America’s Elect

by Henry on March 8, 2012

Larry Lessig argues (disagreeing with Rick Hasen) that there’s nothing wrong with the anonymity of the people behind the Americans Elect non-partisan third-party initiative.

I’ve come around to support Americans Elect now, but only because I believe it could be a platform for a real reform candidate. If it doesn’t produce such a candidate, I won’t support supporting the candidate it produces. But in this spin, I have never been too worked up about “their transparency problem.” …When we hear that an anonymous contributor has given $10 million to a superPac supporting a particular candidate, we are and should be concerned about that contribution. But that’s because of two distinct, and independent reasons: We assume that even though we don’t know who the contributor is, the candidate will, AND We assume that the contributor’s contribution will lead the candidate to be responsive in ways that we won’t understand. If those two conditions are not met, however, our concern about anonymity should be different, and, in my view, much less significant. … What could the contributor be getting if the candidate couldn’t know who the contributor was? … If there is no plausible way in which the contributions would affect the work or the positions of the candidate, the cost of anonymity is different. … This second point is why I don’t think #AmericansElect has a “transparency problem.” I can’t begin to imagine how the identity of the contributors could possibly matter to the positions that any candidate would take on any of the issues. AE is building a platform to select candidates. They are promising a process to get access to the ballot in all fifty states. Whether a candidate is selected to be on that ballot depends upon his or her winning in the primary/caucus process. A candidate’s alignment with or against the substantive issues of one of the anonymous contributors isn’t going to affect that candidate’s ability to get nominated by AE at all.

I don’t think that this response does justice to Hasen’s position, which is, in fact, that the donors’ views on the substantive issues will affect candidate alignment. See this op-ed of his from a few months ago.

While it is providing voters a path to choose a presidential ticket through the democratizing force of the Internet, the process can, in fact, be overruled by a small board of directors, who organized the group. This board is to have unfettered discretion in picking a committee that can boot the presidential ticket chosen by voters if it is not sufficiently “centrist” and even dump the committee if it doesn’t like the direction it’s heading. … One of the group’s leaders, Elliot Ackerman, told The Christian Science Monitor that the committee will allow only a “centrist” candidate to be chosen. … Perhaps one reason Americans Elect is hiding the names of its donors is that people might draw conclusions about the group’s interests based on the contributors — especially given the rumor that most of its money comes from the hedge fund industry.
… only those who can provide sufficient voter identification that will satisfy the organization — and, of course, who have Internet access — will be allowed to choose the candidate. These will hardly be a cross section of American voters. … Under the group’s bylaws, [the vetting] committee, along with the three other standing committees, serves at the pleasure of the board — and committee members can be removed without cause by the board. The board members were not elected by delegates; they chose themselves in the organization’s articles of incorporation.

In short – Hasen suggests that it’s not so much Americans Elect as America’s Elect. And if the preterite are so impertinent as to disagree with the stated preferences of their betters, the Elect will take away their ball and go home. Perhaps Hasen is wrong on the substance (although he’s an election law specialist) – but if not, it suggests that the problems go rather deeper than Lessig acknowledges in his post.

There are some broader conceptual issues here too. Lessig has done, and is doing, a lot of good work on the problem of corruption in American politics. But he also seems to agree with Americans Elect that the problems of the current system are bound up in partisanship.

As AE becomes more and more relevant, there will be an increasing clamor from both parties to delegitimize it. Partisans get very angry when you question the two party system.

The problem that Lessig seems partly insensible to is that Americans Elect plausibly reflects a kind of purportedly non-partisan corruption that is more subtle but also more damaging than direct graft, or even the implicit quid-pro-quo relationships that he rightly excoriates. Mark Warren gets at this nicely.

