Internet Populist Lessig: Visionary, Realist, But Not Running

Internet Populist Lessig: Visionary, Realist, But Not Running

Internet Populist Lessig: Visionary, Realist, But Not Running


Of course it would have been great if Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig had run for an open San Francisco Bay-area congressional seat on the reform platform he proposed.

Lessig, a pioneering battler against digital monopolies in the Internet age, would have been an exceptionally welcome addition to a Congress where senior members still admit that they don’t really know how to use computers. And if Lessig had arrived in the manner he imagined — as a proponent of fundamental reforms in the way the political process operates – it would have been a great moment for those who want the word of the moment, “change,” to mean something.

Lessig, brave enough to take on Microsoft and smart enough to challenge federal copyright laws that are as corrupt as they are outdated, might even have figured out how to get the House talking in a serious manner about the campaign finance and ethics initiatives that are the “dreams deferred” of contemporary American politics. And if his “Change Congress” project succeeded, he might even have gotten Congress functioning again, as a check and balance against executive excess, a chain on the dogs of way, a facilitator of the common good and all the other purposes intended by the founders.

Lessig proposed to run in the April 8 open primary to fill a seat vacated by the death of California Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat who had represented San Francisco and communities to its south for the better part of three decades. When he began exploring a possible run last week, the popular blogger explained, “My goal is to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on some fundamental principles that need to be reformed so Congress regains the confidence of the people.”

Everyone who has known and worked with Lessig on internet freedom issues and for the broader progressive agenda he supported got excited about the prospect of this campaign. A “Draft Lessig” internet campaign raised $35,000 to encourage his candidacy.

But then reality set in.

To make any of the changes he proposed – indeed, even to shake up the system enough to make those changes imaginable — Lessig would need to be a viable contender for the seat representing California’s overwhelmingly Democratic 12th District.

That was unlikely to happen, even in this year of unlikely political developments.

Lessig lacked the name recognition and the broad support that had already gone to the leading contender for the seat, former state Senator Jackie Speier. A veteran local and state official with solid liberal – if perhaps not radical reformer — credentials, Speier is supported by California U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, as well as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. She even earned an endorsement from Lantos, who had decided not to seek reelection and endorsed her as his replacement before his death.

Even as an author, lecturer and legal champion who is genuinely respected in the Silicon Valley, and as a hero of the “netroots” politicos who got so enthused about his prospective candidacy, Lessig would have had a hard time mounting a serious challenge to Speier, who has a compelling personal story, has won elections in every part of the district and has earned a deserved reputation as a serious consumer advocate.

After a little bit of polling and a lot of consultation with friends and allies, Lessig came to the conclusion that, “Certainly, we would have lost this race in a big way.” He also determined that, “My running and losing big would do more harm than good” to the “Change Congress” project he hopes that other candidates will embrace.

“Losing big in the first important battle is not an effective strategy,” explained Lessig.

That may be true. And no one who is serious about politics will have much criticism for Lessig’s decision.

Still, we should acknowledge that something important has been lost.

The prospect of “Congressman Larry Lessig” was energizing. It inspired hope, as does the potential candidacy of anyone so able and so well intended.

Might it have been the false hope we have heard so much about during the course of the current race for the Democratic presidential nomination? Lessig worried that this could be the case, and he chose to guard against it — which only made those of us who thought he had the makings of a great congressman think it all the more.

Lessig made a politically realistic decision for which he should be respected.

But it’s O.K. to be disappointed.

Visionary realists are rare enough in politics. We can’t afford to have too many talk themselves out of running for Congress if there is to be any honest hope of fixing a broken system.

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