Harvard Professor Leaves Ivory Tower to Fight Money in Politics

For our generation -- the so-called millennials -- dark money is a uniting issue. Policy Mic says that our generation thinks of the political system as being "Corrupt, Fucked, and Broken." These were the words that came up most frequently in a poll of 666 millennials who were asked to describe the political system with one word. That's why one Harvard professor is considering leaving the ivory tower to pursue a career in politics -- and root out money and corruption from politics.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Professor who has long been a champion of campaign finance reform, announced Tuesday that he is exploring a presidential run. His goal: to pass the Citizen Equality Act, which would reform campaign finance laws and restore power to the American people, and then step down, allowing his Vice President to assume the presidency.

Lessig is a long-time campaign finance reform activist. After the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which ruled that third-party groups like SuperPACs could raise unlimited funds to support political candidates, Lessig blasted the decision as depriving the American people of their role in the political process. Now, his goal is to galvanize the American people around the issue of money in politics and fix campaign finance once and for all.

In a video released by his exploratory campaign, he calls himself a candidate of circumstance, not choice. He says he would step down if another candidate were willing to take up the cause of campaign finance reform and fight for the referendum he demands. Ironically acknowledging the importance of money in politics, Lessig has said he will only enter the race if he can crowd fund a million dollars by Labor Day.

The Harvard Professor likens his candidacy to that of Eugene McCarthy, who turned the Vietnam War into the central issue of the 1968. Today, 80 percent of Americans say there's too much money in politics but less than 1 percent say that it is the most important issue they consider when voting. The result is that Congress has not moved the dial on reform.

This is not the first time Lessig has taken aim at the role of money in politics. In an article for the Boston Review, he likened Washington to an alcoholic mother, addicted to campaign donations.

"As with an alcoholic mother trying to care for her children, that conflicting dependency does not change the good intentions of members of Congress--they still want to serve the public interest they thought themselves elected to serve," he wrote. "But as with an alcoholic mother trying to care for her children, that conflicting dependency distracts members from their good intentions, directing their focus more and more toward the challenge of raising money."

Lessig argues that this dependency corruption is just as much of a danger to American democracy as the quid pro quo corruption that the Supreme Court has railed against in the past -- and will be a key issue for the next generation of American voters.

Millennials agree: the single biggest criticism of Washington for the thousands of millennials we've spoken with is that it doesn't represent them; it represents the rich.

"The government is run by monied interests. Corporate lobbying groups don't care about the broad welfare of America, and prioritize policy that benefits only their bottom-line," Mic's Tom Mckay reports. "Some of the biggest corporations in America -- GE, Verizon, Boeing, Honeywell and Wells Fargo -- spend more on lobbying than they do on federal income taxes." Washington has been bought.

And the impact of money in politics is devastating. Retired Supreme Court Justice O'Conner warned that as a result of Citizens United "the problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections will get considerably worse and quite soon."

O'Conner was right. Super PAC spending soared by 427 percent in 2010 after the Citizens United ruling and 50 percent of this new cash came from the top 10 donors. A full 78 percent of outside spending in the 2012 election was due to the "Citizens' United effect." The Wall Street Journal, in a detailed analysis of Federal Election Commission data, found that in 2012 a total of 266 super PACs pumped $546.5 million dollars into elections, impacting the outcomes of 354 Congressional and Senate Races.

The direct impact of this money, on the local, state and federal level is a chance to buy elections. "The real danger," wrote academics at the University of Sydney in their study on the effects of Citizens United, "is that unlimited corporate spending will buy hundreds or even thousands of less--publicized elections for state and local offices." The danger is even worse in local judicial elections. Corporations, unions and other special interests believe that the most efficient way to buy influence is to control the bench: as an Ohio union official put it, "We figured out a long time ago that it's easier to elect seven judges than 132 legislators."

Americans are pissed off. 80% of Americans believe that SuperPACS should not be able to make unlimited donations to political campaigns, with 65 percent of respondents "strongly opposed" to the Citizens United decision, including three quarters of Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

Let's hope Lessig can raise the profile of a debate that has been silent for far too long.