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Thoughtful. Penetrating. Cambridge cool.
And leaning ever so slightly to the right....
To his credit, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has built a notable career, in part, around the twin topics of the pernicious influence of big money in politics and the resulting need for fundamental campaign finance reform. And who can argue with that? But no one knows better (by now) than Lessig that authoring books (Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress — and a Plan to Stop It), founding activist organizations (Rootstrikers), and TED-talking -- however great they might be for building the Lessig™ brand -- won't get the job done by themselves. No, the missing ingredient in Lessig's Secret Salvation Sauce, the sine qua non in the fight against Big Money In Politics, is and always has been....Big Money. Because it takes fire to fight fire. And now, with Lessig's latest adventure, Mayday PAC, he aims to get just that. From you, please. The thesis of Mayday PAC's Kickstarter-style initiative is simplicity itself:
We need a team of legislators in Congress who will champion the public policies necessary to fix our broken government, starting by ending the stranglehold of big money on our political system. For 2014, our goal is to create a $12 million fund. With that money, we will make fundamental reform the key issue in five congressional races. And win.
Hey, what could possibly go wrong, right? Well, let's think about that below the flourish.

Lessig's flirtation with the concept of Using Big Money in Politics to Get Big Money Out of Politics isn't new. In his previous effort he served as a member of the Board of Advisors to and vocal public advocate for 2012's most quixotic and shady (and failed) political adventure, Americans Elect (AE), the not-a-party political party (and corporation) that aimed to appeal to teh kidz by staging an online primary to choose a "centrist" presidential candidate that AECorp would subsequently provide, for 'free,' with 50-state ballot access. That kind of technology development and ballot-access petitioning doesn't come cheap, and AECorp brought serious money...$35 the effort.

AECorp's fatal flaw, as it turns out, wasn't its what, but rather its who and how. And therein lies a lesson regarding the quality of Lessig's judgement.

On its 'who' side, AECorp was the brainchild (and multi-million dollar beneficiary) of Wall Street tycoon, junk-bond princeling under Michael Milken, and serial tax avoider, founder Peter Ackerman, and drew to its Board of Directors and committee leadership such unsavory characters as:

  • William Webster -- former director of both the FBI and CIA and Chairman of the Board of Advisors of Diligence LLC, the ‘Rent-A-Spy’ to the worlds of finance and industry founded by ex-CIA and MI-5 operatives
  • Tom Sansonetti -- head of DC lobbying firm Holland & Hart's 'Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Practice Group', (AKA, coal, oil, and gas lobbyist)
  • Will Marshall -- co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, which Howard Dean famously branded “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party,”
  • David Walker -- founding CEO of the billion-dollar ultra-conservative Peter G. Peterson Foundation and serial beneficiary of Peterson's political big-money largesse through multiple initiatives

Unsurprisingly, throughout its short intense life AECorp categorically refused to divulge the names of its millionaire and billionaire donors.

Despite its dark origins, unsavory leadership, and impenetrable plutocratic funding, Lessig was an active and vociferous champion of AECorp throughout its life, both officially (as a leading member of its Board of Advisors) and as its high-profile apologist in print and online (publishing an early and influential paen to AECorp, The Last Best Chance for Campaign Finance Reform: Americans Elect, in The Atlantic and prominently pooh-poohing concerns regarding its secret funding and plutocratic leadership in his blog).

Was Lessig on the take? Of course not. Was he blinded to the fathomless knavery of AECorp out of his uncontrollable excitement over the fact that here, at last, was The Big Money In Politics to End Big Money In Politics? You betcha.

Vitally important in our effort to measure Lessig's judgement in matters concerning his pet cause is also the issue of AECorp's 'how': how it proposed to select its non-party third-party presidential ticket. On the surface, this was egalitarianism itself: anyone could nominate either himself or someone else, and the surviving nominee through multiple rounds of online voting would be the recipient of AECorp's hard-won 50-state ballot access. But, below the surface, careful readers of its Bylaws and rules discovered just the opposite: the corporation's Bylaws reserved to its unelected and self-appointed Board of Directors "extraordinary power and authority to take or compel any action," including arbitrarily disqualifying candidates whom the Board did not favor, and even including rejecting the primary-winning ticket and crowning a ticket of the Board's own choice, instead, leading some wags to re-christen Americans Elect as "Ackerman Selects," since chairman Ackerman selected the Board's members who, in turn, had the power to select the corporation's nominee without reference to the convention balloting. Additional anti-egalitarian measures enshrined in AECorp's rules set the bar for winning the online vote several times higher for 'nobodies' than for Board-sanctioned 'somebodies' such as congressmen, senators, CEOs, large university presidents, and high military brass.

