Larry, No

Why is Lawrence Lessig, an important early-internet icon, going full Nader?

Lawrence Lessig speaks at Stanford University in 2008. (Robert Scoble / Flickr)

For a time, Lawrence Lessig wasn’t just a famous law professor at Harvard University. He was the Internet’s lawyer.

Lessig, who is an occasional contributor to The Atlantic, wrote important books about software and policy like Code Is Law. He fought against our costly, troubled copyright system, both in his scholarship and before the Supreme Court. And he founded Creative Commons, a legally innovative license now sprinkled across more than 1 billion web pages.

A character named Larry Lessig even appeared on The West Wing once, portrayed by Christopher Lloyd. Imagine being so indispensable that only Doc Literal Brown can do you justice.

Now, Lessig is running for president of the United States as a Democrat. He’s gone full Nader.

He calls himself a “referendum candidate.” He has an unusual platform. On his first day in office, he will propose his signature legislation, the Citizens Equality Act of 2017, to Congress. He will fight to get it passed. Then, upon signing it into law, he will immediately resign—and Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or whichever famous progressive he chooses as his running mate will continue in the White House in his stead. On MSNBC on Tuesday, Lessig only semi-jokingly described the the plan as “Frodo-like.”

Indeed, this is a strange, fantastic campaign, in the same sense as fantastical. And there’s increasingly a sense among people who work in technology and politics that we’ve lost Larry.

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The Citizens Equality Act would introduce a lot of welcome reforms. It would impose universal voting registration and move Election Day to a national holiday, so that many more people could get to the polls. It would make gerrymandering much more difficult and convert Congressional elections to instant-runoff-style. And it would take various steps to keep “dark money” out of politics, counteracting the Supreme Court’s recent and infamous campaign-finance rulings.

Lessig has a page devoted to all these wonderful reforms on his website. Many of them are excellent policies! The United States would, I believe, would be a more lively, hopeful, and functional nation if they became the law of the land. Partisanship might decrease; budgets might even get passed. At the very least, our elected representatives wouldn’t have to spend more than half of their waking hours kowtowing to donors.

But the Citizens Equality Act will never become the law of the land, nor will we see a President Lessig sign it. I don’t say that because I’m hopeless about the state of money in politics. I say that because a “referendum presidency” is a self-defeating concept: It takes the familiar concept of a single-issue candidacy and drives it to parody. Politics is too complicated, too messy and unpredictable, for a referendum presidency to ever work—and voters know that.

Let’s run some scenarios. What happens if Lessig takes the White House but Republicans win Congress? What if he proposes his Citizens Equality Act but can’t get it passed? And what if there’s some foreign-policy crisis or economic crash in December 2016: Will President Lessig carefully put that aside while he focuses on enacting his precious bill?

Surely you can imagine some provisional answers: “Well, President Lessig would probably let his vice president manage the crisis while he focused on passing the Citizens Equality Act.” But the ludicrousness of that scenario—“you do this whole global-leadership thing, I’ve got a bill to pass”—underscores the silliness of the whole plan.

I’m going to sound like the kind of D.C. writer who has a little TV in their bathroom that plays The West Wing on loop, but, like, let’s remember how republics work. Political power, especially for someone who needs the legislative branch to do something, requires compromise, and compromise requires horse-trading, perseverance, and sacrifice. As a one-issue president, Lessig will have little with which to wheel and deal. He won’t be able to put the new Space Shuttle factory in Texas or divert some desperately needed transportation resources to Nebraska, all to get his big law passed. He’ll just have his one, precious bill. A “referendum president” would be a lame-duck president on his first day.

I can imagine understanding Lessig’s candidacy not as a firm policy proposal but as a provocation, as a statement about How Bad Things Have Gotten. When Lessig speaks, you can hear the urgency and anxiety in his voice. But by running for president, he’s still made an issue that unites 84 percent of Americans into one about him, his resume, and his skills as a communicator.

Lessig’s previous plan to reduce money in politics was a “super PAC to end all super PACs” called Mayday PAC. It raised $10 million in 2014 to endorse a set of Congressional candidates whose only commonality was that they supported reducing the influence of money in politics. It proceeded to lose all but one race, its sole winning candidate a long-time Republican in a comfortably GOP district. A haughty Politico story afterward quoted an unnamed Democrat who said Mayday PAC’s radio ads—which prominently featured Lessig voice-over—“may be the worst political ads I’ve ever seen or heard."

In his current run, Lessig has raised more than $1 million toward his goal from 10,000 donors. That’s more than many other Democratic candidates, though it pales in comparison with Clinton and Sanders. He wants the DNC to officially recognize his candidacy. He’s even improved as a public speaker, and it wouldn’t surprise me if his campaign received more attention, especially as 2016 budgets balloon.

But it’ll still be about him. Instead of responding to the failure of Mayday PAC by building a long-term campaign to alter the status quo, Lessig has embarked on a singular journey to destroy the one ring. He was once an earnest and respected legal scholar. Can he ever return to that role?