The Lessig-Mann Dust-Up

August 31, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Larry Lessig is not the first single-issue candidate in American presidential history, but from Tom Mann’s perspective, he picked the wrong issue.  Mann says that to isolate money-in-politics, to treat it as the key to solving all other problems, is to “dumb down” politics.  He takes this to be a disservice to voters, a deception, and a diversion from the discussion of other issues that have to be tackled and the successful resolution of which will not decided by campaign funding.

It is a harsh attack, and a surprising one from Mann, a stalwart supporter of campaign finance reform.  Lessig has responded by suggesting that Mann is in no position to accuse him of gross oversimplification: he notes that Mann has singled out the Republican Party as the culprit in the dysfunctional polarization of national politics, and this, Lessig contends, is an even “simpler story” than campaign finance about what ails the country.

In the same week, Jack Shafer wrote that we do not have a clear reading of the effects of Citizens United and that many of the predictions of its effects—the dire ones—have not so far panned out.   He pushes his point a little hard—it’s early, and the significance of a case such as CU may prove to be profound, but it need not be obvious or immediate, or played out in the course of a single cycle.

What should be clear is that the effects of money in politics are complex, and the pace of change rapid, and only with time and care can these effects be soundly evaluated.  Mann believes that Lessig is engaged in a project of vast oversimplification.

Oversimplification is partly a cost of lobbying strategy.  Over the years, the selling of reform has required overselling.  Advocates of fresh regulation have not skimped on their rhetoric in arguing for an urgent need to adopt their program.

One reason for the fierce rhetoric is the modest place campaign finance holds in public policy priorities.  To move the program, those making the case for reform have had to put it in strong terms: government on the auction block, policy for sale, and the like. Controls on campaign finance have been depicted as necessary to clear away obstacles to responsible lawmaking.  This is indeed what Larry Lessig argues—that to arrive at sensible solutions to big problems like climate change or the national debt, legislators have to be insulated from the temptations and distortions of campaign fundraising that obligates them to their funders.  This is campaign finance as the “gateway” to better public policy.

There is an additional aspect to this argument, and it has accounted to some extent for the bitterness of the partisan divide on this issue.  Lessig and others have in mind specific understandings of the leading public policy challenges and the solutions to them that would qualify as “sensible.”  Their position on campaign finance appears closely connected to their expectations of the public policy agenda and progress that reform would facilitate.  Somewhere in this thinking, including Lessig’s, is the view that the people—meaning, one supposes, the vast majority– cannot be heard above the din of money, but that if they could be, sound progressive policies would stand a better chance of enactment.

Detecting this strain of thought, reform skeptics of a more conservative bent dig in hard against it.  Of course, progressives then point to the link they see between conservative positions on campaign finance and the public policy positions that those conservatives favor.  The prospects of further, fruitful conversation pretty much ends there.

A productive conversation should be possible, however: the legal structure of campaign finance is coming under intolerable strain, if it is not coming apart altogether, and there is a useful discussion to be had about what precisely is happening and what it suggests about future, fresh models of thinking about sound policy, regulatory boundaries and constitutional limits.  Mann is arguing that Lessig’s claims are not bringing us closer to that conversation, and on the evidence so far—and disregarding that part of Mann’s critique that is harshly personal—he has a fair point.

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