In two previous diaries I have outlined concerns regarding Lawrence Lessig's proposed brainchild, the PAC-to-end-all-PACs, Mayday PAC, based on Lessig's past record of appalling misjudgements when it comes to electoral activism, and most recently reported that Mayday's drive to collect $5 million in online donations by this past Fourth of July succeeded, thus unleashing Lessig's latest vision on the 2014 election cycle (and, presumably, those of 2016 and beyond, as well).
Meanwhile, over at the progressive blog Irregular Times, Jim Cook has been asking his own tough-but-fair questions of Mayday PAC, to which they have just responded (sort-of).
Question 1: What are the Guarantees that Mayday PAC will Actually Do What it Says it Will Do?
Question 2: Do Big Money Donors get a Big Say in Mayday PAC Campaign Spending?
Question 3: How Will Mayday PAC Choose the 5 Recipients of its Spending?
Last night, Rachel Perkins of the Mayday PAC wrote back to me with a response:
Sorry it took me a while to get to your email, but I wanted to spend a little time answering it.
There is, frankly, nothing guaranteeing that MayDay PAC will spend the money as we have committed to. We said we will use the money to get people elected based on the issue of campaign finance reform. That is our intention. This is something that folks are willing to take on faith, and I am personally super grateful for that. Any guarantee we could offer beyond our own word would be worthless, in my opinion.
The one and only issue we are interested in is campaign finance reform. It is why our ‘big money’ matchers have chosen to match the donations of our supporters. They don’t have another agenda, or they would have spent that money elsewhere. They are not going to be involved in the selection of races we get involved in, nor are they going to direct our activities.
In the coming weeks, we will be announcing the matchers for the $5M as well as plans for spending the money in the upcoming 2014 elections–our top priority.
It’s important to us that we be as transparent as possible. To this end, we’ll be posting this information and ongoing communication from Prof. Lessig on the new MayDay.US blog.
On their face, these are mostly soothingly reassuring answers (although small-dollar grassroots online donors who chose "Democrats Only" for the "Who To Fund?" option may be forgiven for feeling a bit of a gut-twinge at Perkins' otherwise commendably frank "no guarantees" response. Wait...what?). But at their heart, these assurances are all of the "oh, you can trust us" variety. And, as I have previously pointed out
, anytime a stranger says "trust me" as he asks you for money, you are best advised to look at the guy's past track record regarding trustability...a record that many have found wanting in Lessig's case.
But in response to Cook's article, one reader points out there what is perhaps an even better reason to not be too quick to be satisfied by Mayday's balm of reassurances:
I think that your characterization of Mayday’s “wall between money coming in and choices coming out” is overly rosy.
Say that, for the moment, we take Lessig on Mayday’s word that its big-money matching donors “are not going to be involved in the selection of races we get involved in, nor are they going to direct our activities.” I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this, at least until more data are in. But that statement is not to say that Mayday’s internal decisions regarding which candidates to target won’t, consciously or unconsciously, be colored by their own concerns regarding how their decisions will be received by those big-money donors. I think it is almost always disingenuous to suppose that the cardinal rule of human economy, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” has somehow been suspended by the power of good intentions.
Not to put words in Lessig’s mouth, but I suspect that he would answer this concern with some rosy notions regarding Mayday being ‘grassroots’ and ‘crowdfunded,’ and therefore immune to considerations regarding big-money donors’ personal interests. But Mayday’s recently-concluded $6M fund drive [now matched by a handful of zillionaires] demonstrated that the organization still views big-money donors as their sine qua non…otherwise they would have foregone big-money donations from the beginning. And wherever millionaires' and billionaires' financial contributions are viewed as essential, so too their interests and concerns will be attended to.
Mayday has made it clear that interference in five House races this year is only its beginning…it has expressed its intentions to grow dramatically from there and interfere in many, many races in 2016. In order to achieve that kind of growth, it will almost certainly have to keep its big-money donors smiling. It won’t do that by opposing too many candidates those donors [support] on personal-interest grounds, nor by supporting candidates whose positions make those donors feel threatened.
I don’t doubt that Lessig’s heart is in the right place…sort-of, I guess. But he has long shown an extreme over-eagerness to sincerely believe that human nature can be suspended by the sheer force of good intentions, and seems to see such omnipotent good intentions in everyone he likes. In short, Lessig has more than once demonstrated that he’s a chump, not to put too fine a point on it.
What I want to know is, what internal processes will Mayday implement and strictly adhere to in order to avoid being chumped (thus allowing its small-money grassroots donors to be chumped, as well)?
The road to hell really is
paved with good intentions, and one of the many lanes on the highway to hell is the all-too-human proclivity to tend, unconsciously or otherwise, to avoid biting down too hard on the hand that feeds you. In this regard, "our intentions are good" doesn't equal 'fiduciary responsibility.'
Mayday has made it abundantly clear that it is a single-issue PAC (for the moment, anyway...remember: 'no guarantees'), which is to say that if its choices regarding which congressional races to interfere in just happen, purely coincidentally, to enable fracking in your backyard, or the harassment-impeachment of President Obama, or defunding the ACA, or whatever...oh well! At least Lessig meant well, and isn't that what really counts?
But with Mayday PAC no longer just an academic threat, but rather now a cold, hard reality, it is time to stop simply moaning about it, and time instead to start pushing on it. I didn't (and won't) donate to Mayday, so I personally have no leverage. But judging from some of the comments on my preceding diaries, more than a few Daily Kos readers are small donors to Mayday. OK, I honor your own good intentions. But I would submit that, as members of the thought-leading progressive community in America today (DKos), it is now your responsibility to press to insure that Mayday does the right thing with your money.
For starters, if you selected "Democrats Only" as the specified beneficiaries of your donation, you might want to consider writing Mayday to ask about that whole "no guarantees" thing and to reassert your instruction that your contribution is to go in support of Democratic candidates only. Because otherwise, (although I'm no campaign finance attorney) I'm pretty sure that "no guarantees" trumps your selection from a drop-down menu. And while you're at it, you might want to inquire regarding what solid internal controls and transparent visibility Mayday has in place to help it live up to its good intentions to bite the big-money hand that feeds it if that's what's required? For instance, will Mayday agree to publish in a timely fashion the complete transcripts of all its internal meetings in which the subject of which candidates to support is discussed?
Because fighting for transparency, without fighting with transparency, simply flies in the face of everything we know about human nature. And one thing we know for sure about Lawrence Lessig (aside from his past horrific mistakes) is this: he's human.