In the beginning, there was kos. Kos created his blog. And he beheld it, and said that it was good. But eventually kos needed a vacation - and since the blogosphere knows no sabbath, or at any rate likes to chatter all day Sunday, he asked a guy named Larry Lessig to fill in for him.
Lessig is more than just an early frontpager. He's been an advocate for the principles that make communities like ours work intelligent and effective enough that you could call him the Thomas Jefferson of the netroots (or, with Wired magazine, "the Elvis of cyberlaw"). A Stanford law professor and prominent supporter of Barack Obama, he has been a champion of net neutrality, freedom of speech on the internet, technologically savvy copyright reform and, most recently, governmental ethics reform. His ideas on this remind me of my own political hero, Russ Feingold.
Lessig is considering a run for Congress in CA-12, but since there will be a Democratic primary, the party won't help him yet. Only we can. And he needs to hear from us before March 1. Will you help?
I'll break this down into four sections for your reading convenience. But first, if you read even a bit of this (thank you!) and think Lessig sounds worthwhile, please go to Lessig08.org and sign up for his email list, donate if you can, and volunteer if you live in the area. Here's the outline:
- Lessig's platform.
- Lessig's background.
- The race in CA-12.
- The big picture.
Lessig's main issue is congressional ethics reform: taking big money out of politics. He's running on this issue because he believes - and I agree - that it's fundamental to just about every other issue we progressives care about. The platform is simple: his goal is for members of Congress to pledge to support the following:
- No contributions from lobbyists & PACs.
- No earmarks.
- Publicly financed elections.
Simpler still is his conviction about where that reform will have to start: with us. Only with sufficient public interest and support will Congress be pressured to change its ways. And that's why Lessig will only run if he's convinced that there's a real grassroots movement behind him - he needs to hear from us, and he needs to hear by March 1st - when he'll make his decision about whether to run.
If you want to hear this in Lessig's own words and voice, here he is:
Convinced? Show Lessig your support! Check out DraftLessig.org, and join his facebook group if you're on facebook. If you can afford it, donate to him on his ActBlue page (which I've seen go in the past five days from 10 donors to being the second most active page on ActBlue!) More questions? Read on...
Lessig has done so much, and so much more than I'm aware of, that I'll barely scratch the surface here. But here's a beginning.
Up until about a year ago, Lessig was best known as a pioneer in thinking about copyright law and civil liberties on the Internet. Well before most, Lessig saw the potential for the net to become, not the utopia of freely exchange ideas that some hoped for, but a realm subject to overregulation and corporate control. As the telecoms have sought to destroy net neutrality, or as the film and recording industries have sought to stifle the circulation of songs and film clips on the web, we've seen the threat of such overregulation become real.
Lessig has worked tirelessly to stave it off. He is the founder of Creative Commons, which allows scientists, writers, and artists to license their works for use in the public domain with fewer restrictions than conventional copyright law allows.
He also sits on the board of directors of Electronic Frontier Foundation, which diarist JerzyD rightly called "the ACLU of the Internet." Aside from its many legal struggles (and victories!) on behalf of free speech and privacy rights on the net, which have included assistance in cases against the NSA's illegal wiretapping, the EFF has also created a Legal Guide for Bloggers, which earned the a cheer from no less than Bill in Portland Maine a couple years back. Lessig has personally advocated against laws that would, under cover of protecting 'decency,' seek to restrict free speech on the net.
In the article that dubs him "the Elvis of cyberlaw," Wired magazine explains the motivation behind much of Lessig's work on copyright law:
In Eldred v. Ashcroft, his first argument before the Supreme Court — and only his second appearance before any court, in any venue — Lessig will attempt to convince the justices to overturn the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. To Lessig it is both an opportunity to make up for losing the prize that was snatched from him some four years ago, and a giant step in his crusade to stop a trend he fears may be inevitable: big-media dinosaurs controlling the Internet.
