A Mayday PAC Postmortem: Lawrence Lessig And The Right To Lose

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No one ever accused Larry Lessig — cofounder and face of Mayday PAC — of media shyness. Last winter the relentless self-promoter walked across New Hampshire to draw attention to campaign finance reform. But the self-appointed corruption slayer who told his followers to “embrace the irony” of raising tons of political money to rid politics of money wasn’t taking media inquiries two days after his experiment failed spectacularly. Even his public relations flacks were reduced to worn pablum after the PAC spent 97 percent of its money on losing candidates.

If Lessig is shell-shocked by the public’s failure to embrace his cause, the error is his. Lessig’s hubris was in thinking he could turn a self-serving progressive power play into a national movement. In so doing, he woefully misread the electorate’s priorities. Lessig compounded analysis errors with strategic mistakes that ultimately resulted in the kind of shellacking that produces radio silence.

Voters simply don’t believe Washington can magically fix itself by passing another law; their concerns hit much closer to home.

Americans undoubtedly assume their political leaders are on the take. When asked if they favor laws to reduce money in politics, 90 percent say yes. Lessig believed the polling data along with some cherry-picked academic scholarship contained the recipe for a political movement. But his polling said nothing about the public’s passion for campaign finance reform or even good government.

Similar majorities favor gun-purchase background checks, but as Michael Bloomberg learned, few will vote solely on that. And the Princeton study Lessig repeatedly cited turned out to be more nuanced than he stated. The researchers found average people and the wealthy actually broadly agree on most policy positions. Issues where they disagree, school prayer and abortion for example, are not places progressives like Lessig want commoners getting their way.

It is unsurprising Lessig does not understand what motivates ordinary people on election day. The Harvard professor is the prototypical public intellectual. His schedule is littered with academic forums where he gives flashy presentations to other liberals complete with exquisitely timed jokes. One has to live in a certain stratosphere to have a pet project like campaign finance reform, or even to have pet projects at all. This explains how progressive billionaire Tom Steyer obliviously blew $57 million on global warming alarmism this election. Pondering how Washington works or the earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide is a luxury most people can’t afford. And they are more than a bit skeptical politicians in Washington can “end corruption” by passing another law, as reformers advocate.

Lessig compounded his flawed analysis with strategic blunders. First he tried to morph what will always be progressive domain into a nonpartisan movement. He habitually trotted out Mayday PAC’s “Republican” cofounder and promoted any non-Democrat candidate willing to take the bait.

Lessig’s partner Mark McKinnon, however, is on the extreme moderate flank of Republicanism. He is a ‘former’ Democrat who worked for George W. Bush and now prefers Not to be Labeled. And Lessig’s strained efforts at bipartisanship alienated his liberal base, making him distrusted on both sides. Instead of strictly appealing to his natural supporters, he walked a five-month tightrope, which bought him little support on the right and massive angst on the left.

Moreover, Mayday PAC’s advertising was unimaginatively conventional. The ads were mostly cookie-cutter attacks touting progressive themes like greedy Republicans absconding with grandma’s health insurance. They projected Mayday as just another interest group with an axe to grind. When Lessig did think outside the box, the results were unseemly. He once tried to entice voters into watching a five-minute infomercial with promises of gift cards or other goodies—not exactly the best image for a PAC complaining about ‘legalized bribery.’

For all of his miscalculations though, Lessig deserves credit for trying. He has a comfortable career with a respected public persona on the left. He could chose life as a choir preacher ranting against conservatives a la Paul Krugman. The possibility of a massive failure and attendant public humiliation was something he always acknowledged. But the irony is that the freedom he had to fail so spectacularly is part of the political process that would be curtailed if he and other reformers got their way.

Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter.