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Coda To A Long-Shot Campaign: What's Next For Lawrence Lessig?

Former Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention on Sept. 19. Lessig has ended his long-shot bid — but he says he's not done fighting for reform.
Scott Eisen
Getty Images
Former Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention on Sept. 19. Lessig has ended his long-shot bid — but he says he's not done fighting for reform.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, jumped into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in September, running on a platform focused on getting big money out of politics.

Since he declared his candidacy, though, Lessig struggled to get attention from the media and voters, and ultimately couldn't get an invitation to the Democratic debates. By last week, he had decided to end his short-lived campaign.

"Of course, from the beginning, we recognized that this improbable campaign depended on being able to get into the debates," Lessig tells NPR's Michel Martin.

"And when it became clear that the goal posts were moving and we were not going to get into the debates, it made no more sense for me to ask my family or my supporters to continue to make this run possible."

But the end of his campaign does not spell the end of his activism, he says. In an interview with Martin, he explains the philosophy that motivated his presidential bid — and what he hopes to see from other candidates now that it's finished.

Listen to the audio link above to hear the full interview.

Interview Highlights

On the "goal posts" that he says kept moving

We had raised, actually, more than almost half the field — more than five of the Republicans. But the post was, we had to be at 1 percent in three polls. That was what the DNC [Democratic National Committee] said within six weeks of the race. And at the end, the DNC was changing its rules, and then CBS upped it, so it was more than 1 percent. So we couldn't qualify under the new rule, and that's what made it necessary for us to step aside.

On the obstacles that confronted his campaign

I think that the hard thing is that what I wanted to talk about is something that the campaigns generally don't want to talk about, right? So people like Bernie and Hillary are running to be president, and I was running to be president to fix the corrupted and crippled institution at the core of our democracy: Congress.

And you might say, "So why should you elect someone who wants to fix Congress rather than directly be president?" The answer is: Because all the amazing things that Bernie and Hillary are talking about are just not even credible until we address the corrupted, unrepresentative, crippled institution of Congress.

Finding a way to get people to focus on that is really difficult, and especially in a context of three-minute cable news bites. But that's the challenge, and it was enormously rewarding to be able to have this connection with people trying to do it — but obviously not enough to get over the numbers necessary to be in the debates.

On why he has focused so heavily on the issue of campaign finance

Nobody's surprised that it's Congress that is the failed institution in our government. You know, it has a single-digit approval rating. And the reason that it's the failed institution in our democracy is, one, because of the way they fund their campaigns. They spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the one percent. So when they say they're representative, they're not representative of us because they're so concerned about how to raise the money to get back to Congress or to get their party back into power.

And then also their crazy way in which they gerrymander districts, where the politicians pick the voters rather than the voters picking the politicians. It actually produces a Congress that is more polarized, more extreme than we Americans are. So the core problem that, it became clear to me, as I was watching the complete inability of our government to function, is that we've allowed this institution, this representative body in our government, to become deeply unrepresentative.

On whether he sees any candidates addressing this issue

I mean, compared to 2012, where neither candidate wanted to talk about this issue, in this election Republicans and Democrats are talking about this issue. And in the Democratic side, they've actually identified proposals for change that would address this problem.

The problem, though, is that they're not making it clear to the American people that we've got to make these changes first. And they're not explaining how they can actually bring these changes about.

If we don't have a plan where the people believe we're going to make these changes happen, then when they get to Washington and they try to take on the most powerful interests in our government, the most powerful interests in our government will beat back these efforts at reform.

On what's next for him

I'm in this fight until we win. You know, I took this race up recognizing it was a 1 out of a million shot and it was going to be incredibly costly personally and professionally. But the chance to be able to make this issue central was worth it, because I am so convinced that if we don't find a way to get our democracy to face this critical problem, we're not going to get anything out of our government. And we desperately need a government that can actually work.

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