In his 2004 book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, which you can buy in a store or, since Lessig is true to his principles, download for free here, Lessig says a bit more about why blogs, in particular, need to be protected from corporate control and other forms of overregulation. Blogs, he says, are "arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have" (p. 41). And the rationale for this opinion?
...democracy has never just been about elections. Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned discourse. ... But for most of us most of the time, there is no time or place for "democratic deliberation" to occur. ... Enter the blog. (p. 42)
Blogs, he continues, are both less constrained and more democratic forms of expression than traditional media, and most aren't out to make money. And this allows (he offers an example) a story like Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond to stay alive on the blogs long after the MSM has killed it. We all know how that one ended. When the MSM is out to lunch, or out to pay for lunch, bloggers
can obsess, they can focus, they can get serious. If a particular blogger writes a particularly interesting story, more and more people link to that story. And as the number of links to a particular story increases, it rises in the ranks of stories. People read what is popular; what is popular has been generated by a very democratic process of peer-generated rankings. (p. 43)
The race in CA-12
CA-12 is a Democratic district that includes San Mateo and part of San Francisco. Its Rep in recent years was Tom Lantos, who won with 76% of the vote in 2006. He announced his intention to retire in January, and passed away earlier this month.
What matters in this district will be the Democratic primary, where Lessig, if he runs, will face longtime California state legislator Jackie Speier. If you watch Lessig's video, you'll see that Lessig is the first to admit that Speier is a good Democrat. His argument is simply this: she has also yielded to the system of monied influence that he wants to change. She has, for example, taken money from the insurance industry, which it has been part of her job as a legislator to regulate. A vote for him is a vote to change that system.
Speier has the support of the Democratic establishment, so this will be an uphill battle for Lessig. Can he win? Asking that question, I remember people like Jerry McNerney, Donna Edwards, and Larry Kissell, who all started out with steep odds and no party support. I think Lessig can win, and here's why.
Softspoken and meditative, he may be an unlikely politician, but he's also made a career out of writing and speaking clearly about complicated ideas - he's famous for, among other things, the Lessig Method of presentation, which you'll also see in the video above. And if you read a few pages of Free Culture, you'll agree that he's a great communicator. Not just a writer, either, but a masterful debater, as he proved in his many exchanges with film industry frontman Jack Valenti (video link), who vilified the VCR (piracy!) before he got around to bashing the intertubes.
Lessig will have a strong base of support at Stanford and in Silicon Valley, which thrives on innovation rather than corporate protectionism. With your help, he'll have the netroots. And to voters inclined to support Speier, he's making a common sense promise: if after four years in Congress he has failed to advance his platform, he'll step down. Speier will get another chance if he's wrong. (I don't live in or near the district, and would love to hear more about it from anyone who does.)
And he has a moving idea to communicate. I'd encourage you to check out how he explains his shift in focus from intellectual property law to governmental reform on his blog, which gives the context for the following basic tenet of Lessig's platform:
Our government cannot understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding them.
This includes facts about copyright law, yes, but the issues Lessig is prone to mention first are global warming (see the 'blog' link above, where he discusses how Gore has inspired him) and, a bit closer to home for the average voter, nutrition:
Our government pushed the World Health Organization to say that 25% of the daily intake of a child's calories should come from sugar - an absolutely crazy position. ... Why is the government getting it wrong? In America, it's because so much of politics is guided by money. [transcribed from YouTube interview linked to below]
Perhaps most importantly in this season of Dems attacking Dems, I think he can run against Speier, win or lose, without hurting her chances in the general. Lessig hates attack politics, and insists that reform must focus on the system instead of demonising individuals.
I don't think congresspeople in the United States are criminals. I don't think they're bad people. I think they're very good people - they want to do the right thing. But they live inside a system where the only way they survive is to spend fifty to seventy-five percent of their time raising money. And until we change that, they will never be able to do the right thing for the right reason.
