Cronies, corruption and cash: Lawrence Lessig on why we need a super PAC to end all super PACs

Harvard professor tells Salon the strategy, nuts-and-bolts and urgent rationale behind his nascent "Mayday PAC"

Published June 18, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Andy Kropa)
(AP/Andy Kropa)

This past May, center-right GOP strategist Mark McKinnon and Harvard Law School professor, author and activist Lawrence Lessig announced the launch of what sounded like a real contradiction — a super PAC to end all super PACs. Called "the Mayday PAC," McKinnon and Lessig's creation was something of an experiment, an attempt to see if the power of big money in post-Citizens United American politics could be wielded in order to, well, end the post-Citizens United era of big money in American politics.

Earlier this month, after raising more than $1 million in just 13 days, the duo made clear that they were going to shoot even higher. If Mayday PAC could raise $5 million by July 4, they said, a collection of wealthy backers had agreed to match. That means, potentially, the PAC would head into the 2014 election with $12 million to burn. "With that money," the PAC promises on its site, "we will make fundamental reform the key issue in five congressional races. And win."

This week, Salon called up Lessig in order to discuss some of the details of the Mayday PAC and the vexing problem of money and democracy in America more generally. We also touched on Eric Cantor's recent shocking defeat and how inequality causes political polarization. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What's the goal of this new super PAC?

The aim of the super PAC is to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016. Fundamental reform in the way elections are funded. To do that, we want to run a pilot in 2014 in five districts to demonstrate that this issue matters to voters and to put Congress on notice in 2016 that we’ll be back in a much bigger way.

When did you come up with this idea?

I’ve been thinking for a couple years about the need to pull together a large amount of resources to try to bring about a change in Congress on this issue. But it’s only in the last couple months, maybe in the beginning of the year, that people were suggesting that we think about doing it in two stages, and that in the first stage we crowd-fund or kickstart as much of that project as possible. So that was the risk, the gamble, that we took and it paid off pretty powerfully in May; and now we’re in the middle of a much, much more ambitious project in June, and we’ll see if we can deliver by July 4 on this one.

For those who may not be familiar with your work, what are some of the policies you'd want the PAC to be supporting?

In our view, the fundamental problem with American politics is that we have outsourced the funding of campaigns to a tiny, tiny fraction of Americans. Now, it would be obvious why that’s a problem if I said we outsourced the funding of our campaigns to the Chinese. Everyone would understand why that’s a problem. But it’s just as much a problem when we outsource it to a tiny, tiny fraction of Americans, because they have enormous leverage inside the process and that leverage systematically undermines the capacity of our democracy to actually do what the people want it to do. That’s been confirmed in a thousand ways, most dramatically, recently, by the study at Princeton by Gilens and Page, who found ... in the largest empirical study of policy decisions in the history of political science ... there’s no independent influence by the average voter on government policy, while there’s lots of independent influence from the economic elite and business interests. So that’s the problem.

The solution to that problem is to change the way we fund elections. To make it so it’s not the tiny fraction of the 1 percent, but instead a much broader swath of America who are funding elections. The kind of reforms that we’re pointing to are reforms that would change the way elections are funded. There are Democratic proposals like [Rep.] John Sarbanes' matching grant proposal and the Government by the People Act that would say small dollar contributions can be matched up to 9-to-1; and then there are Republican proposals, voucher proposals — voters get vouchers that they can give to candidates to fund their campaigns in smaller ways. Both of these solutions spread out the funder influence, so it isn’t [just] the tiniest slice of the 1 percent who’s funding anymore, it’s most of America.

And do you think these solutions are more likely to survive the courts in a post-Citizens United era?

Yes. So first, the reforms I’m talking about are perfectly constitutional under the existing rules of the Supreme Court. Second, I also think they’re more effective in addressing the problem than so-called draconian solutions to basically cut the size of spending in political elections, because regardless how much is spent, if it’s raised from this tiny, tiny fraction of the 1 percent, you still have this same dynamic of leveraged power to that tiny, tiny fraction relative to the rest of us. So everybody’s obsessed with too much money spent in politics, or too much negative ads, or corporations having the right to speak — [but] none of those address the dynamic I’m talking about, lying at the core of the problem, and that’s the dynamic that changing the way we fund elections would address.

OK, so back to the nuts and bolts of the PAC: Do you have any specific lawmakers in mind as potential targets?

We have a list of about 10 people who are plausible right now. We won’t make a final determination until we’re absolutely confident we’ll have the funding, and once we rerun the numbers to make sure [the aforementioned lawmakers] still make sense as the people to be targeting.

What kind of numbers will you be running? What's your criteria?

We need to run in districts where it would be a significant victory if we won. Nobody’s going to match beating Eric Cantor, but something like that. So that’s going to depend upon how challenging the race is and what the particular saliency of this issue might be in that district.

