February 20, 2008  ·  Lessig

So I’ve been flooded with email advising me about this decision I need to make. Most of it is enormously generous. Some of it has been extremely strong — both in the sense of right, and in the sense of strongly stated and felt.

Again, in the spirit of what I think a race for public office should be, I will be commenting upon a bunch of this in this blog. Let me start today with the one interesting disagreement this question has raised, and about which I have strong feelings myself.

A bunch of people have asked (and some in the strongest way possible) that I not run because somehow, as a progressive (the pc word for “liberal”), it is wrong to challenge another established progressive. That there’s something unseemly about a primary contest between two or more progressives. That, as one person said, “Jackie has earned her dues, and she deserves it.”

There a bunch of ways in which I think this is mistaken. Here are just a few:

  1. I reject the idea of “dues” and “desert.” In my view, it you want a guaranteed job for life, become a law professor. Instead, I should think progressives would want to encourage a debate and choice by citizens in a district. We get too little of this. I can’t see the sin in pushing for more of it.

  2. I also reject the idea that only “bad” politicians should be challenged in a primary. Indeed, I think the opposite. Of course, bad/corrupt/sleazy politicians should be challenged. But so too should politicians be challenged who have a view about public matters that a challenger in good faith disagrees with. Let politics for once be a battle about something other than “character.” Let it be a battle about ideas, and which ideas matter. I take it that was the justification Jackie had for promising a primary challenge to a long-established incumbent. I agree with that justification.
  3. But I do believe that a challenge to a good politician — a challenged based solely upon a difference in values or ideals — should live up to a certain ethic. And if I ran, I would never deviate from this ethic. I honestly have enormous respect for Jackie Speier; I believe she was a strong and very successful state senator. Nothing in a campaign I would run would ever criticize or attack anything except the differences in either policies or experience. Those are the terms upon which a choice should be made. Those are the terms upon which I would frame the debate.
  4. I might think differently about this in a district in which there was a real risk that a candidate with radically different views would be elected because of the primary contest. It is for this reason that I criticized Nader in 2000 — or at least his decision not to withdraw after it was clear he was not going to win. But CA12 is a strongly Democratic district. It will elect a progressive Democrat. There is no realistic possibility that choosing one or the other will lose the district. Choosing one or the other will simply help define what “progressive” means.
  5. And this, in the end, is the most important issue for me: if I do this, I would do this because I think it is time for progressives to take a clear stand about money in politics. Too much of our rhetoric is about criticizing bad money (meaning money from corporations) while welcoming good money (money from unions, etc.) But until we shift the significance of money in the political process, we will not be able to avoid (in some cases, catastrophic) policy errors (catastrophic: global warming). Here, I believe, we should draw a line: Progressives should commit to giving up PAC/lobbyist money. And any candidate who fails to so commit should be disciplined in the way the framers imagined — through an open, free election, where people debate and vote on the basis of their values.
  • Tim Myers

    Larry,

    I admire your conviction, but I really don’t think that you should run. I think you would be much more effective at changing the world from your perch at Stanford Law than you would be as one congressperson among 435.

    At Stanford you have a world-class podium from which to create and spread your ideas, and a neutral one at that. There is nothing like the patina of neutrality of academia in order to gain non-partisan credibility of ideas. Politics and political affiliations changes this powerful tool.

    Beyond that, politics takes a certain temperament that I’m not sure that you would like. One has to be engaging and outgoing constantly and willing to constantly wheel and deal, and often make unseemly compromises. Think well if the skill set of the politician is the same that made you successful as an academic — it rarely is. Try to distance yourself from the heady-ness and excitement borne out of the many people that you inspire, and think soberly about what this decision would me to you and your family.

    I think you do many wonderful things in your post at Stanford, and I think by far your ability to impact the world would be to continue generating ideas from that influential post.

  • Rick Rushing

    My previous post was more or less, “It’s your life; go with your gut.” I think with this blog you’ve shown your gut. Go for it.

  • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary

    So long as the government can control trillions of dollars of the economy, can make or destroy entire industries with their legislative pen, and can send men and women to war to die, there will be incentive to control the legislative process.

