Lawrence Lessig is a law professor at Harvard University and a proponent of a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United. He has founded several organizations to support his cause of getting money out of politics, including Rootstrikers. In 2011, Lessig published Republic, Lost – How Money Corrupts Congress, and a Plan to Stop It. This was followed in 2012 with a shorter, more streamlined work, One Way Forward – the Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic. Since I recently read One Way Forward, I decided to share some of the main ideas in the book; this will be a two-part series to allow space for a more extensive discussion.
Lessig believes that “We the People” hold an immense power given to us by the Constitution, but it is a sleeping giant that is only awakened in a crisis. For example, in 1998, two software developers started an email list to encourage “moving on” and getting back to the business of government when those in Congress were obsessed with the Clinton sex scandal. The movement grew exponentially and became MoveOn.org. This is “crowd-sourced politics.”
Similar waves of power occurred with Obama’s first campaign, the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-SOPA and PIPA campaign that was spearheaded by Wikipedia. Commonality of these groups: use of the “open-source” concept (initially developed in the context of computer software) in which:
~ organic is better than organized
~ authentic is better than professional
~ grassroots, building from the bottom up, is better than top-down
Examples of “open-source” politics include the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Although their goals, tactics, and demographics were quite different, they both were passionate about their beliefs. They were not created by political professionals, but by truly involved citizens as imagined by our Founders. The U.S. Political arena changed from a primarily “read-only” culture (i.e., people are passive and merely absorb what is presented to them) to a “read-write” culture (individual citizens are active participants – they create blogs, websites, ebooks to support their beliefs).
In addition, the Occupy K Street protests, which also began in early October, 2011, focused on the role of money in politics. The common bond between these 3 movements was their goal of reviving democracy – reminding people of their power with regard to our government and our nation.
Polarization, with opinions apparently divided sharply into extremes, has been a strong characteristic of recent political movements. Lessig calls this excessive polarization the “business model of hate.” In his interactions with groups on both sides of the political spectrum (such as Tea Party Patriots and Occupy Wall Street), Lessig states he has come up against polarization and hate again and again, especially in the media. This is partly due to the proliferation of news channels. “When choices were fewer, the few played to the middle.” In 1980, 50 million Americans watched regular network (ABC, NBC, CBS) news each night. By 2010 that number was below 25 million – less than half.
Today’s media outlets, including television, radio, and Internet, focus on “niche marketing.” Lessig writes, “We watch what we agree with. We surf to sites we agree with. And while opposing ideas are just a click away, most of us never click.” This is why media is generally biased in one way or another. Its goal is to make a profit, and partisanship increases profits. Similarly, extremist politicians find it easier to raise campaign funds because their position on issues is clear, not “wishy-washy.”
Lessig points out that this state of affairs is not new. In fact, in the early days of the U.S., when freedom of the press was first guaranteed by the First Amendment, the press thrived on extremism and partisanship. The pamphlets printed in 1790 were more like today’s blogosphere than like the New York Times.
The extreme polarization today makes it difficult for opposing sides to come together to change our dysfunctional system of government. Lessig uses the analogy of the designated hitter rule in baseball: this 1970s agreement among baseball teams was a decision about how they would play the game, not a competition. “Deliberations like these are constitutional… The discussion is not about who would win the game; the discussion is about which set of rules would make the game better.”
An example of the difference between constitutional politics and ordinary politics is the conflict over the 2000 election. “We all would say in the abstract that votes cast in an election should be fairly and accurately counted. That’s different from saying that all sides in a particular election would favor a recount of Miami-Dade County.”
Lessig states that we can’t fix our Republic without amending the Constitution. After the Citizens United decision, it became obvious that some steps could be taken, but to end the corruption of money, an amendment is required, unless the Supreme Court changes radically. We must:
(1) Identify an effective reform that the vast majority of us could agree upon; and then…
(2) Leverage the passion of different grassroots movements to support that fundamental reform; but we must do this…
3) Without neutralizing or denying or ignoring the real differences that exist among these passionate grassroots movements.”
This process may seem impossible, but there is a precedent for success even in the face of such extreme polarization on issues such as we have today. The first U.S. Constitution (1781) did not work, and a second Constitution was drafted (1787). There was substantial disagreement among the Framers – e.g., the question of slavery. But they put these disagreements aside in order to formulate a Constitution for a country that would work. Remember, our motto is E pluribus unum.