Lessig's super PAC has

Lessig's super PAC has "the biggest chance to fail of anything I've ever done," he says.
Credit Illustration by Nishant Choksi

Last spring, Lawrence Lessig, a fifty-three-year-old Harvard legal theorist who opposes the influence of money in politics, launched a counterintuitive experiment: the Mayday PAC, a political-action committee that would spend millions of dollars in an attempt to elect congressional candidates who are intent on passing campaign-finance reform—and to defeat those who are not. It was a super PAC designed to drive its own species into extinction. Lessig adopted the motto "Embrace the irony."

Others had tried pouring money into politics in order to end the pouring of money into politics, but never on the scale that Lessig wanted. In 2012, Jonathan Soros, a son of George Soros, the billionaire and liberal donor, raised and spent $2.7 million to help nine candidates committed to campaign-finance reform. Lessig and his co-founder, the Republican consultant Mark McKinnon, planned to spend more than four times that amount in the six months leading up to midterm elections, on November 4th. If their efforts succeeded, they aimed to raise hundreds of millions of dollars on as many as eighty races in the 2016 election. Lessig believed that the campaign-finance system needed the political equivalent of an "atomic bomb," he told me. Change would become impossible, he said, "unless we blow it up now and we find some way to make it so that these bones don't set."

In 2010, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court, arguing that campaign contributions were a form of "political speech," struck down limits on the amount of money corporations, unions, and rich individuals could spend on elections. The decision led to a surge of money greater than anyone predicted. Between 2008 and 2012, campaign spending shot up by nearly two billion dollars. Much of that growth came from super PACs, the committees that are allowed to spend whatever they want as long as they don't work directly with candidates. In 2012, super PACs spent a billion dollars; seventy-three per cent of the money came from a hundred people. The other large source of growth has been in so-called dark money—donations from nonprofits that are allowed to keep their donors anonymous. In late August, before the midterm campaign had reached full speed, dark-money spending had climbed to fifty million dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—seven times the sum that had been spent by that point in 2010.

In Washington, Lessig's effort to effect rapid change was generally perceived as doomed or foolish. A piece in Politico, headlined "THE PAC TO END ALL PACS IS A FARCE," described it as "political performance art." Of the prospects for imminent reform, a blog on the Washington Post observed, "No politicians are even talking about it." Conventional wisdom holds that people tell pollsters that they hate money in politics and vote based on more visceral issues. Lessig speaks, instead, of "the politics of resignation." He will have to prove that voters care enough to "knock out some incumbents, and make some people victors." He'll need what he called a "Roger Bannister moment"—the political equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile—to show what is possible. Mayday, he acknowledged, has "the biggest chance to fail of anything I've ever done."

On a weekday morning in August, Lessig was at the Cajundome Convention Center, in Lafayette, Louisiana. The marquee advertised upcoming visits by the men and women of World Wrestling Entertainment and the 2014 Louisiana Bridal Expo. Lessig had flown in the previous afternoon. He has a pronounced forehead, small round glasses, and an expression of quiet alarm. In speaking, he's come to use the hyperbolic shorthand of online discourse: things aren't big or bad; they are "insane." He projects an air of oracular intensity. When he was featured by name as a character on "The West Wing" (advising a foreign government on its constitution), he was played by Christopher Lloyd, the wild-eyed inventor in the "Back to the Future" movies.

An hour before his talk, Lessig left the hotel wearing a charcoal suit, a blue shirt, and black shoes, a uniform that allows him to pack for any trip without having to think but wasn't optimal for Louisiana in August. He had been invited to Lafayette to speak at a local business event, the ABiz Top 50 Luncheon. He hoped that Louisiana voters might be receptive to his message. In the past decade, Louisiana convicted more people per capita for public corruption than any other state. The former governor Edwin Edwards liked to say that the only surefire threat to his political future was getting caught with "a dead girl or a live boy." (Edwards later served more than eight years in prison on corruption charges, for extorting payoffs in exchange for casino licenses; he is now running for Congress.) Lessig also planned to use his speech in Louisiana to argue that politicians' reliance on a small group of funders denies equal citizenship in a way that resembles racial discrimination in voting.