    No amount of legislation will change this. This is almost a law of nature. You can’t give the government enormous power and then expect the citizenry to sit back and do nothing while its leaders determine their fate.

    You cannot get money out of politics so long as politics is in the economy. Every campaign finance law has just shifted the money into other areas while the total spent keeps growing.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I’m on the other side of the “effectiveness” argument. A big problem is that, as a law professor, there’s no reality check. In fact, it’s worse, there’s a sort of anti-reality effect. The stuff that plays well to the conference-club or the PowerPointyHeads is arguably what appeals to their highly isolated mentality, rather than being workable. Getting into the Belly Of The Beast would provide an important operational perspective.

  • http://www.neilchilson.com Neil

    I find it fascinating that upon measuring the current presidential candidates against Mr. Lessig’s “money out of government” standard, by far and away the winner is John McCain. He spearheaded the campaign finance reform (to the dismay of many in his party) and is the only candidate to take a principled stand against earmarking (McCain’s earmarked exactly 0$ in this legislative cycle compared to over $300 million for Clinton and more than $90 million for Obama). To me, this points to the centrist appeal of pulling money out of the process. The broad appeal of this effort is why I, who line up with almost none of the policy choices of Obama (the candidate Mr. Lessig has endorsed) would gladly support the election of Mr. Lessig himself to Congress.

    I do fear that the commenter above is correct, however. If we remove money from the coffers of politician’s elections campaigns, it will likely end up in interest groups who will proxy campaign for the candidate they support; candidates will then court these organizations – through favors – for endorsements. The federal government simply has enough power that it makes economic sense for lobbying efforts to exist. Banning such independent 3rd party efforts raises serious first amendment issues. However, the level of indirectness may be a benefit. Also, it may just be that an increased level of transparency – clarifying the connections between contributions and legislative favors – may be sufficient to curb the worst offenses.

  • http://rosejn.net Jeff

    There is absolutely no question about which role might hold more power for making change. Being a law professor and an established authority on issues related to censorship, the internet, property rights, transparency, etc., will instantly make Larry a well respected congressman with a voice. Especially if Barack Obama is elected president, it is exactly Larry Lessig that we need in congress to help draft bills and act as the intellectual firepower for whatever coalition might form to work for major electoral reform. Obama has stated publicly that it will take pressure and shame to get members of congress to vote against their own self interest. Having an expert come in on a platform of ethics is exactly the kind of pressure that will be needed, and the kind of leader that will rise quickly in what could be a very important congress.

    It is unfortunate that the timing and geography works out such that Jackie Speier is going to lose her chance, but this is about something so much bigger. If she is a true progressive that really wants change to happen in this country I would even ask that she step down. This isn’t about ‘dues, ‘ this is about ‘can do,’ and there are very few people who are as qualified as Larry Lessig to organize a change congress movement for ethical reform.

    Go for it Larry!

  • Morgna Snap

    We need more and better progressives in Congress. For your own sake, consider well Tim’s words. For our sake, ignore him, please!

    I take issue with “progressive is the PC word for ‘liberal’,” though. A progressive is committed to advancement, to progress. A liberal might just sit there getting nothing done, but holding good thoughts.

  • http://blog.wachob.comt Gabe Wachob

    I completely agree that Jackie doesn’t “deserve it” in the sense that she’s owed the position.

    I’m yet to hear, however, exactly how a campaign in the next 6 weeks is going to advance the change-congress agenda, especially since the Lessig name is largely unheard of outside the techie community.

    Can someone spell it out for me? I like the idea of a real Lessig campaign (even if its very unlikely to succeed), but there’s only 6 weeks and thats practically tomorrow… what can be achieved?

  • miles archer

    I’m not in this district, though I am a N California voter. I don’t know what the fuss is about progressives., To me, it means liberals who have completely lost all rational thought (based on watching the so called progressives while in college at Cal)

    Anyway, while I’m not in your district and usually vote libertarian, I would most likely vote for you if I had the chance. You are on the record showing common sense on a number of issues. I can’t say that about many other potential office seekers.

    Good luck!

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    Larry’s post sounds reasonable to me.