With his vociferous support for this sort of pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain legerdemain blotting his judgement's reputation, it seems fair to insist that Lessig has some 'splainin to do when he proposes to found and lead his own crowdfunded SuperPAC. So how does Mayday PAC propose to choose the beneficiaries of its independent expenditure campaigning activities? The Mayday PAC web site is largely silent on this matter:

we will launch a small campaign in at least 5 congressional districts.
Ah, good. Pray tell, which five? Who will choose?
the money raised is turned over to professional campaigners, who will craft interventions in targeted districts to make fundamental reform the issue in that campaign — and to make the reform candidate the winner.
Ah yes, so you're a one-issue PAC. And if your interventions happen to hand control of the Senate to Republicans...shrug.
What does “fundamental reform” mean? What specific proposals do you support? We want to reform the way campaigns are funded. As we see it, the critical problem in American politics today is that a tiny fraction of Americans are the effective, or relevant, funders of congressional campaigns. We want to spread that influence out, to include the widest number of citizens as the effective funders of campaigns. There are a range of proposals that would do this — some better than others, but all which would achieve fundamental reform. Lawrence Lessig’s campaign finance reform group Rootstrikers has listed five specific proposals at, and that list may evolve.
Ah. I see. Basically, then, "no comment." Or, at least, "no commitment." Ya donates yer money, ya takes yer chances.
Is campaign reform the only “screen” that will be used to decide which candidate(s) to support? Yes. Support for fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded is the essential filter now. And while there are other issues that we all feel passionate about, the one and only thing that our pledgers and volunteers are unanimously united on is the need to reform the way we fund elections in the United States.
Ah. So, for "now" your litmus test is "support for fundamental reform" (whatever that means). Tomorrow morning, maybe not so much. And we should likewise rest assured your "pledgers and volunteers" are single-mindedly focused on is the need for campaign finance reform. But, uh, what about the guys who decide how to spend our donations? Hmm? (...crickets...)
Isn’t it possible that otherwise “awful” candidates could say they will support campaign reform and then not actually do so once elected? How can you deal with this?
Yes, that’s possible, but we will select candidates to minimize that possibility (by selecting people who otherwise seem trustworthy and reliable)
Oh, thank goodness. For a moment there I was concerned you might use my money to support candidates who seem untrustworthy and unreliable.

Why do these trust and character issues matter so much? Well, for one thing, money you donate to single-issue Mayday PAC is money you don'tate to your favorite multi-issue candidate...and who knows how this might affect progressives' efforts to defend the Senate, take the House, combat climate change, defend womens rights and voting rights and healthcare, and more? And for another thing, we need to be concerned regarding Lessig's judgement here not only on the basis of his past bad behavior, but...more importantly...on the basis of his current choice of friends and associates. Note, for instance, that in the Number 2 spot on Mayday's "About Us" page is none other than Kahlil Byrd, ex-CEO of Americans Elect and, subsequently, ex-President of Michelle Rhee's union-busting and charter-school-promoting StudentsFirst. Has Lessig ever met a right-wing minion he didn't like?

If Americans Elect Corporation was, as Lessig has breathlessly and repeatedly asserted, America's "last best chance for campaign finance reform," then what does that make his new Mayday PAC?

Sun Jul 06, 2014 at 11:54 AM PT: UPDATE: New news regarding Mayday's efforts can be found in this July 6th diary.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (9+ / 0-)

    No person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man's only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place -- a much humbler place than we have been taught to think -- in the order of creation. (Wendell Berry)

    by DocDawg on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 09:45:02 AM PDT

  •  On teh One Hand It Took a Rich Man to Head the (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, Musial, happymisanthropy, AoT

    Administration that had the only serious success at tempering the extreme wealth concentration favoring the rich, that we ever had in our history. But FDR had a huge amount of help and his efforts were largely democratically supported and transparent.

    "Trust me" hasn't served me well with computer operating systems or central intelligence agencies. I wouldn't expect it to in this area either.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 10:29:48 AM PDT

    •  The irony of course is that Lessig (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DocDawg, Musial, Victor Ward, Odysseus

      would never suggest trust as a good idea when it comes to Computer systems. He made his name on intellectual property law, specifically opposing intellectual property and copyrights. CopyLeft and the Creative Commons both being part of his legacy. He most likely is approaching this in the same way he approached that, as contract law of some sort, where you can just make some technical tweaks and have a very different system with just some new legalese.

      And he got to the point where he realized that money in politics was a problem because of where he came from. Seeing Disney get it's copyright for mickey renewed every time it came up to go to public domain, and the blatantly bought senators and reps who made it happen.

      The issue of course, as the issue so often is, is that he's working outside his field on this. Campaign finance and politics is completely different than intellectual property.