The Cajundome luncheon had attracted about seven hundred people. The audience was less diverse than Lessig had expected: mostly prosperous-looking white men, taking their seats at round tables marked with the names of local businesses. I chatted with Pearson Cross, a political scientist from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who told me, "These are the people writing the checks."

Lessig began, "It is an astonishing—one could say humbling, embarrassing—fact that almost one hundred years after the American Constitution effectively granted the right to vote to African-Americans, African-Americans still didn't have the right to vote." On two large overhead screens, he showed slides of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., and of German shepherds lunging at demonstrators. "As all of us look back at that history, we wonder: How could they have thought like this?" He asked, "Are there things that will make our kids look back on us and say, 'Seriously?' . . . How could we believe that the thickness of one's wallet is the metric of citizenship?" He sketched a dire portrait of American politics. More than ninety-nine per cent of Americans are excluded from the access that large campaign donations afford, he said. And yet people have accepted this state of affairs. He cited a poll in which ninety-six per cent of Americans said they believe that it's important to reduce the influence of money in politics but only nine per cent believe that it is likely to happen. The Mayday PAC, Lessig said, was intended to elect a Congress that would pass reform and demonstrate to Americans that change was possible. "This is the moral question of our age," he said. "Can we reclaim our democracy?"

When he finished, there was polite applause, but not the standing ovation he sometimes receives. He signed a few copies of his 2012 book, "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It"; dozens were left on the table. "I misread the audience," he told me.

When I lived in Beijing, the Chinese often complained that their government was riddled with corruption, and they asked me if America had similar problems. I usually replied that though our government has its crooks, the naked exchange of favors for money is minimized by the rule of law and a free press. Now I'm not so sure. Getting elected to the House today takes more than double the money required in 1986, so a candidate must be blunter and broader in the hunt for cash. In Georgia, a leaked memo from the Senate campaign of the Democrat Michelle Nunn advised her to spend eighty per cent of her first month fund-raising. In Wisconsin, a consultant working for Governor Scott Walker told him to visit the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson: "Ask for $1m now." In spite of the Supreme Court's approval, Lessig describes this fixation on money as a "corruption of the system." He rejects the term "campaign-finance reform" as a euphemism comparable to "liquid-intake problem" for alcoholism.

The effects of Citizens United have energized reformers more than any other event in decades. "You might say big money has always been a factor," Nick Nyhart, the head of the Public Campaign, an advocacy group, told me. "But a group of octogenarian billionaires on the front pages of newspapers, pulling the strings of candidates, was simply something we hadn't seen before." Stephen Colbert dramatized the absurdity of super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups when he registered a "social welfare" organization that could donate under the name "Anonymous Shell Corporation." A study published in May in the journal Mass Communication and Society found that Colbert's viewers knew more about campaign finance than people who received their information from conventional news sources.

For years, Republican leaders have rejected campaign-finance reform as an assault on free speech and an attempt to undermine the Party's traditional advantage in fund-raising. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, once joked that campaign finance "ranks right up there with static cling as one of the great concerns of the American people." But some Republicans worry that the Party's opposition to reform underestimates the frustration of ordinary voters. "These people are getting screwed by Wall Street interests, by the big money, by the establishment, and they don't like it," Trevor Potter, the general counsel to John McCain's 2000 and 2008 Presidential campaigns, told me. To oust House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last spring, Dave Brat, his populist challenger, accused him of siding with Wall Street to protect crony capitalism. "Most of the Party establishment is vulnerable on that issue," Potter said. After Cantor lost, he took a job at Moelis & Company, an investment bank, at a guaranteed minimum compensation of $3.4 million by the end of 2015.

Just after Lessig finished his speech in Lafayette, Robert McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, took the witness stand in a courtroom in Richmond to discuss his relationship with Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., a campaign donor and businessman who had cultivated the Governor's support for a dietary supplement made from tobacco. Williams and his company had contributed some eighty thousand dollars in air travel to McDonnell's campaign. That was legal. But Williams's generosity went further: loans, shopping sprees, golf outings, a Rolex, use of a country house and a Ferrari—amounting altogether to a hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars. Prosecutors, who charged McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, each with thirteen counts related to public corruption, argued that the Governor had returned the favors using the power of his office. In one exchange, McDonnell e-mailed Williams to ask about a fifty-thousand-dollar loan and, six minutes later, e-mailed an aide to check on scientific studies that Williams wanted conducted on his product at public universities. McDonnell, a confident presence on the stand, told the jury that his actions were nothing out of the ordinary—"the bare, basic, routine access to government and nothing more."