The decision to wait until you know for sure what your funding will be, does this extend as well into considerations about staff and so forth?

When we raise the money, we’ll be hiring basically campaign firms to run the campaign. I’m not going to be in the business of running campaigns. So we think of it as a two-stage process: pull together the resources, and then pass the resources into the context that can most effectively spend them to win in those five districts.

Had any political operatives reached out to you to express interest in joining the super PAC, assuming it's able to raise enough money and get off the ground?

Yes, way too many to list. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about what’s the best mix of advice and leadership — and it’s still premature to say we’re going to be in a position to continue after July with the program we’re talking about — but once we’re closer, then I hope we’re going to be in a position to turn out some really exciting leadership.

Again, assuming the funding is there, how involved do you plan to be in making the tactical and strategic decisions?

I want to be hands-off. Obviously, I’ve mused about strategy, but I’m not a strategy expert — my expertise is thinking about the law and the way money has corrupted our political system. So I’m in the business of, once we get the design done, let's hire the builders to do it.

So questions about whether to devote more money to television ads or grass-roots organizing, you'll leave that to the experts?

To a certain extent. Here’s the extent of how I want to push this: I think there are many people who believe that technology has been underutilized in bringing new people to politics, bringing new people out to vote, and we’ve been talking to a lot of different people who are keenly interested in thinking about the next generation of technology to engage people and to bring them out. And indeed ... many people are skeptical we can win at all in races, on this issue in particular. We think technology is going to be really important for engaging people, identifying new people, new kinds of support and getting them out. So it’s not like we’ve got a suite of cookie-cutter firms that we’re thinking about; what we’ve got is a mix, for the objective of winning, between traditional firms and people who are thinking about technology in a different way, to complement the work of those traditional firms.

To return to something you mentioned a bit ago, I wanted to ask you for your response to Rep. Eric Cantor's recent shocking defeat. 

What was striking to me about Brat’s campaign is, if you looked at the issues he talked about on his website, No. 2 on that list was crony capitalism. And his consistent attack on Cantor was that although Cantor set himself up as a free market conservative, his behavior was constantly to bend towards the interests of the cronies — and in this context the cronies are the funders of campaign. Now, this is not the first time we’ve seen a so-called Republican revolution sell out to the cronies. If you read Bob Kaiser’s great book "So Damn Much Money," he tells the story of the Gingrich revolution coming in and promising to shrink the size of government, and within the first election cycle, Gingrich and his leaders make the decision that actually that’s going to be too costly for campaign fundraising, so they back off of their ideological objective in order to facilitate the acts of fundraising. I look at Brat’s victory not as a victory of a fellow traveler in some sense — because there are many things that he says that I just disagree with — but I certainly agree with him identifying the way in which cronyism has undermined the integrity of the Republican Party. I would say the same thing has happened in the Democratic Party, too.

I don't know if you saw this yet, but a recent Pew report details the ways in which American politics has become so much more polarized in just the past 20 or so years. Do you think the problem you describe of having a "tiny, tiny" sliver of the 1 percent funding nearly all of our campaigns is part of the reason we're seeing such increasing polarization?

Absolutely. The relationship is complicated, though. People talk about polarization, but what’s interesting is the inconsistent polarization in American politics. On certain issues, you could call them the business interests issues; there’s no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. Think about deregulation of Wall Street in the '90s: The Democrats and the Republicans were racing to out-compete each other and demonstrate how quickly they could deregulate, because Wall Street made it very clear that they were going to reward the deregulators, and so each [party] was eager to get all of that money from business interests. So when it comes to business interests, there’s one party in America.

But on social issues, there are two radically different parties in America, and this is influenced by the fact that the strategy for fundraising in the smaller-dollar range is linked directly to the extremism of the message. So Chris Murphy, the Democrat, the younger member of the Senate from Connecticut, talks about how, when they’ll send a message out criticizing the Republicans, they raise three times the amount of money that they raise when they send out a message praising things that the Democrats are doing. The business model of teaching us to hate each other is at the core of how you raise money from the fringes, so it’s not surprising to me at all that as the intensity of the fundraising has gone up — which it certainly has because of the rising competition in politics — the intensity of polarization is going to go up as well.

We’re in this place where the only way [one side will] succeed is to convince us the other side is the devil, and that’s what increasingly we believe. Frankly, not just [the political parties]. You look at television, even online media ... look at the evolution of online portals, where they become ways to view the world in a particularly tainted or flavored way, as opposed to ways of viewing the world [as it is]. So MSNBC vs. Fox is about each side trying to convince the base that the other side is crazy, and relishing the opportunity to show the other side is crazy. That’s a profitable business model for media [and] it’s also profitable for politicians, at least so long as we fund campaigns the way that we fund campaigns today.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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