Larry Lessig and the limits of progressive reasoning

Humans have evolved in a myriad of ways since first bursting on the scene 200,000 years ago. Genetic adaptations enabled the conquering of innumerable hardships and eventual domination of the earth’s resources. But the cloistered life of first-world progressives has dulled not only their instinct for survival but their ability to persuasively advocate.

For all their self-described cognitive ability, progressive argument has grown increasingly listless. Perhaps decisive 20th Century public policy victories stifled their ambition. Maybe the security of a sympathetic media dulled their advocacy skills. Whatever the reason, the intellectual firepower that convinced the nation to implement the income tax, elect Senators through popular will, ban booze, cartelize the economy, and unleash an overbearing administrative state now substitutes “commonsense” platitudes for argument.  


Campaign finance reformer Larry Lessig is an exemplar of this paradigm.


Mr. Lessig, through his Mayday PAC (the Super PAC to end all Super PACs), is on a quixotic crusade to end corruptible government through changes in the federal campaign finance system. Lessig asserts eliminating the influence of big money “funders” will produce clean, citizen-driven government. Only then can the peoples’ work of fixing global warming, neutering Wall Street, and a panoply of other progressive policy prescriptions be implemented.


But Mr. Lessig’s argument for why campaign finance reform is vital to lowering the earth’s temperature a few degrees for future generations falls prey to a common trio of strategic banalities masquerading as argument.


In no particular order:

1. Always mask solutions as apolitical commonsense. Progressive wunderkind Ezra Klien is a leading purveyor of this approach. Klein launched his fact-challenged website with an ostensible ‘pox on both houses’ essay, but then espoused examples of only one side’s intransigence.

Mayday PAC’s strained attempts at bipartisanship has annoyed his near-homogeneously progressive supporters and forced him to redo his plan. Lessig initially stated the PAC would compete in “five House districts,” then jumped into the New Hampshire Senate race—a naked attempt to damageScott Brown who rebuked the “People’s Pledge.” He also envisioned Mayday PAC as closer in tight races where victories would upend conventional wisdom. But lackluster interest from major players has forced him to support an entrenched incumbent and others that seem more eager for his money than his issue.


2.When reality blows up your theory, coopt the result like it was yours all along. This subterfuge is most transparent in the “global warming” debate. Alarmists explain nearly two decades of theory-contradicting data as a “pause.” Harsh winters and record low temperatures forced a rebranding to ‘global weirding,’ or climate change, and currently climate disruption. Now any weather event is the result of erstwhile global warming.

Lessig has his own hot air issues. Dave Brat’s Virginia primary victory should have caused Lessig some concern. Democracy produced a result Lessig posits is impossible. Big funders and special interests had no influence; the incumbent had a 26-1 cash advantage. The ‘green primary’—the race for large financial support from big funders—played no role. This race may have had some unique circumstances but it still should have provided Lessig his own “pause.”  Instead, he embraced Brat’s victory. The process is corrupted even when it isn’t! It may be freezing out but what about our carbon footprint.


3. No argument is complete without gratuitous race baiting. Reminders of past scurrilous racial practices always serve progressives with a moral crutch to mask argument deficiencies. Tea party activists have become favorite targets of this tactic. Lessig contributes with his allusion to the “white primary,” a series of Supreme Court cases arising from Southern states in the 1930s and 1940s. These cases involved the degree political party activity constituted ‘state action’ and thus fell under the aegis of the 14th amendment. There is no such issue in funding candidates—Lessig’s “green primary”—is a private and constitutional endeavor as he readily admits. But why pass up a chance to vilify segregation-era Southerners?

Mr. Lessig forecasts his exploits this cycle as a primer for an expansive 2016 program. His success may depend on his ability to reason beyond well-worn argument strategies, which only sustain the progressive echo chamber.


By Paul Jossey