At Harvard, Lessig's professional home since 2009, he has two offices: one on the campus of the law school, where he is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, and another, a short walk away, at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where he is the director, overseeing several dozen fellows and staff. Since launching the Mayday PAC, however, he is usually elsewhere, making his case to whoever is willing to listen.

Lessig is an unlikely politico. He is averse to schmoozing and phones and e-mail. His notes are rarely more than a sentence long. "It's like having one of your closest friends be a telex machine," his friend Davis Guggenheim, a filmmaker, told me. On Twitter, where brevity is a virtue, Lessig has three hundred thousand followers. On his Web site, he gives an apologetic explanation for not always replying: "I have three young kids, I have a demanding job, and I am trying to do as much as I possibly can to reform a corrupted political system." His wife, Bettina Neuefeind, a public-interest lawyer who investigated war crimes in Kosovo, projects a practical side that compensates for his preoccupations. "I'm more of a crunchy-granola, homeopathic, nature-based kind of a person," she said. They met at the University of Chicago. "We are quite different in many ways, so I think some of the things that we saw in each other intrigued us." They have three children—Tess, Teo, and Willem, the oldest, who is eleven*.

Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor, who was the best man at Lessig's wedding, describes him as "monkish." He said, "There's normal working hard, and then there's the kind of working hard that he does, which is sustained and comprehensive and driven in a way that I have just never seen in somebody else." Lessig does not separate his intellect from his emotions. Guggenheim recalls attending the première of the Michael Moore documentary "Fahrenheit 911" with Lessig by his side: "I was laughing really loudly at a certain part, and I remember looking over at him, next to me, and he was weeping."

When Lessig seeks a way to reorder his world to function better, he favors fundamental fixes. Seven years ago, after gaining weight on a sabbatical in Germany, he adopted a vegan diet and lost sixty pounds. He eats the same super-food breakfast every day: blueberries, a boiled egg, and half an avocado. Neuefeind said that her husband finds "a simplicity and an elegance to just doing something all the way."

As a speaker, Lessig is known for a fast-paced choreography of language and images. In his half-hour talk in Lafayette, he displayed two hundred and thirty-four slides, some bearing only a word or two, mixed with audio and video clips. (To make the point that politicians learn to cater to funders, he showed laboratory pigeons learning to spin in circles to obtain a food pellet.) His style is so widely imitated—his TED talks have drawn millions of views—that it's become known as "the Lessig method." Guggenheim, who made "An Inconvenient Truth," about Al Gore's efforts to draw attention to climate change, describes Lessig's typical presentation as a "preacher's sermon with an audiovisual team" behind it. There is something Gore-like about Lessig's travels with a slide show. "Both have taken a very, very complex problem, which people read about and get confused about and stiff-arm, because they can't get their minds around it," Guggenheim said. "And both have found a way to make it clear and understandable."

Lessig grew up mostly in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a small steel-fabricating company. "I idolized my dad," he said. His father was an ardent Republican, wary of government regulation, and Lessig became a devout member of the National Teen Age Republicans. In 1980, at the age of nineteen, he told me, he was the youngest member of any delegation** to the Republican National Convention. He later ran the campaign of a candidate for the state senate, and lost, halting his budding career in Republican politics. He said, "I was a libertarian. I still think I'm a libertarian; it's just that I understand the conditions in which liberty can flourish. It's liberty where you have the infrastructures of society that make it possible, and one of the elements is a certain commitment to equality. I vote like a Democrat now." To libertarians, Lessig makes a related case against the influence of big money. Americans are deprived of liberty today because, he says, "the government is dependent on the few and not on the many." He cites The Federalist No. 57: "Madison told us that 'the people' meant 'not the rich more than the poor,' " he said.