If corruption professionals look upon democracy as an ambiguous force at best, one reason may be found in our received conception of political corruption—the abuse of public office for private gain. … This conception is by no means irrelevant, not least because of the enormous weight of administration within modern democracies …[but it] marginalizes the political dimensions of corruption -in particular, corruption of the processes of contestation through which common purposes, norms, rules are created; the institutional patterns that support and justify corruption; and the political cultures within which actions, institutions, and even speech might be judged corrupt.
…The norm of democratic political equality follows: democracy requires that every individual potentially affected by a collective decision should have an opportunity to affect the decision, proportionally to his or her stake in the outcome. The corollary action norm is that collective actions should reflect the purposes decided under inclusive processes. In short, the basic norm of democracy is empowered inclusion of those affected in collective decisions and actions. … In a democracy, meanings of political corruption gain their normative traction by reference to this basic and abstract norm of democracy. Political corruption in a democracy is a form of unjustifiable exclusion or disempowerment, marked by normative duplicity on the part of the corrupt. Corruption is marked not only by exclusion — there are many modes of exclusion — but also by covertness and secrecy, even as inclusive norms are affirmed in public. Stated otherwise, the norm of inclusion is not denied, but rather corrupted. Corruption within a democracy is thus a specific kind of disempowerment that I shall call duplicitous exclusion. Thus, in addition to the substantive harms often associated with corruption in democracies—inefficiencies, misdirected public funds, uneven enforcements of rights, etc.— we can think of corruption as damaging democratic processes.

Hasen’s critique suggests that Americans Elect is corrupt in just this sense. Even as it publicly affirms norms of inclusion, it provides a tiny and unaccountable group with a veto power that will be exercised to ensure that a ‘centrist’ candidate is chosen. And what exactly does ‘centrism’ mean in this context? Harold Meyerson tells us

While almost all the other donors remain anonymous, Americans Elect includes on its Web site a “leadership” list, and of the 69 people named who are not the organization’s staffers or consultants, fully 20 either head or hold senior executive positions with financial institutions, chiefly hedge funds or private-equity firms. The leaders of Americans Elect know what they’d like in a candidate. Maine politico Eliot Cutler, who sits on the group’s board of nine directors, says he wants a ticket “that looks like the Bowles-Simpson Commission in terms of approach — people who reflect my own biases toward social progressivism and fiscal discipline.”

One of the ways in which American politics is corrupt in Warren’s sense is that voices (typically belonging to, or funded by, people who’ve made their money on Wall Street) calling for more fiscal austerity, the ‘rationalization’ of Social Security etc are massively overrepresented in public debate. Americans Elect is quite transparently and explicitly a vehicle for continuing, and, if possible, extending this overrepresentation. Furthermore, there is a strong prima facie case that its funders’ allergic reaction to transparency has a lot to do with the fact that they are the kind of people who would discredit the initiatives if their true identities were known. The chances of Americans Elect pushing a candidate who is genuinely interested in freeing up American politics through e.g. the kinds of funding reforms that Lessig would like are low-to-zero (if money were to count less, Wall Street billionaires would have considerably less clout than they do). The chances of it pushing a candidate with ‘centrist’ preferences that in fact represent and perpetuate the corrupting force of money in American politics is extremely high. I don’t think that it will come to anything, if for no other reason than that it is an exercise in astroturf politics. But I don’t think that lefties or progressives should be supporting it either.

Update: I should note that there are some parallels between Lessig’s idea of ‘dependence corruption’ and Warren’s ideas expressed above – the interesting question for me is why he sees Americans Elect as part of the solution rather than the problem.

Update 2: Title updated to improve atrocious pun



js. 03.08.12 at 6:17 pm

The Warren critique is exactly right. It’s increasingly clear that Lessig-types (“corruption professionals”? Seriously?) either don’t understand or are simply not interested in democracy. This problem is really much deeper than the substantive policies their “centrist” “reform” candidates will ultimately support (though of course the two are not unrelated).


Bruce Baugh 03.08.12 at 6:19 pm

I don’t remember who said this – I think it may have been someone here at CT, in fact – but I like it: There is no real issue in American life where the problem with the Democratic Party’s response is that it’s too left-wing. Not on the finance sector, not on global warming, not on health care, not on war, not on crime and punishment, nothing. There are no issues that would be better responded to if the response were more Republican. So the basic premise of Americans Elect strikes me as wrong.


chrismealy 03.08.12 at 6:42 pm

Warren’s conception of corruption is appealing but doesn’t it suggest that any interest group activity is corrupt unless it’s in perfect proportion? That’s kind of a like a first derivative anarchism.


