In late March, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig came to DC to draw back the curtain on the second act of his career. Lessig, with his placid mien and quiet voice, does not exude the aura of a star, but over the past decade he’s become one of the most influential public intellectuals of the Internet age. Along with a small group of activists, legal academics and computer geeks, Lessig has built from scratch a global grassroots movement to reform copyright and intellectual property law. Videos of his lectures are passed along like samizdat by bloggers. “The first time I ever saw him speak,” says Cory Doctorow, co-editor of BoingBoing, one of the country’s most popular blogs, “I remember having the doors blown off my mind.” Fans line up at events with worn copies of his books to ask for everything from signatures to career advice. It is, in the estimation of Aaron Swartz, a 21-year-old programming prodigy who’s worked with Lessig since 2001, “a weird kind of celebrity.”
Lessig stunned his legions of fans last summer when he abruptly announced he was walking away from the cause that had defined his career. For the next ten years, he said, he would be focusing on a new problem: fighting corruption in politics. So to announce his new venture he’d come to Washington, home to what he considers the most dangerously corrupt institution in the country: the United States Congress. With his new netroots-style reform advocacy organization, Change Congress, Lessig is determined to clean it up.
To many of the Beltway denizens crowded into the over-capacity room at the National Press Club on March 20, Lessig was only a faintly familiar name. Since announcing his new career path, though, he has worked hard to raise his political profile. He endorsed and has campaigned for his onetime University of Chicago colleague Barack Obama. In February, when Congressman Tom Lantos died, Lessig toyed with the idea of running for the seat in the special election. He posted a ten-minute video explaining his platform, centered around campaign finance reform, and set up a website to accept donations. He raised more than $60,000 in just two weeks before ultimately deciding not to run. At this year’s Netroots Nation (formerly YearlyKos), the annual convention of the Internet’s progressive activists, he will be delivering a keynote address.
Lessig has become enough of a player to merit the attention of the right-wing attack machine. After he showed a clip during a talk of an Argentine artist’s video featuring Jesus dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” before getting hit by a bus, RedState.com, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh all tore into him as “anti-Christian.” Fox News even sent a camera to ambush him after he testified at a recent Senate hearing.
Political reporter Thomas Edsall, in his 1984 book The New Politics of Inequality, draws a distinction between two types of reformers in the center-left coalition. The vast majority of interest groups in Washington, from the Sierra Club to the AFL-CIO to Planned Parenthood, are pursuing what Edsall calls “substantive reform”–attempting to push legislation and enact policies that will provide public goods, protect citizens from harm and redistribute benefits, rights and privileges away from the powerful and toward middle-class citizens and disenfranchised minorities. Then there’s a small cluster of about a dozen groups–Public Campaign, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation–that focus on procedural reform. Rather than trying to win the game, they’re trying to change the rules: pushing for broader enfranchisement, more transparency and, crucially, reforms that will reduce the influence of big money on politics.