Top critical review
Incomplete diagnosis; improbable solutions
on July 4, 2017
Lessig sets out the argument for his thesis well, although I suspect for most readers he's preaching to the choir. But his assessment of the odds of success for his proposed solutions - even when he gives a figure of 2 percent - is wildly optimistic.
That's been demonstrated since he wrote the book, by the failures of his Mayday PAC in 2014 and his exceptionally brief candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential race. Arguably, the closest that reforms regarding money in politics have ever come was the 2012 election. John McCain (with a stronger pedigree on campaign finance reform than most) agreed to limit himself to public funding in the general election and urged President Obama to follow his pledge to do the same. And President Obama declined to do so, judging accurately that (1) he could raise more money privately than by accepting the limits of public funding; and (2) that he would not be punished by voters for breaking his pledge. It is ever thus. Tribal loyalty outweighs commitments to campaign finance reform. Winning is everything.
Lessig's answer to the improbability, of course, is that for something so important, we have to try anyway. But that argument does not move most voters to push for procedural reforms, as opposed to substantive policies.
That the book comes across as impractical is not necessarily a reason to not read it. Indeed, most advocates of important reforms face the same type of problem. They have an appealing vision of the future but little practical understanding of how to really achieve it. It reminds one of Robert Caro's biography of LBJ. Many people had visions of creating a better society. But someone who understood politics and how to use political power was essential in passing some of those measures. Whatever else you think about LBJ, it is difficult to visualize someone else achieving what he did, for better or for worse. Certainly not an "ivory tower academic."
Again, that's not necessarily a reason to not read the book. A more important limitation, to me, was the implication that this is the key issue that - once solved - will allow us to solve all our other problems. I wasn't persuaded. Lessig implies that once we align our representatives with the interests of the "People alone," the remaining problems to be solved are ones of substantive policy. But there are still procedural impediments, which may be as important as campaign finance reform.
Three that come to mind are intensity of desire and the limitations of representative democracy, neither of which Lessig pays much attention to. The Madisonian ideal of one faction checking another faction works poorly with many issues because of a mis-match of intensity of desire. If, for example, you want to impose much stronger gun control laws, there's probably a majority of "the People" who would be in favor. But for most of them, it's likely not even in their list of top ten reasons to vote for a particular candidate. While for many who oppose such stronger gun control laws, it *is* one of the most important factors in voting for a particular candidate. The same can be said about a host of other issues (including campaign finance reform); the proponents of the status quo outweigh the proponents of change not by their numbers but by the intensity of their desire. And that applies not only to the willingness to donate funds but also to the willingness to vote for a candidate. Politicians really like campaign cash, but if you eliminate those concerns, they still really need votes.
Representative democracy doesn't work very well any more. Partly it's because for many problems, it's hard to come up with solutions that will really work - which is part of why Congress tends to kick the can down the road or announce (with fanfares) a simple "solution" that is "neat, plausible and wrong@ (Mencken). But the bigger problem is that there are too few politicians willing to pursue an unpopular course that is right. And there are plenty of solutions that the People will favor that will make things worse. Lessig mentions that the issue that came closest to resulting in a constitutional convention was the balanced budget amendment, which most policy wonks consider exceptionally dangerous. (Not trying to pick on Republicans - there are a lot of very popular solutions on the left that would be destructive as well.) If you eliminate the distortion of campaign funds, you're still left with the distortions (of good policy) inherent in aligning politicians with the desires (as opposed to the best interests) of the People. I would guess that I'm more pessimistic or cynical than Lessig in this respect.
In summary, it's a well-written book and advocacy. But the diagnosis is preaching to the choir. And the solutions are "pie in the sky" fanciful. I wish that weren't the case.