    Here’s my question: would you encourage Speier to co-opt your position? Would you say to her, “if you take the following stances, I don’t see a great need to run for the position myself”?

  • http://ryan.sandridge.org/ Ryan Sandridge

    Larry, you are inspiring. I never heard of you before today, and I’ve spent more time than I had available soaking up all I could about you. I’m 36 and while I’ve voted in every election over the 18 years I’ve been eligible, I’ve never once felt compelled to contribute a single dollar to a candidate’s campaign, until today when I put my credit card info on that ActBlue site to support you (and I live in Virginia, so you won’t even come close to representing me).

    The very reason I’m willing to contribute to your campaign, is the same reason the first commenter (Tim Myers) says he doesn’t think you should run. It is because you are not a typical political candidate. Further still, you are more level headed than the few alternatives we’ve had in the past to the typical political candidate. Tim is right that you may not like the world that you are considering entering; but your aim is to change that world. You know more about what the framers of our constitution intended than I do, but it is my perception that they did not intend to have career politicians, but rather more of a “tour of duty” by those successful and intelligent leaders from various disciplines. So while Tim’s point may be valid, I’d rather see you go do your “tour of duty”, and for once finally see some ethics restored to our government.

    Do it. Make a difference. I’m sure you’ll always have a post in academia to return to when your tour is over.

  • Tom Poe

    Can we talk about funding? I’d like to see you run, and offer supporters an opportunity to contribute to your campaign in the following way:
    Purchase one Meraki unit for $50, in return for sending in a $51 contribution. You get one dollar ($1), and the contributor gets a Meraki unit. If they live outside your immediate area, they have to include shipping and handling. When they receive the Meraki unit, they will act as a node on the Lessig “branded” network. As the network fills in, and people can “see” each other, they can participate in town hall meetings. Your up front cost to establish your community wireless mesh network for your constituents is a single $50 purchase of one Meraki unit. From that point on, the network pays as it goes.The network won’t require internet access, as it’s used for your work when elected. Democracy rules in such a world. :)

    After you’re elected, you can use your office to expand the network to include decentralized broadband infrastructure leverage to negotiate reasonable wholesale pricing for Internet access for the network. I am trying to convince one of my elected representatives to champion such a broadband infrastructure where I live. It is a difficult sale, as Qwest is not happy about it.

  • Andrew Katz

    I’m not a US voter, so my perspective on this is: even if Larry makes not one iota of difference and fails utterly to influence any legislation or policy while in Congress, he will have been embedded in the legislative process in a unique way, and, as a result of that experience I am sure will be much more effective in marshalling his fact base and presenting appropriate arguements, and I hope, effective suggestions for reform.

    He’s set out what his 10 year plan is, and asked for guidance as to how best to understand the issues surrounding economic influence and corruption, with a view, we hope to developing some possible solutions.

    Many us have suggested (through his Wiki) relevant books for Larry to read, and possible avenues of research to pursue: but surely becoming a Congressman for a term (or longer) really is the most effective way, not only for Larry to find out about the system from within, but also to counter the inevitable argument which will arise after positing any possible solution..”ahh, that’s all very well in theory, but you see, politics and power don’t work like that in practice”.

    As a Brit, influencing US legislation is of peripheral interest to me: what I’m much more interested in is Larry generating ideas which can be applied to our own problems here in the UK and, even more pressingly, the EU.

    A Larry who’s had experience from within is, in my view, likely to generate more and better ideas than a Larry who hasn’t. So I say go for it!

  • http://jeffcoburn.com Jeff

    Larry, go for it. Consider some of the bigger effects this could have, even if you aren’t competitive. It could give some national attention to the ideas you promote. This has already been discussed on wired.com and slashdot.org. Keep going, this is good. This is how movements begin. You lose, run again for something different. Each time you do, more of the model is laid out for the rest of us. You’ll start to see more people who wouldn’t normally get involved, jumping in based on ideas like your “pledge.” By documenting what you are doing, even if it ultimately fails in election this time, it could ultimately succeed in promoting the idea and giving a roadmap to people like me, somebody who is looking to change what they see as corrupt in government, by participating in a non-corrupt way. Roll up you sleeves and get in there.