Henri Vieuxtemps 03.08.12 at 6:55 pm

I have no idea what Americans Elect is; is it ‘centrist’ in the sense of ‘between the Democrats and Republicans’ or is ‘centrist’ is the sense of the center of public opinion? Because in many (most?) cases the both parties are on the same side of the public opinion. The international “free trade”, for example. Single payer health care. War with Iran.


Ragtime 03.08.12 at 7:01 pm

Let’s get down to brass tacks. It strikes me as 75% likely that no matter who throws their ring in to the Americans Elect primary, and whomever the secret backers support, that Ron Paul is going to end up winning, because Ron Paul supporters will care a lot more than “real” Centrists. I mean, 100 rich people may be enthusiastic about Mike Bloomberg, Joe Lieberman, and Olympia Snowe, but 1 million college kids with internet connections really love Ron Paul.

Is Ron Paul a “centrist”? Does being an extremist at both extremes average out?

I think the practical answer to “Is it corrupt” is the answer to “Would they let Ron Paul win?”


MPAVictoria 03.08.12 at 7:07 pm

The United States already has a Centrist party, the Democrats.


Steve Williams 03.08.12 at 7:48 pm

If a group of extremely wealthy individuals (in the hedge-fund industry or otherwise) really fancy blowing lots of money on a vanity project with no hope of winning anything whatsoever, then I honestly can’t see the point of standing in their way.


straightwood 03.08.12 at 8:15 pm

Larry Lessig and Chris Hedges had an interesting video discussion recently about the state of political corruption and the prospects for reform in the US. Hedges got the better of the argument with his pessimistic view, because Lessig had to acknowledge that his feeble efforts (at Harvard’s Safra Institute) were all that he could do in the framework of establishment institutions and conventional politics. Hedges has come to the conclusion that only massive, non-violent resistance will bring change to a system that has become impregnably corrupt.

I fear that Hedges is correct. The billionaire cranks who increasingly control the US government will not relent until they face overwhelming public opposition in the streets, and perhaps not even then.


bexley 03.08.12 at 8:19 pm

I hadn’t heard of Americans Elect before but I assume that Friedman is already twiddling his moustache in excitement at all this centrism.


Henry 03.08.12 at 8:20 pm


Salient 03.08.12 at 8:41 pm

Friedman is already twiddling his moustache in excitement at all this centrism

…Lord knows he loves a good centryst.


StevenAttewell 03.08.12 at 8:42 pm

Well, I just lost a lot of respect for Lessig. It’s not the anonymity, it’s the complete lack of accountability! If only there was some form of accountable political organization for nominating candidates…a political mixer? Rave? Hoe-down? Box social?


Ben Alpers 03.08.12 at 8:43 pm

My understanding has always been that Americans Elect is “centrist” in the sense that the WaPo’s editorial page is centrist. It’s an institutional expression of the shadow austerity party, which has advocates in both major political parties and is under the bizarre misapprehensions that the key to prosperity is slashing Social Security and Medicare and that this is so clearly the case that Americans would flock to their positions were it not for the evils of “partisanship” that distort the political process.

These are the folks who were behind the Tsongas campaign and the Concord Coalition. They love the sound of their own voices but have never had a popular base and never will.

It’s kinda sad that someone like Lessing is attracted to this nonsense. He’s been a critically important voice of reason on intellectual property issues.


Ben Alpers 03.08.12 at 8:46 pm

All that being said, I’ve been sort of tempted to sign up for Americans Elect and try to push things in a hard left direction. Not that I think its Board of Directors would ever let it go there. But the bigger the discrepancy between the results of their social networking and the decisions made in their smoke-filled room, the clearer it will be to everyone what this effort is really about.


bexley 03.08.12 at 8:57 pm

Wow – Friedman’s enthusiasm for the project tells me all I need to know about whether anyone should support it. His conviction it will succeed reassures me that it will be an abject failure.


Theophylact 03.08.12 at 9:04 pm

Yes, he is (as Pauline Kael wrote of Bosley Crowther) “a touchstone of a sort”.


JohnR 03.08.12 at 9:06 pm

All these terms are purely Humpty-Dumpty ones – what you think they mean is probably nowhere near what the people using them intend them to mean. “Centrist”, “Democracy”, “corruption”, “free trade”, etc.: it’s just Orwellian noise, intended to make you think you know what it means, but leading you somewhere you may not wish to go. Nixon embraced the Madison Avenue public manipulators, but we’re way past that point now. The safest bet is simply to assume that anything you read from almost all sources actually means something diffeerent; probably something to the opposite extreme.


geo 03.08.12 at 9:19 pm

Terrific post, Henry. And yes, as others have said, very sad about Lessig.

