Drafting in Public

Monday night, during a bout of insomnia, I wrote down the first outline of the campaign finance story I want to tell. According to Anne Lamott’s advice of writing shitty first drafts, I simply wrote without looking back. In the spirit of working in public, I’ve captured and reorganized it here.

Free Congress

A Case for Campaign Finance Reform, in Four Parts. The form of it will be
inspired by the Snowfall interactive piece from the NY Times.

Part I - Let’s Run for Congress

Premise: We love hating on Congress, but are our elected officials really so terrible? Or are they facing unfortunate and difficult circumstances we don’t often think about? Part I is a choose-your-own-adventure story that the follows you, our hero who is unfortunately cursed with a “conviction” and has to run for Congress.

Motivation: Too many pieces of political writing are angry demonization of elected officials. I want to see if a more empathetic approach might be more effective. I want to humanize the people who run for office, and “demonize” the system e.g. show the pressures and conflicts that the current campaign finance system creates, and how it shapes the terrible behaviour we see in Congress. The emotional response should be, “ok, I feel a bit bad for these people.”


  • An Unfortunate Conviction
  • A Campaign Costs How Much? - breaking down how much a race costs
  • Your “friends” and the “others” - irrational bundling of policy positions
  • That Ad was Mean - attack ads and the mutual assured destruction dynamic
  • Welcome to Congress, Here’s Your Headset - the non-stop fundraising cycle
  • You made a friend! - the complicate relationship between an elected official and lobbyists
  • A Challenger Appears! - the threat of SuperPACs and primary challengers
  • A Boiled FrogĀ 

Part II - A Dependency Corruption

Premise: We hinted at the dynamics of how money corrupts decent people running for congress. Part II dissects dynamics further, laying out the patterns and illustrating them using data and visualizations.

Motivation: Part I casts a soft light and aims to evoke empathy. Part II is about casting a harder light, and communicating the scale of the problem. The dominant emotion here should be “oh shit this is huge.”


  • How much money is here? (mapping money spent to races and “safeness” of seats)
  • Where’s the money going? (network charts of where money comes from.)
  • The Funders Club (Top 0.1% funds X% of all campaigns.)
  • Correlation isn’t causation, but… (linking campaign funds to policy agendas)
  • MAD Gridlock (game theory of SuperPACs and the threat of primary challengers)

Part III - The Branches and the Root

Premise: Borrowing Lessig’s metaphor, I want to show why campaign finance is the root of gridlock in Congress. By showing case studies from popular but frustrated policy agendas from both sides of the spectrum, and abstracting out the pattern.

Motivation: People care a lot about their issue, but often don’t see campaign finance as a part of the problem. By clearly establishing the link between an issue that people care about and campaign finance, I hope to further make that emotional links. The response should be, “If I want X to move forward, I better pay attention to campaign finance.”


  • Pattern 1: Diffused Benefits, Concentrated Costs
  • 1.1 Climate Change
  • 1.2 Gun Control
  • Pattern 2: Political Rent-seeking
  • 2.1 Simpler Taxes
  • 2.2 Regulatory capture
  • The Lobbying ROI

Part IV - A New Hope

Premise: Campaign finance isn’t an Left-or-Right issue, it is a Networks-vs-Incumbents issue, like SOPA-PIPA. The way to fight for campaign finance reform is similar to how the Internet fought SOPA-PIPA, through networked action and building a coalition of enlightened citizens. To do that, we need this idea to go viral.

Motivation: See above.

Outline: To be honest, I don’t know yet, I haven’t quite gotten this far. All I know is I want to point people to the Rootstrikers.