    -Jeff Coburn

  • http://lonewacko.com/ TLB

    I’ve already discussed a very cheap, very quick, and very effective way Lessig could fight corruption. It wouldn’t involve campaigning, raising money, or anything like that. Simply go to campaign events and videotape the answers to difficult questions and then upload the responses:

    wiki.lessig.org/index.php/Talk:Corruption#A_huge_indicator_of_corruption.2C_and_what_to_do_about_it
    lessig.org/blog/2007/06/required_reading_the_next_10_y_1.html#comment-18566

    Doing that would go a very long way towards cleaning up both politics and the media. Politicians would feel less willing to lie and mislead and would actually think their policies through. And, the MSM would feel pressured to ask real questions for a change.

    Unfortunately, not too many people seem willing to get responses on video, but once a few do it and start getting a lot of hits it will probably become something of a trend.

    Here’s one recent example: youtube.com/watch?v=tIK9ZawRMlg

    Now, imagine if she’d asked this better question: youtube.com/watch?v=YRWRzZ_yPnk

  • http://www.tonyleachsf.com Tony Leach

    Larry -

    I’m glad you’ve decided to run. Congress needs the kind of challenge that you are ready to deliver.

    In Northern California, our politics will almost always be about two progressive candidates. Honest and open conversations should be held every election cycle, and like you say, “Let it be a battle about ideas, and which ideas matter.”

    Good luck – and I look forward to helping with your campaign however I can.

    Tony Leach

  • http://www.webolutionary.com Sean Robertson

    Larry, I agree with everything you’ve said. I also think we really need more technology-minded progressives in office. We need more of the kinds of people who will do things along the lines of Obama’s bill that created http://www.usaspending.gov (which even has an API available).

  • http://grant.henninger.name Grant Henninger

    Professor,

    I fully support the ideas behind Change Congress. However, I think by targeting it at “progressives” you are handicapping the entire progressive movement. By ensuring that only one side of the aisle will ever by into this (simply by labeling it a liberal movement), you give the other side a distinct advantage in raising funds. More broadly, this is the primary challenge behind this movement, how do you ensure that candidates who take the Change Congress Pledge are still able to raise the money needed to defeat candidates who do not take the pledge?

    Undoubtedly you will be able to raise the same amounts of money that Jackie Speier if you choose to run, you are an internet rock star. But will the common man, your average politician, be able to do the same in other races? It’s something to think about and a problem to overcome.

  • staypuftman

    DO IT!!! You crash on my couch while you are looking for a place in town here. Don’t live in Georgetown…please.

  • http://www.townhallmeeting.org MrX

    I wholeheartedly agree with you here. I hope you can win and actually change this rotten system we have. I would like to hear what you have to say about whether it is easier/better to change things from the inside or not. You may have to actually win and be in office a while in order to answer that question, but it is an important question to answer for the rest of us. I find this question is similar to a question I have about everyday life…Should I work and try to get rich and THEN help people with the money I made, or should I just try to help people now and therefore will probably stay poor while doing that since helping others isn’t very well valued in the economy? For example, is it better to get rich (possibly working in something that hurts people like for-profit health insurance or the military industrial complex) and one day pay for a new hospital (maybe if I actually get rich), or just volunteer at a hospital daily?

  • Phil

    I’ll keep my comment short, though the meaning should ring clear:

    If California has an issue with you running, please feel free to come to Texas.

  • Marilyn Alves

    I appreciate Larry’s ideas, energy and willingness to take on important issues, but I wonder if the hundreds of thousands of dollars ($ millions?) that he’d spend taking on an effective progressive like Jackie Speier in a primary could be better spent to great effect through his Change Congress initiative.

    Jackie Speier not only has progressive ideas, but the experience and perseverance to see these ideas through to success. As State Senator for my district, I watched her introduce Privacy Legislation for FOUR YEARS in a row — fighting the banking, insurance and credit card industries all the way — until she finally had the best consumer Privacy protections in the nation. Please don’t give up your fight, Larry, but please use your talents where we most need them – Change-Congress.org.

