“Embrace the irony,” is the official motto of MayDay, the “Super PAC to End All Super PACs,” founded by Harvard Law professor and open internet activist Lawrence Lessig earlier this year. The PAC is narrowly focused on a single but lofty goal: elect a Congress that will pass campaign finance reform and reverse the tide of dark money flooding Washington because of gut-busting Supreme Court decisions in cases like Citizens United. Lessig can only achieve this objective through paradoxical, fight-fire-with-fire tactics: To raze the system, he’s got to raise the dollars.
So far, he’s crowd-funded about $8 million from nearly 60,000 donors, only 75 of whom, he says, made the kind of mega-donations that have given so much clout to one-percenters. Much of his backing comes from mostly liberal allies in Silicon Valley, where during the 2000s he became synonymous with copyright reform through initiatives like Creative Commons and by supporting issues such as net neutrality. However, as a younger man, he identified as Republican, spent a whole (presumably miserable) year clerking for Justice Scalia, and even flirted with libertarianism before ultimately rejecting it. His experience in all corners of the ideological spectrum forged a reformer who idealistically believes we can act like adults, temporarily drop the partisanship bullshit, and “take responsibility for our democracy.”
During a campaign media blitz in Boston, he answered questions about his PAC and the upcoming midterms by phone.
PLAYBOY: Can you explain the concept of the MAYDAY Super PAC?
LESSIG: We wanted to start a Super PAC that hacks the Super PAC system—by electing a Congress that will fundamentally reform the way campaigns are funded by 2016. In 2014, we are running in eight races to prove something that people in Washington just don’t think is true—that Americans care about the corruption of their government and will vote to do something about it. We support Republicans and Democrats who make reform a priority and are willing to openly endorse the idea of changing the way campaigns are funded.
PLAYBOY: What was the moment you were inspired to actually do something to change the direction campaign finance law is sliding?
LESSIG: I was forced to take up this issue by Aaron Swartz, the young, internet-genius who committed suicide last year. About eight years ago, Aaron came to me and said “So, why do you think the work you’re doing—copyright issues, internet issues—is going to have any effect as long as we have this corrupt system of government?” I didn’t have an answer for him. After a pretty long exchange, I decided he was right, and I took up this issue.
After he died, I urgently wanted to bring success to this important part of his legacy. And, at the same time, I recognized that with the creation of Super PACs, both the Democrat and Republican parties were quickly moving toward a model where, basically, 5,000 families in the United States will be the essential funders of political campaigns. I did a TED talk a few years ago where I showed that the number of relevant funders of campaigns is about 150,000 Americans. That’s about the same as the amount of people named “Lester” in the United States. Basically, the Lesters are dominating the fundraising game.
PLAYBOY: Can you tell us about the candidates you have endorsed and the strategy for the ones you haven’t?
LESSIG: So, we’ve announced five candidates so far. Jim Rubens is a New Hampshire Republican running in the primary against Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator. He’s the only Republican running for Senate who has openly endorsed changing the way campaigns are funded. We were happy to support a Republican who supports public funding, and that’s why we’re with Rubens. Staci Appel, who’s running in the Iowa 3rd Congressional District, is a young, progressive candidate running against an opponent who is basically a Washington insider. More than half of his money comes from D.C. lobbyists.
Those were our first two races. Totally coincidentally, they happened to be in the two leading presidential primary states. The next three races we announced were, Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat running in a minority Democrat district in New Hampshire; Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, who is the only Republican incumbent in the nation has ever publicly supported election reform; and Ruben Gallego in a Democratic primary for an Arizona House seat. He’s a former Marine who’s running against a corporate democrat.
We’re holding off announcing the next three candidates s until the troops are in place. We want to get that element of surprise by suddenly appearing in difficult places to win.
PLAYBOY: How will you gauge success in these midterm elections?
LESSIG: Success for us is disproving the Washington assumption that voters don’t vote on the basis of this issue. So how do we disprove that? Well, not by picking seats of eight, safe Democrats who endorsed changing the way elections are funded. People would have said, “Those guys are gonna win anyway.” So we had to pick races where it’s not clear they’re going to win anyway. They’ve got to be difficult—but not too difficult—races. All of the races we’re going to be in—except for Walter Jones—are difficult. We need to show that we’ve moved the dial significantly.
PLAYBOY: Have you had any people vocally oppose what you’re doing?
LESSIG: I don’t think we’ve had any strong opponents, and I’m a little upset about that, because we need opponents. Our first race (Gallego in the Arizona Primary) will be decided tomorrow (Tuesday, August 26). Assuming we’re successful, I think we can begin the kind of drumbeat around this issue. So that’s our real hope.
PLAYBOY: How do you convince skeptics on the Right that this is a truly bi-partisan coalition?
LESSIG: There’s no denying the fact that Republicans have not yet stepped up as a party to take this issue on. But there’s also no denying that grassroots Republicans care about this issue. We have a poll showing that 96% of Americans believe it’s important to reduce the influence of money in politics. There’s not a partisan divide there, even though in the Senate, there’s not yet a single Republican who has endorsed changing the way elections are funded.
Political experts won’t deny that this is what everybody believes. What they deny is that anybody is willing to vote on the basis of this issue. And we believe we figured out why: In the very same poll that found 96 percent believed it’s important to reduce the influence of money in politics, we also found that 91 percent didn’t believe it was possible.
PLAYBOY: That’s an incredible level of support. Is there anything else Americans actually agree upon quite so enthusiastically?
LESSIG: No, I don’t think anything that’s a contested, political issue. 96 percent is pretty unprecedented as a number. People agree on that level with statements like “Lincoln was a great president” and that “George Washington deserves to be recognized as a great founding president.” Those type of things.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. ‘Influencers’ is Playboy.com’s series on people who are changing the game—whatever their game is.