After college, at the University of Pennsylvania, Lessig went to England to study philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. He hitchhiked in Eastern Europe and visited the Soviet Union, where, on one trip, he carried a heart valve, hidden in the crotch of his pants, for a refusenik. He developed a deep reverence for law, as "this space where it is reason that is supposed to be directing power." He studied at Chicago, then transferred to Yale, where he earned his law degree in 1989. He clerked for the federal judge and legal theorist Richard Posner, and then for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court, as Scalia's "token liberal." (Scalia occasionally chose an outstanding liberal clerk, to serve as a foil.)

He taught at the University of Chicago and at Stanford, and by the late nineties he was one of America's most influential theorists on the intersection of law, culture, and the Internet. Lessig believed that movie studios, record labels, and large software-makers were wielding copyright laws in ways that impaired creativity. He testified, in 2000, on behalf of Napster, the peer-to-peer network, and he wrote a brief supporting people who were distributing a program that hacked the security code of DVDs. He was on the losing side of both cases. Joi Ito, a friend who heads the M.I.T. Media Lab, said, "He's always fighting the most important fights, but he hasn't won many, and the fights are all still continuing."

Lessig was raised in a churchgoing family, and when he was ten he asked his parents to send him to the American Boychoir School, in Princeton, New Jersey, where he stayed for four years. In 2004, he represented John Hardwicke, a former student who successfully sued the school over sexual abuse by members of the faculty and staff. It appeared an odd fit for a star constitutional lawyer, until Lessig explained that he, too, had been repeatedly molested at the school. The case captured a theme that has been central to his work. "I sometimes think that everything I've ever done has been about how context matters—the background, not the foreground," he told me. "Obviously, the abuser is the foreground. But there were all these people standing off in the shadows"—teachers, administrators, and others, who did not heed the signs of abuse. He calls them "the good Germans," decent people compromised by flawed systems. He said, "When you apply that to political philosophy, you can't remain a kind of crude foreground libertarian. You've got to become somebody different."

Lessig's crusade against money in politics can be traced back to 1998, when Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, a law that retroactively added twenty years to the copyrights of movies and songs and other work. Lessig visited Capitol Hill to argue that a retroactive extension served no purpose other than to lock down profits for copyright-holders; it could not inspire William Faulkner or George Gershwin to create more work, because they were dead. To his surprise, many lawmakers were not entirely opposed to his view. "They hadn't heard it, because it hadn't had the same access," he said. Disney, he noted, had donated to the campaigns of eighteen of the original twenty-five House members who sponsored the Bono act. It was the eleventh time in less than forty years that Congress had extended the term of existing copyrights.

In 2001, Lessig co-founded Creative Commons, an alternative copyright system that allows people to share their work more freely. The next year, in his most ambitious case yet, he challenged the Sonny Bono law in the U.S. Supreme Court. In Eldred v. Ashcroft, he argued that the Constitution intended copyright protection "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." He lost, seven to two. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ruled that Congress could reset copyright terms provided that the terms are for "limited times." Lessig concluded that copyrights would never be allowed to expire, "so long as Congress is free to be bought to extend them again."

In 2007, after years of failing to achieve his objectives in Washington, Lessig shared his exasperation with his friend Aaron Swartz, a computer-programming prodigy who had first contacted him in his early teens, with coding ideas for Creative Commons. Swartz had become a vigilant opponent of copyright extensions and the control of information online. He posed a pointed question to Lessig: "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?" Corruption is not my field as a scholar, Lessig replied. Swartz asked if it was his field "as a citizen." The conversation changed Lessig's mind. "I have no good reason not to take it up, because of tenure," he said to Swartz. "And it kind of terrified me to imagine myself spending the rest of my life tinkering on the margins of the small arguments."

He considered running for Congress but decided on activism instead. As in the sexual-abuse case, Lessig focussed on the difference between the superficial crime and the enabling conditions behind it. He said, "The foreground in political corruption is Randy (Duke) Cunningham"—the California congressman who was convicted in 2005 of taking bribes—and Bob McDonnell, the former governor who is on trial in Virginia. "That's not the interesting corruption. The interesting corruption is the people who live within a system where influence is peddled and reckoned and bragged about as a function of the norms of culture that have evolved. These are the good Germans."