To get a feel for his tone and temper, take a look at how he explains his support for Barack Obama (video link). Whether you agree with his choice or not - and while I support Obama, I maintain that there are good reasons to admire Clinton - we should all be united behind the principles that inform it.
Finally, here's a great, brief interview (for Danish television) where Lessig says more about his views on money in politics.
The Big Picture: Why Lessig's platform matters
These will be reminders rather than anything you didn't already know.
Think about all the Democrats, people who are allegedly, and for the most part truly, on our side and who yet, as this site is so effective at pointing out, all too often vote against our core values. Think of Jay Rockefeller and FISA: Rockefeller has raked in over $350,000 from communications & electronics companies, including telecoms, and over half a million from lawyers and lobbyists this past election cycle. To explain his vote, look no further than a list of his top contributors, where you'll quickly see AT&T on top and Verizon at #4, with contributions of over $30,000 each. Think of Jack Murtha, on the one hand a veteran who has heroically spoken out against the war in Iraq, but who has a history of curiously generous earmarks and who has often opposed ethics reform legislation in the House - a record probably responsible for giving us Steny Hoyer, rather than Murtha, as minority whip. Think of Joe Biden, in most respects a good Democrat, and his unconscionable support of the 2005 bankruptcy bill. These are good people who have been led to do bad things by a bad system.
Think, too, about the results that a wealthy individual or corporation can get for their contributions, at the expense of the public interest. Take Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, for example - follow this link and check out some of his contributions.Through 2007, they total about $225,000 to Republicans. The payoff?
Mr. Prince denied yesterday that his connections had anything to do with it, but he certainly has done well under the Bush administration. Federal contracts account for about 90 percent of the revenue of Prince Group holdings, of which Blackwater is a subsidiary. Since 2001, when it made less than $1 million in federal contracts, Blackwater has received more than $1 billion in such contracts — including at least one with the State Department for hundreds of millions of dollars that was awarded without open, competitive bidding.
Think, finally, about Democratic candidates like Andrew Rice, fighting an uphill battle for the Senate seat in Oklahoma, against James Inhofe, who gets about 35% of his money from PACs and has been richly rewarded for his obstruction, as a Senate committee chair until 2006, of meaningful global warming legislation with $200,000 from oil & gas companies and another $133,000 from electric utilities.
Pick your issue, pick your candidate: at the root of the problem you'll find a pile of money. And while organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org) are doing a lot to shed light on that money, Lessig's ideas would ensure that even more of the secrets become open and, more importantly, that there are fewer secrets in the first place.
Ethics legislation is hard to get through congressional committees, but once it comes up for a public vote, it passes by a landslide. The ethics bill that Feingold and Obama, among others, worked so hard on last year was fought against in the back rooms, but when it came up for a vote, it passed with broad bipartisan support, 86-14. And it mattered. Sunlight works wonders. And if the presidential race coming up is between McCain and Obama, the chances that politicians on both sides of the aisle will at least voice support for such ideas and thus put themselves in a bind come voting time is rising fast. If Lessig wins his race, he'll have Obama's ear and his voice behind him, and thus a lot more clout than your average first-termer. Change is possible.
Lessig is cautious, and (as he writes on his own blog,) isn't deluded into thinking he'll solve the problem entirely:
I do this with no illusions. I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist... But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try. That's true in this case.[from the blog entry linked to above]
No one ever said 'yes we can' meant that it would happen soon, or painlessly. And that quote is from before Lessig was considering a run for Congress. We can help him be a bit more optimistic.
Finally, a thankyou to Bill White,Alan in Phoenix (who tells about Lessig's early Dkos appearance), JerzyD, (twice!) and manonfyre, who have all diaried and taught me more about Lessig over the past few days. Lessig has also earned the endorsement of another diarist who represents the best of what the netroots is about, Populista.
If you want not just more Dems but better Dems in Congress, this race counts.