If I understand Warren correctly (his prose is less sparkling and pellucid than one might like), democracy means that those who are affected by a decision should have a chance to influence it roughly in proportion as they’ll be affected. This seems right, though perhaps it should be amended to make clear that someone (or some corporation) who stands to lose a billion dollars shouldn’t have the same voice as, say, 20,000 middle-income people who stand to lose $50,000 each, or 50,000 people who stand to lose $20,000 each. Effects can’t be aggregated in strictly monetary terms, as GDP is, or you’ll wind up with a meaningless, indeed pernicious, measure, like GDP.

The morality of political competition in a democracy is very well elucidated in Michael Walzer’s splendid, perennially relevant essay “In Defense of Equality” (reprinted in his Radical Principles.


js. 03.08.12 at 9:22 pm

Friedman’s enthusiasm for the project tells me all I need to know about whether anyone should support it.

This. Flat-Earthers, the lot of them.


mpowell 03.08.12 at 9:56 pm

I’m not sure I agree with Warren’s claim about proportionality, but in general I agree that this is what matters in terms of political corruption. If it really is the case that the dominant conception among people who talk about this stuff is that corruption only means using public office for private gain, that would be astonishing and disappointing. That’s only a small part of why the American political system needs funding reform, for example.


Salient 03.08.12 at 10:02 pm

You might say, in a True Scotsman democracy, those who stand to suffer from a decision of the state should have a chance to influence it roughly in proportion as they’ll suffer from it.

The problem with this (even assuming we buy wholesale into the utilitarianism underneath) is that, within the realm of domestic policy, most of the time it’s what the state fails to do or doesn’t try to do that allows the greatest and most disproportionate forms of suffering to go unchecked.


Salient 03.08.12 at 10:07 pm

…though geo’s formulation [or my reformulation of it] is quite evocative if we try to apply it to foreign policy. Strange to have it dawn on me that the times when it’s state action rather than state inaction that is increasing suffering on a massive scale, it’s usually because the state is invading or bombing some other state. (In which case the proposed ideal of democracy is categorically useless, since the people who are suffering due to state foreign policy are by definition noncitizens. But in and of itself that’s not a criticism of the definition, since it only shows that even idealized Democracy is not a sufficient condition for a just state.)


Bruce Wilder 03.08.12 at 10:12 pm

The emergent economics of information do not seem to have penetrated liberal idealism. Lessig, who, in his advocacy regarding intellectual property, net neutrality, etc. may either be the exception or the rule regarding liberal obduracy, I don’t know. I do know that you get the politics you pay for. Call it the Facebook rule: if you are not paying for the service you are using, you are the product.

For a very long time, liberals/progressives have been watching passively as the plutocracy has bought up liberal institutions, from academia to journalism. Politics has been transformed over the last generation from a contest of substantive economic policy into a form of mass entertainment, akin to professional sports or so-called reality television. Politicians from Sarah Palin to Barack Obama have discovered their calling as spokesmodel-politicians, who play a part, without aspiring to govern. The joke about the Republican primary campaign being a bad reality teevee program is not funny, because it is true; none of the candidates aspire to govern — policy simply doesn’t interest them. Their campaign strategies are media strategies. None of them are organizing a following. Barack Obama, in the last election, did organize a mass following, and then promptly ditched them, in favor of his Wall Street buddies.

It is true, as a general principle, that a few people with a lot of money are better able to organize themselves than a great mass of people, with a diminishing individual interest. The point of mass elections, though, is to create a counter-weight to the advantages of the few, not to amplify that inherent advantage. But, for the great mass of people to act in concert also requires organization. And, apparently, in this age of mass communication, it is easier for the few to hire the professionally skilled to manage the masses than it is for anyone invent a mass movement grounded in the genuine interests of the mass in question.

I don’t blame Lessig for hoping that the largesse of an anonymous billionaire or two might be the means for inventing a mass movement for the internet age, able to counter the oligarchy of billionaire rentiers, their hedge fund managers and corporate chiefs. It is a bit of deus ex machina, a hail mary play, at best. But, is there an alternative?