  • john in california (milpitas)

    I watched both your interview and lecture and, as an engineer, agree totally with your premise that intellectual property protection has become a corporate protection racket. As much as the law is a problem, so is the patent review process and the lack of knowledgable people in the patent office, so I am predisposed to encourage you to run, however I have also watched Ms. Spier over the years and think she is the most able, honest legislator we have had in California. I think you would accomplish more by making common cause with her in removing corporate money from campaigns and fixing copyright and patent laws. (Personally, I wish she were running for Governor as we need someone with her integrity in Sacremento.) Thanks for creating CC, I hope it has great success.

  • SF Maven

    Hello Professor Lessig: Congrats on the rapid fund-raising for your possible run for the U.S. Congress. In line with your views on campaign finance reform and candidacy transparency, I would suggest that you post (in real time or at least several times daily) detailed (de-identified of course!) information on your contributors thus far – especially zip code data. (easily available to you through ActBlue).

    While I don’t doubt you could raise enough money to create name ID and make a credible run, I’m guessing (now this is a total guess here) that 95% of the funds raised so far come from outside the district.

    If this is substantially true… accepting a significant amount of campaign funding from outside the district would create the impression that outsiders are attempting to run the congressional district not unlike PACs running Congress – and that in and of itself would become an enormous campaign issue.

    At the very least, having you post the contributor zip code data now will help by having you bring the issue forward on your own rather than have your opponent lock onto it as her issue. I look forward to your campaign transparency by seeing the data posted.

  • A fan, but not convinced

    I’m definitely a big Prof. Lessig fan, but I’m not convinced this is the way to go.

    I agree with Marilyn. If this would be a candidacy about the mis-use of money in politics (haven’t watched the video, but that’s what I gather from reading this entry), why spend so much money on a fight that will, in the end, be about a choice between two very similar candidates for 1 vote out of 435. To me it seems like something of a waste when there are so many serious problems and not enough money to fix them.

    I’d also like to see more women in Congress, not fewer, and it’s hard enough to get them there – and to convince folks that they’ve done enough, that they’re experienced enough and competent enough. Jackie could win and she’d do a great job, and maybe someday she could move up to higher office where women are so seriously underrepresented — we need more women like Jackie in the pipeline.

    I’m also not sure I agree with the premise that all PAC money is the same. Corporations are motivated exclusively by profit — and often, to me, seem to be motivated most by profit for a few execs. But something like a union PAC is different. It is essentially a giant aggregator of small donations from middle-class and lower-middle-class working people through an organization whose elected leadership is accountable to those people in regular local and national elections in a process that seems to me much more effective than shareholder control over corporate execs (especially in light of recent opinions that pension directors who advocate for socially responsible sh resolutions may be violating their fiduciary duties). I also think that at least in the case of Dems (the folks I care about) donations from corporate PACs are more likely to encourage a Dem to take a policy position s/he might not otherwise have taken if left to his/her own progressive whims, while a progressive Dem would probably support most (if not all) union initiatives to benefit working people even if s/he didn’t also receive union money.

    I haven’t thought these issues through well enough to have a fully formed opinion, but I think I would probably be in favor of significant legislative reform of the electoral process that would affect both parties and go far toward taking the money out of politics on both sides. But as long as the current system remains in effect, what I care about most is getting progressive Dems in office so that they can change things for the better. And I’m not convinced that urging Dems to give up lobbyist / PAC money unilaterally is the right way to go, or that all PAC money is equal.

  • http://neurologicalcorrelates.com/wordpress Swivelchair

    Prof, as a faithful customer of Creative Commons products and services, best wishes on your efforts to do whatever it is you want to do.

    Two points:

    1. Corporate money is not bad. But — more transparency is needed. I disagree with removing bias from politics, I think it is a necessity. Let the voter’s vote for the person who their employer has paid for if it will let them keep their job. The trouble comes with lack of transparency. Fix that.

    2. Legislating is a tough way to change behavior. The Executive branch can torpedo all good legislative intentions by agency back-room dealings. Agencies are where most of the lobbyists live and work. I won’t even get started about judicial review of Agency determinations.