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In January, 2013, Swartz, facing federal charges for downloading millions of articles from a proprietary database, committed suicide. He was twenty-six. After his death, Swartz became an inspiration to Internet activists seeking to prevent corporations and governments from expanding their control of digital information. Lessig was radicalized by Swartz's death. "I loved that boy like I love my son," he said. "I'm only now understanding exactly how crazy his death made me, but it really made me crazy."

He thought up an unusual memorial. On January 11, 2014, the first anniversary of Swartz's death, Lessig began walking south from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, where some of the first 2016 Presidential ballots will be cast in a primary race. Under his coat he wore a T-shirt with Swartz's name on it. Accompanied by a fluctuating group of several dozen followers, he explained that they were walking through the state, a hundred and ninety miles, to draw attention to the "corruption that we believe infects D.C." Lessig wanted to be "physically miserable" as an outlet for his grief, but at one point the weirdness of the idea unnerved him. He talked with Davis Guggenheim before he set out. "He asked me, you know, 'Have I gone crazy?' " Guggenheim reflected on Lessig's deepening obsession with campaign finance and replied, "There are a lot of sane people who've been working on this for a long time, and it's kind of like incremental measures that add up to nothing. My money is on an insane person."

In March, still looking skinny and windburned from the walk, which ended a few weeks earlier, Lessig recorded a TED talk dedicated to Swartz, in which he announced his next project: a super PAC intended "to win this issue, to change the way money influences politics." That meant transforming campaign-finance reform from a cause politicians might support in the name of virtue to a cause they'd have to support in the name of survival.

Lessig believed it was a waste of time to try to pass a law that would limit contributions or spending, because the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, would likely overturn it. Instead, he aimed to dilute the influence of big donors by introducing incentives for politicians to pursue small donors in large numbers. One way of reducing politicians' dependence on big money is to create a "matching" system for Congress: candidates would agree to raise at least fifty thousand dollars from small donors, and the government would match those donations, six to one. (Similar versions of this system have already been implemented in New York City and Maine.) Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced a bill to create a matching system, argues that it would allow candidates to raise sums from ordinary citizens comparable to what they might otherwise obtain from lobbyists. With fifty checks for thirty dollars each, along with matching funds and bonuses, Sarbanes said, "you've just raised ten thousand five hundred dollars by talking to real people instead of going to some K Street fund-raiser."

Another way to encourage small donations is by giving voters a tax rebate in the form of a voucher that they can donate to candidates. I asked Lessig what is to stop a corporation or a union from gaming the system by directing employees or members to make small donations. "You think of that as a bug, I think of that as a feature," he said. "I'm totally O.K. with the idea of a million people banding together to put their fifty dollars toward one candidate or another candidate. That's great, because it's a million people." As long as a law prevented groups from compelling their members to donate a certain way, he said, "that's what politics should be about: recruit the people who support the cause."

Lessig has campaigned for the voucher system. He doesn't care which reform approach prevails, but a candidate needs to promise to champion one or the other if he wants to win Mayday's backing and keep Mayday from supporting a rival. The power of that backing to alter the outcome of a race remains uncertain: in its first test, an Arizona Democratic congressional primary in August, Mayday bought ads supporting Ruben Gallego, an ex-Marine with a Harvard degree, amounting to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—a sum equivalent to nearly a third of Gallego's total campaign costs. Gallego won, and an analysis commissioned by Mayday concluded that the ads had widened his margin of victory.

Historically, campaign-finance-reform groups have been reluctant to spend money to sway elections, because it felt hypocritical. That has changed. In 2002, the Reform Voter Project, a Washington-based progressive group, contributed to the defeat of Senator Tim Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas. "He had taken a lot of money from Big Ag, so we did a radio ad that was really a killer at the time," David Donnelly, the group's executive director, told me. Earlier this year, Jonathan Soros and Donnelly merged organizations to create a super PAC called Every Voice Action; other progressive groups, such as Wolf PAC and CounterPAC, are supporting candidates who pledge to pursue finance reform.

Lessig could have joined one of those or an existing campaign-finance-reform organization, such as Common Cause or Democracy 21, but he wanted to move much faster. Every Voice is aiming for reforms by 2021. Lessig was gunning for 2016, since he thought waiting too long could sap public support and allow opponents to mobilize their own "atomic bomb."

