Why I Want to Run
August 11, 2015
Today I announced the formation of a committee to explore my entering the Democratic Primary for President. By Labor Day, I will decide whether a run makes sense.
I want to run. But I want to run to be a different kind of president. “Different” not in the traditional political puffery sense of that term. “Different,” quite literally. I want to run to build a mandate for the fundamental change that our democracy desperately needs. Once that is passed, I would resign, and the elected Vice President would become President.
This is the Presidency as referendum.
Our constitution, unlike some states, doesn’t give us a referendum power directly. This hack adds one in. Almost never would it be necessary — in a well-functioning democracy. But when a democracy has lost the capacity to act as a democracy, a referendum president is a peaceful means to force a change that Congress is otherwise not going to make. When the system has become the problem, we need an intervention from the outside.
We are at one of those moments now. In no plausible sense do we have a representative democracy in America today. That fact shows itself in a thousand ways — from #BlackLivesMatter to billion dollar SuperPACs, and none more profound than the deep sense that most Americans have that their government is not theirs. “The system,” as Elizabeth Warren puts it, “is rigged.” And the fundamental challenge for our democracy today is to find a way to fix that rigged system.
Yet while every major candidate in the Democratic Primary has acknowledged this truth, none of them have waged a campaign that would produce a mandate powerful enough to fix it. They all offer a take-out menu of bold ideas — from climate change legislation to tackling Wall Street, from student debt relief to equalizing the wealth in America — but not one has offered a plan for fundamental reform that could actually unite a divided America, and give us back a democracy that might work.
This is true of even the greatest candidate in this race so far, Bernie Sanders. Sanders is a rare hero among politicians. Throughout his career, he has been unwavering in his advocacy for the issues he believes in, however unpopular. There isn’t a triangulating bone in his body. And as people have come to know him and his history, they are inspired by a man who has stuck by his principles and whose principles are now more relevant and true than ever. The picture of 28,000 people showing up to a rally more than a year before an election is the picture of hope for a democracy.
Yet what should be obvious to everyone — or at least the 82% of Americans who believe “the system is rigged” — is that none of these incredible reforms is possible until we un-rig the rigged system first. We’ve lived through “change you can believe in.” What we need now is a reason to believe in change.
A referendum can be that reason. And the campaign for a referendum president could unite America behind a principle that would make democracy possible again.
That principle is a demand for equality. Not the equality of wealth, though I share Sanders’ view about the harm wealth inequality has done. And not an equality of speech. The First Amendment must mean at least this. But an equality of citizens. The right that all of us have in a representative democracy to be represented equally.
That right has been violated in America today — and brazenly so. In the way campaigns are funded, in the way the poor and overworked are denied an equal freedom to vote, and in the way whole sections of American voters get written into oblivion by politically gerrymandered districts that assure their views are not represented, we have allowed the politicians to cheat us of the most fundamental commitment of a democracy: equal citizens. And until we find a way to create a mandate to demand equality for citizens, we will never find a way to make real change possible.
A regular candidate for president — even an extraordinary one, as Sanders is — cannot achieve that mandate. His or her mandate is always divided among the 8 or 10 issues at the core of their campaign. The lobbyists and politicians will always have an excuse to defeat their call for reform in the wake of a campaign in which reform is literally the last issue on the list.
A referendum president is a chance to achieve a mandate to restore this principle of political equality. It is a chance to create the political power that would be necessary to force a reluctant Congress to make the changes that equality demands. And if the movement to support this referendum grew powerful enough, as candidates for Congress get called upon to support the Citizen Equality Referendum, then conceivably, the term of the referendum president could be quite short. And once the reform is passed, the elected Vice President, whether Hillary, or Bernie, or Joe, or someone else, would become President — with a chance to actually do something in a Washington that has been remade.
I recognize, of course, how implausible this idea seems — even though every step in the argument is almost certain. The system is rigged. Sensible change cannot happen until it is unrigged. Any campaign that makes un-rigging just one issue among many cannot achieve the mandate fundamental reform will require. Yes, the idea may seem implausible. Yet the idea is right. And as I have come to recognize this simple fact, I have struggled with whether I could act on what I honestly believe.
I have tried to recruit others more plausible than yet another middle aged white guy (without a billion dollars). And I would gladly step aside if someone better known credibly committed to the run. But until someone does, I want a chance to press the easiest case possible: something we all already believe, with a plan that at least most might imagine could work.
So today we’ve launched a kickstarter-like campaign, to raise the funds necessary to make a run plausible. If we hit our target of $1 million by Labor Day, then I will give this run every ounce of my energy. If we don’t hit our target, we will return the money contingently pledged. I won’t take anyone’s money unless there’s a campaign to be waged. But I passionately want a chance to wage that campaign.
Because in the end, this fight is not either/or. At most, if this works, it would delay the start of the next extraordinary president’s administration — whether Bernie, or Hillary, or someone else.
Our goal is to place at the center of this primary the most important moral issue of our time — achieving the equality that a democracy demands — so we can finally build the society that we were promised: one where citizens are equal, and where none could imagine the need to assert the most basic truth of any society — that their lives mattered any less than any one else.
We are better than this. And if we muster the strength to undo the corruption that the politicians have allowed, the greatness of America will be reflected in its government too. It once was. When we are finally equal citizens, it will again.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com.
Visit the campaign at lessig2016.us.