Lawrence Lessig and George Takei have a plan to save American politics

by Ezra Klein on July 14, 2014

story,interview

A week before his deadline Lawrence Lessig was nervous.

Lessig, the rock star law professor (and one-time Scalia clerk) who kicked off the Creative Commons revolution and has dedicated himself to saving American politics from big money, had set a ludicrous goal: raise $6 million online for a Super PAC to kill all Super PACs by July 4th. He had lined up donors who would match that $6 million with another $6 million. And then he would use the $12 million — or more, if he got it — to win five congressional races in 2014, showing that big money could elect members of Congress who would dedicate themselves to ridding politics of big money. Then he would raise even more money for 2016 and elect a whole Congress ready to make make Super PACs like Lessig's obsolete.

But with mere days to go Lessig was millions of dollars short of his goal. Then George Takei got involved.

Yes, that George Takei. Hikaru Sulu from the USS Enterprise. He’s become something of a secular saint in progressive politics — and an absolute powerhouse on social media.

"I actually think if you look at the numbers and how things took off it’s because we were introduced to a whole new network of people by George Takei," says Lessig. "He’s got like 7 million people. He tweeted us on Friday morning and after he pushed us things went through the roof. And then I think July 4th really helped. People were sitting at home on Independence Day and they figured what better way to create independence then support a PAC to free our politics from big money?"

But now Lessig needs to something that’s arguably even harder than raising $12 million to spend on elections. He needs to spend $12 million on elections — and spend it well. For all the hype, most Super PACs that try to buy elections fail miserably. That’s even true for the PACs run by skilled campaign operatives.

Karl Rove’s primary Super PAC, American Crossroads, spent more than $100 million in the 2012 election. An analysis by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation concluded that precisely zero of those dollars ended up going to winning candidates, though some of Rove's secondary Super PACs did marginally better. "Karl Rove and his investors were the biggest losers on Election Day" wrote Bloomberg News. Even Donald Trump weighed in:

Lessig, who has far less campaign experience than Rove, needs to win a lot more races while spending a lot less money than American Crossroads. And for his plan to work — for 2014 to be the proof of concept Lessig needs for the massive push he envisions in 2016 — he needs to win those races convincingly.

"We don't just want easy victories," Lessig says. "We need victories that translate into a clear signal in Washington. We need races where it's clear that we were the reason for the win." That ties Lessig's hands strategically, too. "We won't just go into a race and kick up dirt around an extramarital affair. We need it to be clear that we won based on our issue because we need to show people care about money in politics."

The stakes are high: if the Mayday PAC spends $12 million and loses five races it will be taken as proof that people just don't care that much about the influence money has in politics. It will be another reason for cynicism. But if they win, it could be the first step towards ending that influence.

"The conventional wisdom is people aren't engaged in this issue," Lessig says. "But our belief is they're not engaged because they don't feel they can do anything about it. Give them a plan and they want to participate."

Ezra Klein: A few weeks ago it didn't look likely that the Mayday PAC would meet its goals. Then you had this incredible last-minute surge. What do you think happened?

Lawrence Lessig: I think a couple of things happened. First we got a lot of play by PCCC [the Progressive Change Campaign Committee] and MoveOn. But I actually think if you look at the numbers and how things took off it's because we were introduced to a whole new network of people by George Takei. He's got like 7 million people on Facebook. He tweeted us on Friday morning and after he pushed us things went through the roof. And then I think July 4th really helped. People were sitting at home on Independence Day and they figured what better way to create independence then support a PAC to free our politics from big money?

EK: So now you have $12 million or maybe a bit more to spend in the 2014 election. That's a lot of pressure, in a sense: you have to persuade your donors that you can use their money well. And winning elections is hard even if you have a lot of money. So what do you do next?

LL: We've been looking at which races would make sense for awhile. We're doing a final calculation of about 10 districts and deciding which ones would be the most significant victories. We don't just want easy victories, We need victories that translate into a clear signal in Washington. We need races where it's clear that we were the reason for the win, where the outcome was unexpected, like in Eric Cantor's primary. Obviously it won't be quite as big as that, but it needs to be clear.

What we're not doing is building a campaign shop. We're going to professional campaign shops and recruiting them for these campaigns. And we know we need to know not just how to win five seats this year but how to elect a congress committed to campaign finance reform in 2016.

EK: What counts as success for you? Do you need to win all five elections? Win three? Is even losing okay because you'll be learning for 2016?

LL: Well, from the pure analytics perspective anything is a success. But from the political perspective we need significant victories. Analytically, we're going to have a wide portfolio of experiments for engaging people in these issues and seeing what works. In January we'll be able to sit down and look at what spending $100,000 to talk about this in a certain way in a certain district means for the vote. That's really important learning for 2016. But to excite not 50,000 supporters but 500,000 supporters we need a big victory. We need someone no one expected to get beaten over this issue.

EK: In a sense, you're trying to turn the tools of the system against itself: you're using a Super PAC to fight Super PACs, and you're using campaign consultants, who really make their living based on the huge amounts of money in the system, to try and elect a Congress that will get money out of the system. How do you find campaign-class traitors like that?

LL: I'm actually not trying to reform that part of the system. There will still be a lot of money in the system. The problem that I think exists right now isn't the spending but the fundraising. So I have no problem with going out and finding the most efficient way to get what we want. The way we're really constrained is in how we'll achieve that result. We won't just go into a race and kick up dirt around an extramarital affair. We need it to be clear that we won based on our issue because we need to show people care about money in politics.

EK: When I called you for our interview today your phone played a message that made clear you're personally fielding a lot of calls from your donors. What have you learned talking to them?

LL: I think what I've learned is that there is this near-desperation.The idea that you would click on a link and donate hundreds or thousands of dollars is an expression of a desperation with the political system. I've inadvertently played the role of customer service agent because the credit card companies stupidly put my telephone number as the customer-service number so whenever people had a question they called me. But that was kind of cool. It was an inadvertent humanizing dimension to the whole experience. What it taught me is if you can give people hope about this they respond in a very powerful way. The conventional wisdom is people aren't engaged in this issue. But our belief is they're not engaged because they don't feel they can do anything about it. Give them a plan and they want to participate.

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