The Progressive Era had its class of rentiers, inheritors of the wealth of a merchant class, which had dominated the pre-industrial era. This was the class, which gave America the Roosevelts, and many progressive reformers, educated at university. If there’s any equivalent available to us, I’ve missed it.

Corrupt centrism is the product of high-minded efforts, built on such models, because corruption has been the fate of academia, the professions, the law, banking and finance. There’s no money to finance the activities and careers of liberal professors, liberal lawyers, liberal bankers. There’s no sector of mutual banking and insurance, to stand as counterweight to the giants; the savings and loans were destroyed a generation ago, and the credit unions pretty nearly ruined in the last go-around. The mainstream economists scarcely include a Left at all; weak-minded at best, few of them are to the left of Eisenhower. So, whose going to build the institutions of policy entrepreneurship? New Deal 2.0, as financed by Pete Peterson? Whose going to do political journalism? Al Jazeera?

In our new age of Versailles, I don’t blame our new philosophes for thinking their salvation is in the power of big money, just as Voltaire and friends hoped for rationalization by an enlightened despot. It’s really the only game in town.


John Lumea 03.08.12 at 10:20 pm

Note that Lessig describes himself as a “supporter” of Americans Elect.

What he doesn’t mention is that he is “not disinterested” in a much more specific sense than that: He actually sits on the Americans Elect Board of Advisors (the “Leadership” list here, less those on that list who sit on the Board of Directors and probably also those others on the list who are identified as having Americans Elect titles).

Presumably, this means that, on some level, Lessig is expected to be an apologist for Americans Elect’s non-disclosure practices.

By way of background, one reason why we have this response from Lessig is that Rick Hasen flagged my recent piece, in which I asked the question:

How is it that Lawrence Lessig, one of the most informed and eloquent critics of the undue influence of money over politics — and one of the most ardent and public advocates for financial transparency from elected officials, corporations and political institutions — winds up on the Board of Advisors, a.k.a. the Leadership, of a political group with such a shadowy financial pedigree?

Hasen tweeted Lessig a briefer version of the question, and Lessig’s response is the upshot.

I too find Lessig’s explanation unconvincing, for some of the same reasons that have been cited here. Within the next day or so, I’ll have a new piece that explains why.


js. 03.08.12 at 10:25 pm


The problem with this (even assuming we buy wholesale into the utilitarianism underneath) is that, within the realm of domestic policy, most of the time it’s what the state fails to do or doesn’t try to do that allows the greatest and most disproportionate forms of suffering to go unchecked.

There’s no indication the constraint is supposed to be so restricted. Here’s what Warren says (this is from the blockquote above):

every individual potentially affected by a collective decision should have an opportunity to affect the decision, proportionally to his or her stake in the outcome

Surely this covers cases of “inaction” as much as “action”. And the underlying conception seems to me to be neutral between a utilitarian one or a Rawlsian one, say. Maybe “proportionally” is problematic, but it’s hard to say how much work it’s really doing without reading the whole paper (which I haven’t done).


rageahol 03.08.12 at 10:51 pm

Because I knew of Lessig from his advocacy on behalf of relatively sane (non-maximalist) IP policies, I signed up for his newsletter when he decided he was going to “fight corruption.”

I spamfiltered his organization’s emails quickly because it turned out that he was a glibertarian at heart.

stopped clock and all that.


Salient 03.08.12 at 11:09 pm

…I don’t feel strongly about it either way, js., but my quibbling point was that quite a lot of things a state could potentially do will never come up for “decision” in the first place.

I guess we could expand “decision” to include absolutely anything within the realm of possibility that a state could conceivably attempt to do, so that all possible inactions are covered, but then it seems correspondingly impossible to even describe a heavily-idealized model in which anything even sort-of-like democracy would be achievable. Can you imagine trying to even roughly evaluate the proportional effect of every conceivable policy regardless of the fact that most of them will never ever come up for discussion? And then give appropriate voice/control to each person accordingly?

But this is more of a technical quibble than a disagreement with the general principle.


