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Lessig: Winning by losing

As of this morning, Lawrence Lessig is $9,000 short of his million dollar Kickstarter goal of funding his presidential bid. It look very much like Larry will be running for president.

It is a weird bid with virtually no chance of winning. Which makes it easier to support it.

Ethan Zuckerman’s post is what you should be reading about this. You should stop reading this post and go to his now.

Still here? Ok, that’s a mistake, but it’s up to you.

Ethan and I agree about Larry’s brilliance, his dedication, and his good heart. I’ve know Larry for about fifteen years, and I trust him twice as much as I distrust every other politician in the race. I completely agree with him that we’re never going to get to where we need to be so long as money buys elections and thus buys politicians. I think Larry would be a better president than almost all the people running. I love the cleverness of the electoral hack that Larry’s come up with.

But here’s my concern.

I agree with Ethan that Larry has no real chance of winning. If so, then his campaign is a “winning by losing” tactic: if it demonstrates that there is wide support for real campaign finance reform, then we’ve all won. Big Time, as one esteemed politician once said.

We will have won if Larry garners enough support in the early part of the campaign to force the issue onto the agenda. Thinking about him at the debates bringing the conversation back to the funding issue makes me happy.

But, there is one slightly longer-term danger that worries me. When Democrats step into the voting booth on primary day, some percentage of people who think campaign finance reform is important are going to cast their vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Joe because they don’t want to “waste” their vote on a symbolic gesture. But there are virtually no people who think finance reform is important but not all-important who are going to vote for Larry instead of for a “real” candidate. The result could very well be, I’m afraid, that Lessig’s totals in the primaries will under-represent support for campaign finance reform. His candidacy may therefore make finance reform look more marginal than it actually is.

So, there’s a possible lose-by-losing outcome here. That’s my fear.

But I find this very hard to think about without knowing who his VP candidate will be, for this is not really a referendum. In a referendum, your vote on an issue is independent of your vote for a candidate. In this case, though, you’re also voting for a president-in-waiting who will take over once Larry resigns. If you favor campaign reform but don’t like his VP, will you still vote for Larry? And vice versa? The results are going to be hard to parse, which is not true of actual referenda.

If the primary results undercount the support for the issue, my hope is that that actual vote count will be far less influential than Larry’s presence in the campaign before the voting begins. Assuming that he can’t actually win, I and all (?) of his supporters hope that Larry does well enough on the campaign trail that his campaign gets coopted by one of the more electorally plausible candidates, so that campaign finance reform becomes a major issue in the campaign.

For that to happen, we need to support his campaign now. Which I do. But, weirdly, I don’t support only his campaign.


This addendum will self-destruct, possibly very soon.

My family talked briefly this morning about who Lessig’s VP might be. One of us thinks it’ll be a conservative. I have an odd hunch that I recognize makes no actual sense: Al Gore for VP?

But another had the interesting idea that Lessig will promise it will be whoever comes in second in the Democratic primaries. That way, if you prefer, say, Sanders to Lessig as an actual president, but you support campaign finance reform, you could get both by voting for Lessig. Of course, Sanders wouldn’t want his vote split. I find this all difficult to think about…

2 Responses to “Lessig: Winning by losing”

  1. Perhaps you find it difficult to think about because you recognize it as a futile narcissistic gesture, a waste of a million bucks. How much better for Lessig to have found the strongest candidate who could champion his cause for an overhaul of our democracy from campaign finance reform to repairing the gerrymandered congressional districts. Now Lessig will, for me, be consigned to the mind space reserved for cranks and bullshit artists like the county clerk in Kentucky. He will be someone to ignore except at those odd intervals when I want to pull his candidacy out of the box and examine it. The county clerk performed an act of civil disobedience. Lessig promises to do even less than that. It’s a little confusing if you look at him as a Democrat, but then the county clerk is a Democrat too. That fact might make Lessig’s annoying candidacy less difficult to think about.

  2. What about climate change? Unimportant?

    The middle east refuges? Unimportant?

    Black lives matter, except that campaign reform is more important.

    This is an example of vapid intellectualism.


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