The Mayday PAC and Progressive Politics, Part II

September 10, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

Jim Rubens has lost, but the discussion of Mayday politics will continue. The issues it raises for progressives were raised to a new level of visibility by the news that the PAC was working  with Stark360 , a New Hampshire organization that opposes campaign finance reform and is generally hostile to progressive objectives.  Professor Lessig replied to critics with a clear and thoughtful defense, denying that he was  “compromising” on fundamental commitments.  He was not, he stressed, collaborating with Stark360 on anything on other than the election of Jim Rubens, and it was a strength, not a weakness, to join with adversaries in the search for “common ground.”

But it seems that this reply confuses the issue.  That Professor Lessig means  to advance the cause of reform, and that his joint venture with Stark 360 was launched (on his part) for that purpose alone, is not to be doubted. As in all matters political, however, the means chosen have consequences, and Professor Lessig underestimates the burden he carries to establish for progressives that the means are well fitted to his ends. In this case, in New Hampshire, he has yet to make the case.

As set out in a prior posting here, Mayday has elected a politics of money to address the problem of money in politics.  And it is prepared to work toward the election of candidates committed to enacting campaign finance reform as a priority even if, on other issues, they will cast votes against gun control or immigration reform or for Presidential impeachment.  Professor Lessig answered in part that campaign finance reform is an issue unlike any other.  If addressed, the policies and the politics of the country will be improved overall. Hence, he disagrees that there are really any “trade-offs” involved in elected officials with progressive stances on this issue and distinctly unprogressive positions on others. And his answer would presumably remain the same now in this additional case, the Stark360 case—when he supported this candidate on just the reform issue, but in alliance with an organization that does not support reform.

To persuade skeptics of this position, including those who support public financing, Lessig would have to succeed with the argument that virtually any candidacy or alliance is acceptable in the cause of reform, that virtually any political costs along the way are justified by the transformation that the Mayday reform program would bring about. This will be a hard sell.  One can agree that campaign finance is a legitimate, serious public policy issue but stop short of believing that it is the sole or primary source of perceived political dysfunction, and that public financing will so save the day that all other political considerations along the way to its enactment can be set aside.

So it is legitimate to ask Professor Lessig how much collateral harm from the particular style of politics he has adopted progressives should be expected to accept.  If public financing does not possess the curative powers Prof. Lessig claims for it, then the way this reform is brought, the politics of this reform movement, would matter a great deal.

In the case of Stark360, Prof. Lessig assigns little significance to the longer-term consequences of aligning Mayday with this organization.  For one thing, he has lent it credibility or at least brought to it national attention—not many outside of New Hampshire had heard of it, until Mayday joined forces with it.  Stark360 can transfer this fresh political capital to other initiatives progressives energetically oppose.  This is politics, after all, and Professor Lessig and Mayday have helped to promote Stark360 overall.

Moreover, it will be little solace to progressives that Stark360, like Mayday, supported Jim Rubens for the United States Senate in New Hampshire. It supported Rubens for entirely different reasons and utterly opposed electing him for the reason motivating Mayday. So if Rubens had been elected, to whom in this alliance would he have owed his allegiance—the organization in the coalition that wants public financing reform, or the one very much against it? It seems this is quite a muddled politics that can only send the candidate Mayday is supporting a mixed message about what level of obligation he actually carries into office as a campaign finance supporter.

How then, in these circumstances, could Mayday have shown what it most wanted to—that its spending demonstrated the power of reform as a message and the strength of public support for it?  If Rubens had won, who would have elected him—Mayday, or the organization working hand-in-glove with Mayday that doesn’t support reform but did like the other elements of Rubens’ distinctly un-progressive program?

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