DocDawg: Why Not Just Trust Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday Super PAC?
“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 million…to the effort.”
“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.”
“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.”
For DocDawg, trusting Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday Super PAC comes down to a question of trusting Lessig’s character in light of his past choices. There do seem to be some legitimate questions about Lessig’s judgment, particularly when considering his choice to put fellow Americans Elect leaders Kahlil Byrd and Mark McKinnon in charge of the Super PAC. But would this kind of effort be made better simply by putting someone supposedly more wholesome at the head of the Super PAC? I’m not sure that’s the case. How many entirely wholesome people do you know? Each and every one of us has some unsavory tendencies; this is what makes humanity both interesting and occasionally dreadful. This is why heroic politicians put forward as champions for the right and good in the world inevitably disappoint; power corrupts and we all like our little nibbly bit on the side.
Lawrence Lessig’s intentions and character are not perfect. But even if Lessig were an absolute angel, his Mayday Super PAC gathering money to influence people to get rid of the influence of money could so easily run into trouble if it weren’t set up to clearly deflect corrupting tendencies. Transparent rules and procedures have the effect of thwarting nefarious machinations in political campaigns. Opaque rules and procedures have the effect of drawing out our sneaky sides. This is why Lessig’s “just give me the money first and trust me to give it to the right people” approach should attract questions.
Four days ago, I asked Lessig some questions:
Question 1: What are the Guarantees that Mayday PAC will Actually Do What it Says it Will Do? The mayday.us website features a frequently asked questions page and a general, informal essay about the PAC’s plan. But there are no firm commitments. No adopted bylaws. No document explaining exactly who is making decisions and how. This is from an organization that’s asking you to surrender $500, $1000, or $2500 of your own money to be used at its discretion. Is that appropriate without verification?
Question 2: Do Big Money Donors get a Big Say in Mayday PAC Campaign Spending? One way to think of the “matching funds” idea behind Mayday PAC is that a very small number of people are funding half the Mayday PAC operation — a very small group with very unusual financial interests. Did these big money matching donors secure any agreements from Mayday PAC as a condition of their participation? Do the big money donors obtain unusual access to Mayday PAC leadership? Do they play a formal or informal role in making decisions about how Mayday PAC spends its money?
Question 3: How Will Mayday PAC Choose the 5 Recipients of its Spending? As its own FAQ concedes, there are many more candidates than just five who support campaign finance reform. How do donors know that their money won’t be used for big spending on behalf of candidates who say they like campaign finance reform … and an end to environmental regulation? Or who like campaign finance reform … and tax breaks for multinational corporations? The Mayday PAC declares that when sorting out possible candidates to support, its leaders will avoid extremists “by selecting people who otherwise seem trustworthy and reliable.” But who decides what’s “trustworthy and reliable?” There is no clearly articulated standard by which this highly subjective decision will be made — and there should be.
He hasn’t gotten back in touch or answered my questions on his website yet. Instead, posting my question has gotten me signed up for his PAC e-mail blast list. I’ve received multiple solicitations for money instead. I hope that Lessig answers the questions, and will let you know if he does. Until then, the Mayday Super PAC bears close watching.
UPDATE, 7/8/14: The Mayday PAC has responded with answers to my questions, which you can find here.