Tom Hurka 03.09.12 at 2:07 am

How does Warren’s norm of democracy apply to future generations, who will often be massively affected by political actions today — think either climate change or the leaving of massive government debts — but can’t participate in collective decision-making about them. Both environmentalists and deficit hawks can be seen as standing up for the interests of future people who can’t themselves vote now.


MPAVictoria 03.09.12 at 2:10 am

” deficit hawks can be seen as standing up for the interests of future people who can’t themselves vote now.”

Ha! Deficit hawks are all frauds. Every goddamn one of them. And the future generation will benefit from having functioning education and health systems.


Bloix 03.09.12 at 2:19 am

Someone should ask Lessig if he is being compensated in any way, directly or indirectly, for lending his name and voice to Americans Elect. I have personally been peripherally involved in lobbying campaigns and it’s extraordinary to see who you can buy and how little it costs. This is pure speculation but it’s the question that would occur to anyone with experience of this sort of phony grass-roots campaign.


Henry 03.09.12 at 2:43 am

Bloix, I really would be startled if Lessig is getting any financial remuneration. He has a track record on this stuff, and it’s not the way he operates.


nick s 03.09.12 at 3:00 am

I have no idea what Americans Elect is; is it ‘centrist’ in the sense of ‘between the Democrats and Republicans’ or is ‘centrist’ is the sense of the center of public opinion?

It is centrist in the sense of being ‘the Democratic Party as rich white financial industry professionals would want it’.


Salient 03.09.12 at 3:03 am

Worth noting that Lessig hedged this to oblivion, with

If it doesn’t produce such a candidate, I won’t support supporting the candidate it produces.

…this is essentially a “I support it unless and until I find it unsupportable” fudge, which is much more benign than support (but also much less interesting). Combined with the reflections on anonymity, the whole post is basically making the statement “If the anonymity is a problem, that will be reflected in their choice of candidate.” Which is practically a tautology.

I guess it comes along with “I am going to wait with criticism until I see that their process produces an unsatisfactory candidate, in which case I will criticize the candidate, not the process.” Given that the post seems to be very carefully written so as to be a personal reflection, and to not disparage others who ~are~ criticizing the process (except insofar as saying “I’m not worried about X” implicitly criticizes anyone who is worried about X), it just seems to me like Lessing wrote a harmless-but-meaningless blog post.


Bloix 03.09.12 at 3:14 am

Henry, look at the people on that “leadership” list — what is the author of “Republic Lost” doing there?

And can he possibly be as naive as he appears to be? The whole “non-partisan” thing – whereby the president and vp candidates have to be from different parties – is designed to force a “centrist” ticket: that is, a conservadem plus a northern Republican who has had to pretend to be moderate in order to get elected (e.g., Olympia Snowe). The ticket will be made up of two candidates in the pocket of big money interests who are tired of crazed fundies but like lower taxes and no regulation (except for protection of patent, trademark, and copyright) just fine, thank you.

This is a magician’s trick: Pick a card, any card – but the card you pick will be the one I’ve arranged for you to pick. It’s hard to believe that Lessig doesn’t understand this.


chris 03.09.12 at 3:22 am

the Democratic Party as rich white financial industry professionals would want it

But the Democratic Party already *is* as rich white financial industry professionals would want it, isn’t it?


nick s 03.09.12 at 3:29 am

But the Democratic Party already is as rich white financial industry professionals would want it, isn’t it?

In policy, possibly so; in membership, not so much.


John Lumea 03.09.12 at 4:08 am

Strongly inclined to agree with Bloix 34.


js. 03.09.12 at 5:29 am

Can you imagine trying to even roughly evaluate the proportional effect of every conceivable policy regardless of the fact that most of them will never ever come up for discussion? And then give appropriate voice/control to each person accordingly?

I see what you’re saying, but it’s possible to raise this sort of complaint against almost any (semi-robust) procedural constraint. Instead, suppose you apply the Warren requirement to the following pieces of (proposed or enacted) legislation/general policy proposals: Clinton’s “welfare reform”, The Employees Free Choice Act, healthcare reform (plus the recent, umm, “controversies?” about contraception and Plan B), well, I’m sure you can multiply the cases, but they can all be construed as cases of action or inaction in one way or another, or as leading to action or inaction (say also aborted efforts to repeal punitive drug laws).