Privately, some activists thought that Lessig's timetable was impossible. One told me that Lessig "lives in a different political universe than the one I do." When I spoke to Donnelly, he deliberated for a moment, and said, "In terms of the ability to elevate this, I think we all benefit from that. I think the question is how do you actually implement the strategies that he's suggesting."

Consultants at the Global Strategy Group, a political-advisory firm, produced an initial estimate of Mayday's budget: seven hundred million dollars. If Lessig could raise that amount for the 2016 elections, he could, in theory, alter the outcome of fifteen races in the Senate and sixty-five races in the House. To bankroll the effort, Lessig would need "fifty billionaires," as he put it, and would also seek crowdfunding. Each billionaire would contribute some fourteen million dollars. Why would some of America's richest people pay to reduce their ability to have clout in government? He draws parallels to history: for women and African-Americans to gain the right to vote, men and whites had to vote to dilute their own power, in the belief that it would strengthen the country. Thus Lessig's pitch: "Would you like to be on the list of the fifty Americans who saved America?"

He hoped to capture the evolving politics of the technology world. In the nineties, the dot-com founders he knew were largely libertarians, with little interest in the minutiae of Washington. "If you tried to talk to them about politics, their eyes would have rolled," he said. But as their companies have grown they have had to care about policy and regulation more than their instincts would dictate. He offered an example: "You've got Uber, which is the picture of innovation that gets stopped by all these local rent-seekers who have their taxi medallions. That is the dynamic we've got to change." Mayday, he said, "is a game-changing bet. This is what Silicon Valley loves."

I called Reid Hoffman, who co-founded LinkedIn, and asked if he was willing, in theory, to be one of Lessig's fifty billionaires. Hoffman said, "Absolutely, I can see myself involved. Part of the challenge is the collective-action problem. A group of us have to do it at the same time." This is Mayday's biggest puzzle. Lessig said, "The struggle here is whether they will take on only the uncontested issues or take on issues that make them enemies."

If Lessig hoped to raise seven hundred million dollars by 2016, he needed a pilot program, so he hired a staff of four and set out to raise twelve million for this year's midterm election. To measure public support, he launched a Kickstarter-style campaign for small donations. That raised a million dollars, and he solicited large gifts to match it: Hoffman gave him a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, as did the investor Peter Thiel. Other donors included Chris Anderson, who runs TED, and the venture capitalist Brad Burnham.

Then Lessig announced an ambitious target: five million in online donations in thirty days. But Mayday had already tapped its natural allies, and on the final day the super PAC was still some $1.4 million short. In desperation, Mayday contacted George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in the original "Star Trek" and is now a progressive activist, with more than a million followers on Twitter. Takei spread the word, and Mayday reached the target seven hours before the deadline. In all, more than fifty thousand people donated. But Lessig still had to persuade rich donors to match that five million.

When it came time to pick candidates, Lessig needed to keep his focus narrow: "Races that are difficult but not impossible, where we can define the issue to be this issue, and where, if we win, or at least move the dial significantly, the D.C. crowd will be astonished," he said. Some were easy choices: in Iowa, he backed the Democrat Staci Appel, a young progressive running against an opponent with heavy backing from D.C. lobbyists. Others were controversial. In North Carolina, Mayday backed the Republican congressman Walter C. Jones, because he is the Party's only House incumbent who supports public financing. But Jones faces an easy election, so it would be difficult to persuade critics that Mayday's support was pivotal.

The more attention Mayday attracted, the more criticism it drew. Lessig had put money behind both Democrats and Republicans, in the belief that they shared a common enemy in corruption. "Think F.D.R. and Stalin," he said. But on the Republican National Lawyers Association blog, Paul Jossey warned readers not to be fooled by Lessig's talk of bipartisanship; he was ultimately intent on "neutering Wall Street, and a panoply of other progressive policy prescriptions." More surprising was the flak that Lessig took from the left. The Web site Daily Kos featured a series of critical pieces that faulted Lessig for supporting Republican candidates under a bipartisan fantasy it called "quixotic (at best)" and derided his reasoning as "rainbows and unicorns."

