’t fix that fact. Now.

America needs a President who will do that. We need a candidate who will lead the nation in an election that makes restoring democracy its first goal. Not because the policies being promised by the Democratic candidates aren’t important. Of course they are important. They are the most important reasons why the Democrats must win. But restoring our democracy must come first if any of those promises is to be even plausible.

None of the other candidates in the Democratic primary have made this reform their priority. Some have pointed to the problem. Some have a partial fix buried in their platform. Yet none are building a campaign that promises reform on day one, or that explains what fixing this democracy would take, or how it is even possible.

That makes sense—for a politician. The data show that from a politician, the message of reform isn’t effective. People don’t believe it. For a politician, the better strategy is to promise the moon—ignoring the truth that the rocket can’t get off the ground.

But I am not constrained in the way the politicians are. Westen’s data shows that. And so if you believe as I do that restoring our democracy is the most important challenge before us—the thing we must do if we’re to do anything else—then it’s time to swallow pride, and follow the data.

If the Democrats won’t take seriously a candidate with a viable, credible, and professionally managed campaign just because it includes a promise to step aside once the work is done, then fine. You win. I drop that promise.

I am running for president. I am running with the purpose of restoring this democracy. I will make that objective primary. I will do everything possible to make it happen first, by working with Congress to pass fundamental reform first.

After we pass that reform, I will remain as president to make sure the reforms stick. I will work with Congress to assure they are implemented. I will defend them against legislative or legal attack.

But beyond that priority, I would do everything else a president must do, too. Which means I bear the burden in this campaign of convincing America I could do that well. Like every other candidate, I will outline my position on the policies that I would press, once reform is achieved. In every relevant way, my campaign will be like every other campaign—except mine will place democracy first.

This change now sharpens the difference between our campaign and the others. Now the strongest contrast in substance is the priority that I give to democratic reform. This difference should then press an obvious question for every other candidate: How do you expect to achieve what you are promising without this reform? And if you believe this reform is necessary, then why isn’t it your first priority?

We cannot, as a people, waste any more time. We need a Congress responsive to the people. We need a government that works. The politicians have been promising us this for decades. It’s time we recognize they can’t do it. We must. And through our campaign, we will.