Thing is, you don’t really have to think about all possible policies, in any sense of possible. Theoretically, anyway, anyone can propose a policy (and try to rally people to it. And believe me, I get the pie in the sky aspect of this.) But the point I think is simply that once a policy/piece of legislation, etc., is proposed, everyone who is (or might be?) effected by it should have a say in whether or not its enacted relative to how it’ll effect them. It really strikes me as a basic democratic principle, and the policies and pieces of legislation mentioned above would very likely have had quite outcomes if it’d been honored.


js. 03.09.12 at 5:32 am

I don’t much care for Lessig, since I only got to know him in his “anti-corruption” phase, and I still don’t know all that much about his IP advocacy, but he really doesn’t seem like he’d be a bought and paid-for operative, no?


Daniel Nexon 03.09.12 at 2:31 pm

“Third Way” politics made some kind of sense, I guess, when the left-side of the party equation involved unreformed democratic socialism.

But that hasn’t been the case — in basically every advanced industrial democracy — for nearly twenty years. So now this kind of centrist reformist bleating amounts to one of two things: (1) the postmortem reflex of long brain-dead pundits or, as earlier commentators have pointed out, (2) the concern trolling of “social liberals” who’s fiscal and economic views just always happen to coincide with the financial class.

Or, I suppose both. The relevant ven diagram probably contains mostly shared space.


rea 03.09.12 at 2:39 pm

once a policy/piece of legislation, etc., is proposed, everyone who is (or might be?) effected by it should have a say in whether or not its enacted relative to how it’ll effect them.

So, billionaires should have a veto on tax increases for billionaires?


John Garrett 03.09.12 at 5:16 pm

Thanks to John Lumea for linking to the list of leadership — worse than I imagined. FBI Webster? NSA people? Psychiatrists? JP Morgan? Hedge fund guys? And for us Mass folks, the Exec Director is the former Comm Director for our innovative, creative, courageous governor! What is this, a street roster in the Hamptons?

John Garrett


Back in New Haven 03.09.12 at 5:33 pm

I don’t agree with “proportionately to his or her stake in the outcome” at all., even in principle.
1. If “stake in the outcome” is intended to reflect some objective determination, who makes that determination, and how? We either have to empower someone to adjudicate difficult cases (which would be many, perhaps most, cases) or rely on a democratic process to decide—which puts us back where we started.

2. If “stake in the outcome” is intended to be subjective, i.e. “how she believes she is affected” or perhaps “how he reasonably believes he is affected,” who other than the affected person can say? The system is immediately turned into “how much she cares.” That’s not so different from our current system, which we could describe as “how much she cares multiplied by how much money she and her friends have.”

3. Even if there were a way to determine satisfactorily (objectively or subjectively or both) everyone’s proportionate stake, why should that be the criterion? As rea says in #41, the billionaire might then get to decide on billionaire tax increases.

My model for an ideal (but impractical and totally non-scalable) democracy is a town meeting in a town where everyone attends and is interested and informed. Decisions there are made based on proportional stake only to the extent the big stakeholders persuade the less affected to vote their way. Among other virtues, that makes the community conversation about the issue and the ideas behind it the centerpiece.


mpowell 03.09.12 at 6:31 pm

Yeah, the more I think about it the more this proportionality concept seems pretty dubious. The only issue where I think it might have some moral force is on deciding what issues should be federalized or not. But unless you’re going to have billionaires vetoing their own taxes, you have to build an entire system of justice into just evaluating the definition of ‘proportional impact’. And I’m not sure what the point of that is. My view is that democracy doesn’t play much role in the formation of ideal political theory, but it’s role in defining ideal political practice can’t really afford to carry those kinds of philosophical assumptions (if it could, we’d be talking about ideal political theory).


geo 03.09.12 at 6:41 pm

rea@41 and new haven @43:

