Larry Lessig, Real-Life Capra Star
Larry Lessig, the law professor now running for president, seems to be trying to produce a real-life Frank Capra movie. He hopes to tap into a deep strain in American culture -- the one that defined Capra's work. (Disclosure: Lessig is a colleague of mine at Harvard Law School.)
One of the country's most important film directors, Capra was also the most quintessentially American. Born in Sicily, he came to New York City at the age of five, where he saw "a statue of a great lady, taller than a church steeple, holding a torch above the land we were about to enter." His father called out: "Look at that! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That's the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom."
Capra's best movies focus on the power of goodness and purity. His central opposition is between greed and corruption on the one hand and simple human decency on the other.
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" pits powerful, wealthy interests, accustomed to having their way in the nation's capital, against just one person who insists on taking a stand. Claiming that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for, Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) says that if you really look at the country and its people, you see that "there's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies."
Capra's heroes did not include Ivy League professors, and Larry Lessig isn't exactly Jimmy Stewart. But he's fighting what many people consider to be a lost cause, and it involves graft, greed and lies -- what Lessig calls "corruption," understood as the undue influence of wealthy interests over the political process.
Lessig insists that because of that influence, our democracy is badly broken, and that fixing it must be the first priority. He has just one mission, which is to enact the Citizen Equality Act of 2017. Once he succeeds, he promises to resign, and to hand over the reins to his vice president.
The Citizen Equality Act would guarantee the equal right to vote. It would make voter registration automatic, convert Election Day into a national holiday, and forbid state efforts to prevent people from voting.
To reduce the corrosive role of wealth, the act would move toward "citizen-funded elections": Lessig wants every American voter to get a voucher to contribute to congressional and presidential campaigns. Matching funds would be provided for small contributions. New limits would be imposed on the "revolving door" between government service and work as a lobbyist.
The act would forbid political gerrymandering, through which politicians pick their voters, rather than vice versa. It would also create multimember districts with a system of "ranked choice voting," allowing voters to rank candidates for Congress in order of preference. The theory is that this would give candidates an incentive to campaign with positive messages, in order to earn support from voters who would rank them second or third, if not first.
Life isn't a Frank Capra movie, and it's tempting to be cynical about what Lessig is trying to do. Has any serious presidential candidate ever run on just one issue -- and promised to resign after addressing it?
Lessig's central argument would have been stronger in 2008. In recent years, wealthy interests have lost a lot of battles, on health care, financial regulation, the environment and taxes on the top 1 percent. And it might well be unrealistic to think that, in 2017, Congress will enact some of the most fundamental electoral changes in U.S. history.
Nevertheless, Lessig is right to draw attention to the wide gulf between our aspirations to self-government and our actual practices. Corruption is a strong word, but it is captures the undue influence of those with money to throw around.
Lessig's incipient candidacy may already be having an effect. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton said, "We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political system, and drowning out the voices of too many everyday Americans." She proposed a host of electoral reforms, including matching funds for small donations.
Clinton has championed such reforms for a long time, it's true. But no one should be surprised if Lessig's campaign leads both Democrats and Republicans to give them far more attention.
In a climactic scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Smith's secretary tells him that political heroes have never cared about the "odds against them," that they are "fools that way," and that "all the good that ever came into the world came from fools with faith like that." Larry Lessig is one of those fools.
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