      No War but Class War

      by AoT on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 11:13:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent work (5+ / 0-)

    There's been growing speculation about this project and its value - you've provided extremely worthwhile background on the concept and the players.

    “Texas is a so-called red state, but you’ve got 10 million Democrats here in Texas. And …, there are a whole lot of people here in Texas who need us, and who need us to fight for them.” President Obama

    by Catte Nappe on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 10:30:09 AM PDT

  •  Nice job. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy, Victor Ward

    This is a very sophisticated shell game, with a pretense of legislation and no mention what it is, and he gets away with it. Lessig is like Madoff in that he sincerely thinks he's helping people and people sincerely think he's helping. But the most cursory review raises a red flag. Dems apparently avoid the issue as much as does the GOP, the party bosses propose an impossible amendment as political theater. Actual Court curbing legislation is not only available but is Congress's duty as a check and balance against the supremacist Court. See FDR's fireside chat 3-9-37. See also Bruce Ackerman, "We the People" re: modern Democratic Party philosophy of constitutional revolution versus fool's errand of textual amendment.

    Regarding the direction of the DP I would trust FDR's advice, having won 4 presidential elections and WWII, his credentials as a strategist are trustworthy. He adopted the rule that all legislative means possible should be exhausted to curb a system-crashing Court. His first choice was sufficiently threatening that within weeks the Court switched in time to save its legitimacy. Today what is called for is abrogation of Buckley and progeny, with regulations amounting to abolition of private campaign funding, and provisions for exceptions to pretended jurisdiction where the Court has violated separation of powers.

    The time is ripe not only to settle accounts with the Court but to guarantee that the Court's routine encroachment on Congressional powers cannot be revived, as a guarantee of a republican form of government under Art 4 Sec. 4. If the Court will not observe the doubtful case rule and the political question doctrine, then it is Congress's task to prevent the Court from legislating. Legislation should include a procedure for referendum on Court violations as was developed by the Progressive Party a century ago and has become necessary in the post-Buckley crisis.


  •  Lessig (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TracieLynn, DocDawg, AoT

    Since I live in Cambridge, MA you can dismiss this all as more elitist babble but I've met and talked with Lessig and even attended a conference he put together a few years ago at Harvard Law School to talk about the possibility of a new constitutional convention.

    My impression is that Lessig is in some ways politically naive.  He seems to believe in the real possibility of bi-partisanship.  However, I'm not sure that he knows anything about the Left.  He was a Reagan Republican as a young man and the conference on a constitutional convention was stacked very much towards the Tea Party side of the world.  There were no bona fide Lefties among the speakers, to my mind.

    I suspect that he takes professional snake-oil salesmen like Mark McKinnon, whom I've also seen up close and personal (the advantages of living close to Harvard), seriously.  

    However, Lessig is extremely smart and a great teacher.  He may not be wise or as politically savvy as he should be but he learns.

    Even though I've contributed to the MayDay Pac I'm not sure that our Big Money can outspend their (you know THEM) Big Money nor that electoral politics is the only lever we have for change, an opinion that is as outside the ken of Dkos as it may be for Lessig.

    Still, MayDay Pac is not America's Elect and may be worth a chance.

    •  True, Mayday PAC is not Americans Elect (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AoT, Victor Ward, gmoke

      ...but the more you squint, the closer it sure looks. Further AECorp roots of Mayday include Mark McKinnon, board member and treasurer. McKinnon served alongside Lessig and Byrd as a member of AE's Board of Advisors. In public presentations, McKinnon disingenuously defended AE's refusal to identify its mega-donors as serving "to protect candidates from donor influence," and in a Daily Beast article promoted the AECorp candidacy of David Walker in violation of AECorp's own neutrality rule. Meanwhile, over at Lessig's Rootstrikers, national campus coordinator Blake Wright was previously Americans Elect's National Campus Director.

      No person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man's only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place -- a much humbler place than we have been taught to think -- in the order of creation. (Wendell Berry)

      by DocDawg on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 12:22:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  McKinnon (0+ / 0-)

        He's a real slime, to my mind.  First time I saw him was at a Harvard brown bag lunch talk by Mark Gerson and he ran interference for him while eating his lunch.  Gerson himself is not someone I'd like to be in an elevator with either, practically frothing at the mouth when the subject of abortion came up.

        McKinnon always wears hats, his trademark, and is very cutesy.  Wanted to be Nashville songwriter and musician but became a political consultant instead.

        Harvard loves him (Harvard loooves its Repugs).  He's had at least two fellowships there that I know of.

        Lessig needs a crash course in the history of progressive politics, a day and a half with Noam Chomsky would do him a lot of good.  Sorry to hear that a refugee from America's Elect (my more apt name for that smarmy group) is part of the MayDay Pac.

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