The argument is: 1) The fact that we all have a roughly equal interest in the overall quality of life in the society is the reason that, in the political realm, one person should have one vote. No democratic theorist proposes that, within a workplace or a local community, every person in the entire society should have a vote, or at least a vote of equal weight with those in the workplace or community. 2) Votes are not divisible and are only with difficulty even weightable. Weighting votes in democratic elections is not feasible. 3) Voice, or influence, is another matter. One person can only vote as often as any other person; but a few people can spend thousands of times as much as most other people. Votes are speech; money is not. Moreover, votes are all-or-none, indivisible; money is more-or-less, a matter of degree. 4) Advocacy is also more-or-less. Though everyone has only one vote, some people can speak/write far more often and far more persuasively than most others. Why don’t we limit their verbal expenditures? Because democracy means that votes are generated by persuasiveness, rather than (as in a plutocracy) by money. 5) Effort, or energy, is also more-or-less. Some people will expend more effort than others, and that will exert some influence. But as long as their efforts come from their civic concern are not being simply purchased by one of the parties to the debate, we don’t want to limits on effort. In that case, effort will normally be proportional to how much the citizen in question is affected. The extra influence produced by their extra effort (unlike the extra influence exerted by those who are simply hired by those who can afford to purchase other people’s efforts) is entirely appropriate in a democracy and should not be restricted.

So, in sum, we don’t want, in the realm of democratic political competition, to limit differential expenditures of eloquence or effort, only of money. Since effort (and to some extent, even eloquence) will be proportional to concern, ie to the degree one is affected, (roughly) equalizing money expenditures while not regulating expenditures of effort or eloquence will have the effect of allocating voice (though not votes) in proportion to being affected.


Jameson Quinn 03.09.12 at 7:10 pm

To me, aside from being a rigged exercise of “pick a card”, AE is also a huge distraction from the real issue. People aren’t satisfied with the choice between R and D (which is assumed to be all about the issues where they’re supposedly hyperpartisan, and not about those where they’re indistinguishable)… and it takes huge mountains of cash to become one of those two options… I know, the solution is to find a new, unexplored mountain of cash!

The fact is, a duopoly will always lead to two bad options. If you don’t like it, break the duopoly. And that’s surprisingly easy to do, in a technical sense. The only things preserving the duopoly are plurality voting and single-member districts. From Approval Voting to Majority Judgment to SODA voting to proportional representation systems such as PAL representation, there are many ways to fix that. No, I’m not saying that the Democratic and Republican parties would wither and die if these were implemented; but they’d have to evolve to survive, and that’s the point.

AE is resolutely ignoring these issues. Why? Would it be hopelessly paranoid of me to suggest that it’s not in their interest to open the pandora’s box of real reform? Not that voting reform, even at the presidential level, would actually take a constitutional amendment (an interstate pact would be plenty); but once people are thinking in terms of fundamental reform (and that includes Lessig), the likely result is that Citizen’s United is also toast one way or another, and that’s not what any deep-pockets anonymous funder of a political organization actually wants, pretty much by definition.


Paul Davis 03.09.12 at 7:21 pm

The ticket will be made up of two candidates in the pocket of big money interests who are tired of crazed fundies but like lower taxes and no regulation (except for protection of patent, trademark, and copyright) just fine, thank you.

Does this describe Americans Elect specifically, or the entire electoral process in the US? Ok, OK, so Obama wants a few more regulations than, say, Ron Paul. But isn’t it basically the credo of the entire “electable” segment of the US political menagerie that:

* lower taxes are good
* less regulations are better
* protecting the interests of american business (since that is whom most americans work for, somehow) is good
* there’s not much point being the last remaining superpower if you don’t use your super powers for good
* nothing is fundamentally wrong with the US, but a few knobs might need to be tweaked

Whoa, lookey there: Americans Elect electoral prospectus in 4 lines. Welcome to the new boss, just like the old boss.


js. 03.09.12 at 7:25 pm

geo @45: Thanks. That says it better than I could.


Mike Loukides 03.10.12 at 1:32 am

Love the pun.

I too am wondering what “centrist” means, given that by any rational standard, Obama is somewhere to the right of Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon was an out-and-out pinko. My, how times have changed. And, sadly, I suspect that “centrist” means little more than “someone firmly in the pocket of the financial community.” This isn’t entirely bad; such a person won’t lead the country off a financial cliff just to prove a point (or to make sure that the current elected regime “fails”). But it also means someone willing to slip Wall Street another few hundred billion if they gamble recklessly and lose, while at the same time not demanding any greater accountability (let alone prison sentences).

All this is making real “centrists” like Nixon and Johnson (and yes, former VP Romney) look pretty good.

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