May 17, 2012 · Lessig
John Lumea has a piece criticizing Americans Elect and me about “neutrality.” I don’t agree with the criticism, nor with the genre of criticism it represents. (And this is really bad form but this has to be a hit and run response, because I’ve got 5 presentations in the next 3 days and am turning my internet connection off).
First the good news:
What’s refreshing and valuable in John’s criticism is the form and manner. Most seem to write as if they were feeding a snark meter. John’s is an honest and direct effort to engage an idea. I’m exhausted by the snark. I have enormous respect for the straight-forward engagement. Thanks for that.
Second: The substance, part 1.
Americans Elect has a neutrality policy: The org will not — indeed, given the structure of the organization as approved by the DC Circuit, cannot — endorse a candidate prior to the rules being run and a candidate being selected.
AE has a board, and a staff.
AE also has an advisory board.
I’m on the advisory board. I don’t know about others, but I was asked to join the advisory board after I had indicated some support and some criticism. When I was asked to join the advisory board, I was told it would not interfere with my ability to support any particular candidate — whether an AE candidate or not. To encourage this innovation, I agreed.
As a member of the advisory board, I have asked questions, criticized certain decisions, channeled the criticism of others, and participated in calls. I have also argued in public a number of times that AE might be a useful path to selecting a reform candidate. In particular I have mentioned Roemer and Walker. Both seem to me to be plausible candidates to challenge the conspiracy of silence around the money in politics in this election.
John criticizes my serving on the advisory board because he believes my advocacy is inconsistent with the principle of “neutrality.” He believes, moreover, that the distinction between an “advisory board” and “board and staff” is “Clintonian” — that the difference is “hair splitting” and not real.
But the difference is real and common and completely the same with every other major party. Advisory board members are just that: They offer advice. They have no power. They have no rights. They can’t steer the org in one way or the other (beyond the effect of whatever argument they make, and that effect would happen whether or not they were members of the advisory board.) Certainly, to serve on an advisory board is to offer some level of endorsement — though as John notes, my endorsement is limited, as I don’t support the idea of AE because of its aspiration for a centrist candidate. I support the idea because it is a possible path to reform.
John concedes there are these differences, but says the standard isn’t the reality of the difference, but the “public perception.” But here he seems to be making a move/mistake that others are making about AE as well: Compared to the other political parties, is there any difference here? The Democrats and the Republicans both, when there is no presumptive nominee (i.e., an incumbent) run party primaries. During those primaries, the entity running the primary is to remain neutral. But that entity has advisory boards. Does anyone doubt the freedom of members of those boards to indicate a preference for a particular candidate, even if the people running the primaries shouldn’t?
The same point can be made about the criticisms of the “anonymous” loans to AE. I’ve criticized this anonymity too. But again, the important question is to compare AE (and its candidate, were it to have produced one) to the Democrats and the Republicans. Is either party able to say that is not supported by any anonymous money? Of course not: Both with have anonymous superPAC contributions pushing their candidate. The GOP had them for primary candidates. Had the Democrats had a primary, they would have had them for the Dems as well. I’ve argued that AE’s form of anonymity is less troubling that these examples — since it is to support a platform, not a candidate — but even so, the criticism loses its force once it is put in context.
In both cases, my point is the same: We’ve got to avoid the Ceaser’s-wife syndrom: If a new institution comes along promising a change from a plainly broken existing institution, the test should not be whether it is perfect. The test is whether it is better than the alternatives — because otherwise, you bias in favor of the (plainly broken) status quo.
I should think, even counting “perception,” AE looks more “neutral” than the Republicans. And it is certainly afflicted with less tainted cash than the alternatives.
Third: substance part 2
After criticizing’s neutrality, John goes on to make the claim that
A major reason why Americans Elect [cancelled its primary ballots] is this: Americans Elect is not seen as a neutral broker.
That’s a pretty strong empirical claim. I wonder what’s empirical foundation is? But then he doubles down:
Had Americans Elect instead created an unambiguous and airtight “public neutrality” plank … [it] would not be where it finds itself today. Of this I am sure.
I guess I’d to know how one can be so sure. There are lots of things that weighed in the decision whether to participate in AE or not — from the fear of supporting a spoiler, to the difficulty in verifying voter identity. The former is inherent. The latter is unnecessarily difficult. And while I’m sure the AE team will be testing exactly what was the most significant in explaining the relatively low level of participation, I’d be surprised if the data confirmed John’s assertion.
Or again, to link point 1 and point 2: When the governor of a state endorses a candidate during a primary, John, do you think that leads voters in the state not to vote because they “believe that they have been ‘pre-subjugated’ to the will of insiders with money, power and media access”? And if not, why would you think that with a member of an advisory board, with no access to the mechanics of the voting system, no authority over the organization, and no “media access” worth nails beyond a simple twitter feed?
Thanks again for the engagement. And apologies again that I am going to run away now to work.