As the primaries approached, nobody seemed more concerned than Lessig that he might have overreached. "It's completely plausible that we win nothing," he told me. "So here I've created this whole movement and energy and passion around how we're going to do this. Then we go out there and get squat. Zero. And then all the reform-movement people say, 'You've destroyed it for us.' "

On a Friday in late August, Lessig was booked to speak in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. We headed north from Boston, in his Prius. He wasn't sleeping much. "We still haven't secured the five-million-dollar match," he said. "We don't yet have a campaign structure fully in place; we haven't picked all the races. Everything is still congealing." A local couple had offered Lessig a room in their rustic cabin for the weekend. The driveway was marked with a sign that said "Corporations Are Not Kale."

That night, Lessig pulled into the parking lot of the venue, a white clapboard meetinghouse with a steeple. Compared with Lafayette, the crowd appeared amenable. "Count the Priuses," he said. After the speech, driving back to the cabin in the dark, Lessig wondered how he could convert his audiences' enthusiasm into something closer to rage. "The offense ought to be more palpable," he said.

In the months since he traversed New Hampshire on foot, Lessig had led a series of one-day marches. He had never been an outdoorsman, but walking gave him an excuse to unplug from the Web, and he said that he was "astonished to see its power" as a form of political protest. The morning after his speech, he was scheduled to lead a six-mile walk to draw attention to campaign-finance reform. Neuefeind had driven up with the kids, and by dawn Willem and Teo were standing on the dock, casting into the stillness of the lake, in search of bass. Lessig, eating an avocado, watched them through a screened window.

The walk ended in the town of Hancock. Among those waiting was a tall, thin man with gray hair—Jim Rubens, a Republican senatorial candidate whom Lessig was backing. In the primary, Rubens was far behind his rival, the former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown. Rubens had attracted Lessig's attention because he believed that campaign-finance reform held growing appeal for Republicans with an "intense anger, frustration, and hatred of Washington politics." Rubens, who promised to limit himself to two terms and never work as a lobbyist, told me, "Many politicians are either self-financed or they're corrupt whores by the time they're done with the process."

Since Lessig's super PAC was not legally permitted to coördinate with Rubens, they kept a distance from each other on the lawn, but the New Hampshire primary, on September 9th, would determine more than Rubens's fate: it would be the first big test of the Mayday PAC strategy.

On September 4th, the federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell on eleven counts of corruption. The man who had occupied the office once held by Thomas Jefferson had exchanged his power for golf trips, dresses for his wife, and rides in a sports car. McDonnell became another instant rogue, another icon of abuse.

But it was difficult not to see, in McDonnell's fall, a test of the fragile boundary between the conduct that sends a man to jail and the behavior that helps him get reëlected. McDonnell faced prison for promoting a nutritional supplement in return for gifts, while members of Congress were permitted to accept tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from the nutritional-and-dietary-supplement industry. For years, Senators Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, have been two of the industry's largest beneficiaries—and two of its strongest spokesmen, opposing regulations intended to protect consumers. After the McDonnell verdict was announced, I called Representative Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, who has served on and off in the House since 1983, and asked what he thought his peers would make of the court decision. "I think members will be secretly terrified," he said. "Those sorts of favors are astonishingly commonplace on the Hill."

A few days later, there was another sign of disillusionment with the corrupting effects of money in politics: In New York, Zephyr Teachout, a constitutional law professor at Fordham University, ran against Governor Andrew Cuomo on a platform of campaign-finance reform. Even though she was an unknown, she won thirty-five per cent of the vote in the primary. She and Lessig are "part of the same urgent reëxamination of the structures of power," she told me. (In late September, she joined Mayday's board.)

But the primaries did not go as well for Mayday. In New Hampshire on September 9th, Scott Brown beat Jim Rubens by more than twenty-six points. Lessig put up a blog post headlined "WE LOST. BADLY." He flew to Washington the next day, and we met at the office of the Global Strategy Group. Lessig said it was a mistake to have backed Rubens. His advisers had warned him that Brown was too far ahead, the campaign was too short, and television ads in New Hampshire were too expensive. Lessig had stubbornly gambled that they could win anyway, but, in the end, he said, "it was an impossible lift."

