Democracy inaction: review of the Lessig presidential race

Larry Lessig in the New Yorker: Why I Dropped Out. This was the second part of a two-part essay about Lessig’s presidential bid. The first part, Why I Ran for President, reads like the first page of a thesis of political science. Sadly, the second part is much shorter and details Lessig’s major misstep—his distracting promise to resign from the presidency once he passed a package of reform aimed at eliminating corruption in the federal government.

Lessig shows two types of unfortunate naïvety in this narrative, one of which he acknowledges. He calls the promise to resign “an albatross that would ultimately sink the campaign,” and notes the inability of the press to explain it in a soundbite, the confusion of the voting public, and other factors that contributed to sinking the campaign. But I think he misses an important point. Another reason that this promise sank the campaign was the insight it provided into Lessig’s more serious naïvety: his belief that the culture of American federal-level politics could be fixed in one term via legislative fiat.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned over eight years at Veracode trying to convince enterprises, software suppliers, and individual software developers to take security seriously is that you don’t change culture overnight. You don’t do it with a law. You don’t do it with economic incentives. You do it, at least in part, by changing norms – what people will and won’t accept – and by showing people what “good” looks like. You can’t do that by passing legislation and then leaving in the middle of the night.