    3. OK, three points, but this one covers the other two: transparency, transparency, transparency. If you have credible, transparent, legitimate judicial, legislative and executive, then the world’s businesses will come here — rather than staying in their home country where they cook the books (see, e.g., India), execute agency heads who are corrupt (see, e.g., China) and have state take overs to prevent private parties from getting too powerful (see, e.g., Russia).

    Prof – I’m biased toward you running for office, maybe just for sport — it sort of reminds me of professional wrestling, where there are two wrestlers in the ring, and the third one comes in and grabs the hair of the other two and smacks their heads together.

    What a show — good luck!

  • 12th CD resident

    Building on Swivelchair’s comments above re: need for transparency in campaigns…

    I actually live in the 12th congressional district and I don’t want to be represented by someone who wants to get elected only to promulgate his “agenda” (no matter how well intentioned) but I want to be represented by someone who will listen to, respond and take leadership on a myriad of community concerns.

    I see many comments above from folks who support your “agenda,” but few from residents of the 12th congressional district. If the facts were made available, I’ll bet that 99% of your campaign contributions come from people outside the district. I’m not happy about the concept of people outside my district buying a seat in Congress so that their “agenda” can be advanced (is this much different – ethically – from PACs “buying” influence?).

    If I’m wrong and you have strong support and contributions from inside the 12th CD, please prove me wrong by publishing the data (the ActBlue website states that detailed donor info is available to the candidate). Transparency?

  • http://www.ebpml.org/blog/65.htm Jean-Jacques Dubray

    Prof. Lessig:

    I take issue when you make this statement: “Let politics for once be a battle about something other than “character.” Let it be a battle about ideas, and which ideas matter.” (which every one should rally too of course) and you make a video like this one.

    In this video, Prof. Lessig, you have censored the legitimate debate that should happen between candidates. You not only recommended strongly using “character” and “judgment” over ideas and facts. You also recommended to “trust you” based on your knowledge of “technology policies” (that’s it?). You recommended to follow the NY times who said… [whatever]. Are you just a politician? who can say face up anything and its opposite within days?

    What is worse, Prof. Lessig, is that you are hi-jacking new technologies to create a “flash democracy”. Never in history have we had tools such as the Web and collaborative Web 2.0 tools to bring “we, the people’ and the people we elect together. Do you think that keywords and animation should prevail about ideas and discussions? You are inovating by creating a new movement: “popularism” even worse than “populism”.

    Don’t you think that by hi-jacking these tools you are right off the bat killing the best -and only- thing that could impact lobbying? don’t you think that Web 2.0 is cheap? don’t you think that politicians would not need millions of dollars to be elected or reelected if we would level the field on the Web? i.e. if the Web was used, not as a propaganda media, but as a tool to make ideas and issue surface the mud?

    I am very discouraged by your discourse, it simply does not fit your achievements or the ideas (and ideal) that you say you represent. It creates a precedent: the Web is a tool that brings people together not a debilitating media. Which side are you on?

    Sincerely yours,

    Jean-Jacques Dubray

  • Jonathan

    Well, today’s the deadline to file. PLEASE RUN! This is perhaps the most democratic district in perhaps the most democratic state. For a government role as important as US Representative to go unchallenged in this district would be a travesty. This election should consist of a debate about the issues, not an anointment of the next in line. This is exactly the problem we have in politics. It’s all about who has the most name recognition / popularity / influence, instead of who has the best ideas or leadership or strengths. I was going to run, but I thought that you had to live in the district in order to run for the seat. I just found out yesterday that you don’t! And this morning I leave on a business trip, so no time to gather the signatures and file.

    You should run, but not just because you have a Change Congress initiative, instead because this district deserves a debate about our government’s role in our lives and America’s role in the world. Without a race there will be no debate, no discussion, nothing, just a passing of the mantle to next in line, like in a dictatorship.

    I met Jackie Speier one time. No offense, but she is not the right person to walk in the footsteps of Tom Lantos. That would be a step backwards in the strength of Congress.

    JDM

  • http://articlews.com/ Serg

    Prof, as a faithful customer of Creative Commons products and services, best wishes on your efforts to do whatever it is you want to do.

  • http://rs79.vrx.net Richard Sexton

    Don’t do it Larry. Hold out for Cyberattorney General.