To make matters worse, the New Hampshire loss made it harder for Lessig to raise the remainder of the five million dollars he needed in matching funds. (He was still around four million short.) His other congressional candidates—the Democrats Staci Appel, in Iowa, and Carol Shea-Porter, in New Hampshire—were in tight races, but now Mayday might have to pare back its advertising. It was too soon to know how it would affect the "atomic bomb" plan, but Lessig was not trying to spin it. "So far, we don't have anything for 2016," he told me.

From the start, there were signs that Lessig's habits of mind would work against him. On paper, his plan had a tidy logic. In his mission statement, he had written, "Once we have elected a Congress committed to reform, we will organize a one-hundred-day campaign in the beginning of 2017 to get that reform passed." Months later, that seems less likely. Lessig had underestimated the strength of Brown's campaign, the determination of national Republicans to help him succeed, and the unwillingness of voters in New Hampshire, or Louisiana, to see the issue in his terms. Alex Whiting had told me that, over the years, when Lessig's cases have faltered Lessig is always stunned. Whiting said, "He has so much faith in the ability of the mind to figure out its problems—maybe he doesn't account for the irrational and the influence of raw power." A post on Daily Kos stated, "All in all, this is a very embarrassing episode for Lessig, who proved that he's utterly in over his head when it comes to electoral politics."

But if Lessig truly patterns his campaign after earlier political movements in American history, contempt is guaranteed. In the eighteen-eighties, the Times described the experience of the "suffrage shriekers" who were "contemptuously laughed to scorn," their proposals dismissed as the work of "half-crazy fanatics or weak-minded old women of both sexes." The first women's-rights convention was held in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York, but the Nineteenth Amendment wasn't ratified for another seventy years. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others reflected on the history of the movement they had started, they asked, "Was there ever apparently a more hopeless quest?" Lessig's failure to heed history has perhaps come from imagining that he can accomplish his objective in a hurry.

Immediately after the loss in the New Hampshire primary, Lessig returned to barnstorming. In three days, he went to Washington, D.C., New Hampshire, back to Washington, and then to Arizona. By day four, he concluded that his gloom had been misplaced. In a post titled "Optimism," he wrote, "I am absolutely confident that we will be able to do what we set out to do." It was less than eight weeks to Election Day. He had spoken to donors, and they had expressed interest in pledging the remaining funds. More important, in the data from New Hampshire Lessig had glimpsed a promising sign: among New Hampshire Republicans who said money in politics bothered them, Rubens won by eighteen points. "So if you get Republicans to think that this is an important issue, all of a sudden the whole election flips," he told me. That notion was exaggerated, but the broader point held: more than a few Republicans were voting with the intention of reducing the influence of money in politics.

I asked Lessig about the criticism that his impatience had weakened his project. He said he had reasons to rush: younger Americans were growing up to believe that politics was rigged, and soon there would be "five thousand Democratic families and five thousand Republican families who are going to fund elections." He added, "You've got to blow it up."

Lessig's insistence on a big-bang theory of change makes it tempting to see his project as a stunt—a spectacular liftoff staged by an ideas man willing to accept a painful landing. But that probably misses the seriousness of his motives. He asks one audience after another how future generations will judge our stewardship of American democracy. "Acting like a crazy man to make something happen is motivated by an intellectual sense that we've got to do it now and an emotional sense that this is a way of repentance," he told me.

The last time I spoke to Lessig, he was on the road, somewhere noisy, and the reception was spotty, but he came through clearly enough for me to hear him say that he had been thinking about "the interaction between Supreme Court decisions and political movements." He said, "Long before Brown v. Board of Education, you had people pushing hard for civil-rights changes, and most people, especially African-Americans, were saying, 'What, are you nuts? This is just not going to happen. Look at the United States Senate! There is no chance that the United States is ever going to pass anything.' And then Brown v. Board totally changed the frame within which that debate happens. It says to people, 'You're entitled to engage in this fight!' " In that light, Lessig had found himself peculiarly grateful to the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United. "I think Citizens United has had an enormously powerful effect in getting people to know what the issue is and to do something about it. I've been awestruck," he said. "There really is something to be fighting—something outrageous." 

*An earlier version of this article misstated Willem Lessig's age.

**An earlier version of this article suggested that Lessig was a delegate. He was an alternate delegate.