BOB GARFIELD: They call it the Mayday Super PAC. That’s Mayday not as in the holiday but as in the distress call. The emergency is the state of politics in this country, where the Supreme Court says money is speech and, therefore, elections are dominated by the loudest voices. Enter Mayday Super PAC, which intends to raise ungodly sums of money to elect legislators, who will reform the system altogether. Last weekend, just in time for the Independence Day deadline, 50,000 Americans brought Mayday to its initial fundraising goal of $5 million, a sum matched dollar for dollar by yes, big political donors. The founder of Mayday is Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, who says the final hours were touch and go because the American public doesn't necessarily obsess about the corrupting influence of money in politics.
ERICK ERICKSON: Voters don’t care about campaign finance. They never have cared about campaign finance. They didn’t care about McCain-Feingold. They don’t care about Super PACs.
JON RALSTON: People do not care about campaign finance reform. It is not a voting issue.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve seen those polls, and they’re not riled up about it.
BOB GARFIELD: But at least 50,000 people were sufficiently riled up to put Mayday PAC over the top, ponying up half the goal in the last 48 hours before the deadline. So, now that he has the war chest, how to use big money to fight big money? Lawrence Lessig joins me now. Larry, welcome back to On the Media.
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: Great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Gotta begin with the obvious irony. Money buys elections. The law permits it. You want to change the laws, you need to elect friendly members of Congress, so use money to buy elections. [LAUGHING] What is wrong with that picture?
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong because, you know, what we’re doing is using an imperfect system to get a more perfect system, just like, you know, there was a time when only men could vote. Then women pushed men to change that unjust system to make it so men and women could vote, both. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to use the system we’ve got to make a system that people have a reason to believe in again.
Look, there’s no more than 150,000 Americans who are the relevant funders of campaigns. That’s about .05% of America, about the same number of people as are named Lester in the United States.
And what that does is it produces a world where Congress is responsive to the “Lesters” and they’re not responsive to the rest of us. We’ve got to change that, and we can change that if we change the way elections are funded.
BOB GARFIELD: Where did you come up with the “Lester” metric? [LAUGHS]
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: My first name is Lester too, so I just happened to know many Lesters there were in the United States [LAUGHS]. The internet told me that. And then when I saw the number of relevant funders, it clicked. The United States is Lesterland. That’s a fundamental problem with the way we elect people in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: This is not a hot button issue for most Americans. Why should it be?
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: It’s not a hot button issue because most Americans don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. But that produces this politics of resignation. People just kind of accept the status quo, even though they really radically would love to see a different status quo. But, if you can give them a plan, a way to see how we could change the influence of money in politics, we think they’ll rally to it.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s the plan?
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, right now in 2014, we’re gonna run in five races to demonstrate the thing that people in Washington don’t believe, which is that Americans care about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and they want to do something about it. And when we run in those five races and move the dial and win in as many as we can, that will create this recognition that leads us into 2016, when we want to run many, many more races to win a Congress in 2016 committed to fundamental reform in the way elections are funded. And one of the things I think this astonishing goal of raising $5 million in a month did was to give people the sense that there was something we could do, and 50,000 people rallied to doing it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, $5 million in a month is a quixotic undertaking, and the triumphs were pulled off. And now you have actually $12 million in the bank, with the matching funds and some other stuff that's come in over the transom but $12 million for a super PAC in the scheme of things, is not that big a sum.
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: You’re right. It’s not that big a sum, if what we were doing this year was trying to take on every single race [LAUGHS] where we’d have to win to get a majority in Congress committed to fundamental reform. But this year is not about that. This year is about a pilot and just five races. And so, you know, we’re going to have more than $2 million in each of those five races, which is a lot of money. And we think that will be enough to rally people in those districts to this cause.
BOB GARFIELD: What kind of legislation are you envisioning that can support the de-Lesterization of the process?
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: The Republicans pushed the idea of vouchers that they would give out to every voter to support the idea of voters using those vouchers to give to candidates who raise their funds in small-dollar chunks only. Democrats, like John Sarbanes have a bill called the Government by the People Act that would match small-dollar contributions. So the candidates can afford to run winning campaigns, taking small contributions only. That change would make them responsive to a wider swath of Americans, as opposed to the current system where they’re obsessively responsive to the Lesters.
BOB GARFIELD: Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that ruled that money is essentially, for political purposes, speech, undermined almost all existing campaign finance legislation. How do you get around the immovable obstacle that is Citizens United?
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: The only way to change Citizens United would be to amend the Constitution. You know, look, I’m not actually convinced that we have to worry about Citizens United, if we lived in a world where elections were funded by all of us, as opposed to the tiniest fraction of the 1% of us. We might have to. Let’s see. But the point is we can make this first step, this first change without worrying that problem, and that’s the objective of the Mayday PAC: Elect a Congress that will bring about that reform so that we can get a Congress responsive to all of us, not just to the Lesters.
BOB GARFIELD: Larry, thank you so much.
PROF. LAWRENCE LESSIG: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lester Lawrence Lessig is the founder of Mayday PAC and a law professor at Harvard Law School.