Lawrence Lessig Shows That Today's Political Struggle Has Nothing To Do With Democrats Vs. Republicans
A short time ago, in a galaxy very, very, nearby, a rebel alliance led by a Jedi Grandmaster named Lessig (who I know slightly and admire greatly) conducted a stunning raid on the Death Star. What Death Star? It is the money engines of Washington, DC, the Imperial Capital.
The rebels did not, on their first foray, succeed in destroying their target. They did, however, sow panic and terror among elite Washington Insiders … this galaxy’s version of Imperial Storm Troopers.
Lessig drew Insider blood. Reading the Insiders’ cries of woe in the media, both mainstream and undermedia, one senses buckets of blood shed. If Lessig’s crusade in the end succeeds historians will consider what he did in 2014 vastly more significant than the rout of the Democratic Party.
The British won the Battle of Bunker Hill. Yet this engagement became iconic for the powerful stand taken by the American Revolutionary rebel alliance. Follow along.
The mortal struggle at hand today is not between the right and the left. It is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is not between the Congress and the president. It is between us (currently outsiders to our own government) voters and the Washington Insiders.
The key battle is the one between humanitarian populists and technocratic careerists. Lessig is a radical humanitarian populist.
Elfin Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig created and deployed Mayday.us as the SuperPAC to End All SuperPACs (“Embrace the Irony,” says Lessig). He did so to advance the principle of what might be called distributed financing of Congressional elections to align Congress more closely with the will of the people.
Mayday deployed $10 million and won only two of its selected races (one contested, one not). Even so it managed to throw a great number of Washington Insiders, left and right, into a blind panic.
Lessig’s gone-viral (1.2+ million views) TED talk (watching it might be the best 18 minutes and 19 seconds you will spend this year) and his short manifesto, The USA is Lesterland (buying and reading it might be the best $1.99 investment you ever will make), present a radical proposition of how to make Congress once again responsive to what Jefferson characterizedas the key source of a government’s legitimacy: “the consent of the governed.”
I described Lessig here last May as “the greatest radical at work in America today.” Recent events support this assessment.
Amidst the mass hysteria triggered by Lessig lies much confusion. The confusion derives in part from the sheer radical novelty of Lessig’s proposal. His proposal, in essence, is to provide voters with donation vouchers to allow candidates (optionally) to turn to rank-and-file voters, rather than Insiders, to raise the money to conduct their campaigns. (For my techie readers, think of Lessig as working to replace a sociopathic HAL 9000 supercomputer with a Beowulf cluster, perhaps one assembled from Raspberry Pi boards, to put the ship of state back on course.)
Many, left and right, misunderstand Lessig. Lessig, for example, explicitly rejects attempts to prohibit or even inhibit independent funding of political speech. He has been harshly criticized by more than a few totalitarian-leaning leftists for his refusal to go into league with the suppression of political expenditures. As much as Lessig detests Citizens United he recognizes its reversal could be far worse. He comes down on the side of the First Amendment.
The usually astute Politico published what may be one of its most obtuse columns ever, How to waste $10 million, about Lessig’s venture. It is a column so riddled with errors and omissions as to be baffling. How could they get the story so completely wrong? It observes:
And instead of getting one step closer to a pro-campaign finance reform majority, voters on Tuesday elected enough Senate Republicans to handover control of the Senate to Republican Mitch McConnell — perhaps the leading opponent of Mayday’s vision. McConnell has long opposed campaign money restrictions as infringements on free speech and impediments to the free exchange of ideas.
If the reporters had read The USA is Lesterland they would have discovered that Lessig is not in favor of money restrictions. They would have found that Senator McConnell and Lessig are aligned in opposition to campaign money restrictions as infringements of free speech.
Politico descends from slipshod to shoddy by anonymously conveying personal and quite vicious attacks on Lessig’s judgment and character:
“He sounds like a Harvard professor. That won’t go over well in New Hampshire,” said one operative who has been generally supportive of Lessig. “They may be the worst political ads I’ve ever seen or heard, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of them.”
Another reform advocate who has worked with Lessig said “The last thing that the progressive movement needs is another ivory tower egghead trying to play political operative and sucking up valuable donations and resources for his personal vanity project.”
These quotes would have been good journalism had the reporters named their sources. Anonymous sources may be a necessary evil when reporting facts but never when conveying mere opinion. Conveying these sentiments under a cloak of anonymity flirts with connivance at character assassination.
Politico’s headlining Mayday’s $10 million spend as a “waste” goes beyond obtuse into perverse. Politico all but dismisses the massive media attention generated by Mayday. “The buzz … for Lessig … prompted grumbles from ostensible allies who were irked by Mayday’s headline-grabbing and wondered whether all the attention was helpful to the cause.”
Politico oddly fails to note that Lessig moved the needle of this cause from the deep obscurity in which it had been stuck for many years, bringing it to massive public attention. There is an iconic “Klein Cycle” formulated by labor leader Nicholas Klein (in a 1918 address to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America), often misattributed to Gandhi:
First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.
Lessig pushed his cause from being ignored to being ridiculed and attacked. More rigorous reporting would not so facilely have taken Lessig’s detractors at face value.
A back-of-the-envelope calculus of the media tsunamiproduced by Lessig’s crusade indicates that Mayday received the equivalent of, just perhaps, up to $100 million of exposure in what publicists call “earned media.” Everyone in the business of politics knows how greatly coveted earned media is. (Its value is measured by how much it would have cost to buy advertising of equivalent prominence, scope, and frequency and multiplying by a factor to account for the much greater value of editorial than advertising copy.)
To leverage a $10 million expenditure into, maybe, $100 million of exposure provided a huge payday for Lessig’s donors. Moreover, Lessig was unimpeachable to personalize this in himself. Such personalization is corollary to Saul Alinsky’s thirteenth (and most famous) Rule and has high tactical potency. It is not a mark of vanity.
For opponents to criticize Lessig for putting their purported issue on the political map in such a big way is, at best, crying sour grapes. At worst, it is a sign of corruption among some, and perhaps many, of the advocates previously dominating, without materially advancing, this crusade.
There is evidence, in fact, of a double dose of corruption among many of Lessig’s detractors. First is the old fashioned Washington Insider corruption. Many of Lessig’s detractors themselves are Washington Insiders, merely “Poseur Populists.” As with most Washington Insiders they really are fixated on the money.
They are covetous. They desire to alienate Mayday’s donors from Lessig. They hope, thereby, to supplant him and harvest windfalls.
The second form of corruption, to which I alluded in my prior column, is that “some of his Progressive admirers are appropriating, and corrupting, his work to their own ends.” This is far worse than mere covetousness.
Some of his detractors’ legislative proposals really are not designed to effect populist reform. They are stacked to privilege Democrats and prejudice Republicans. These proponents are taking the campaign finance reform meme, appropriating it, politicizing it, and perverting it.
That perversion not only corrupts. It corrupts absolutely.
Their subversion — until Lessig came along — subtly discredited their cause. Being politically discredited leaves many “reformers” utterly paralyzed for at least the next two years and, most likely, forever. Once their donors recognize this inconvenient truth some are likely to realize that Lessig — prosecuting their case with impeccable integrity — now is the only game in town.
The smarter donors to this cause will shift their donations to Mayday. So, of course many of Lessig’s rivals, marginalized by their own shabby games, feel compelled to savage the virgin in the brothel that is Washington. Reports with a straight face of Lessig’s detractors’ carping shows more gullibility than one wishes to find in our top reporters.
Placing these matters aside, there is an old trope among us old political hands that one has to run (for Congress) twice. The first time you lose. Then you figure out how to do it. The next time you win.
There was a lot to criticize about Mayday’s tactics in its first sortie into the Death Star’s trench. But it is more likely than not that Lessig has learned much from his first foray.
In my own view the fundamental adjustment needed to catapult Mayday’s mission forward will derive from one simple insight. It is the system, not the candidates and officials trapped within it, that is corrupt. Lessig partially grasps this. Getting clearer on this insight could prove central to Mayday’s prospects.
A great beneficiary of Lessig’s vision, if its realization properly is structured, is our elected officials. Lessig doesn’t intend to, and does not, undermine their job security. Adopting his plan would improve the quality of our officials’ lives immensely. Lessig isn’t prescribing Castor oil. If he stops treating it like something one has to coax a recalcitrant child into taking “for your own good” he will encounter far less opposition.
If he presents it shrewdly, Lessig’s most enthusiastic constituency well could become … Members of Congress. Our elected officials almost unanimously detest having to spend the majority of their discretionary time dialing for dollars. These lovely people came to Washington to represent their district and make America a better place. Lessig’s plan could make doing that job easier and much more delightful (both to us voters and our Representatives).
Next January around 247 Republicans will be sworn into the House of Representatives. If Lessig will focus on the fact that a strong path to victory simply means persuading 124 of them that it is in their, as well as the national, interest his job will get much, much easier. (Not all Members are created equal. He also needs one subcommittee chair, one committee chair, and four in Leadership. Total: 130 souls. These are sweet folks. Not a daunting electorate.)
With a majority of the majority in support, as easily they could be, Lessig’s plan can be brought up for a vote and pass, handily. If legislation comes out of the House with enough momentum the Senate is likely to enact it. I believe his vision to be in the very best interests of our elected officials as well as America’s. A path forward beckons.
All Lessig might need to do, next, is to distinguish himself clearly, preferably in a politic way, from his most corrupt allies. And dispel the unfounded fear that this will make our Representatives more vulnerable to challengers. Everything should fall neatly into place once the fear is dispelled.
Will Lessig’s efforts succeed in resolving the corruption of the system and restoring integrity to representative democracy? Maybe, maybe not. His plan certainly passes the Hippocratic Oath’s threshold commitment, “First, do no harm.” So, Lessig, let’s see what you’ve got.
In 2014 Lawrence Lessig massively strengthened his credibility as the moral and strategic leader of the issue he champions. Lessig won a profound moral victory at his own Battle of Bunker Hill.