October 12, 2011  ·  Lessig

Like a fever, revolutions come in waves. And if this is a revolution, then it broke first on November 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, second, on February 19, 2009, with the explosion of anger by Rick Santelli, giving birth to the Tea Party, and third, on September 10, 2011 with the #Occupy movements that are now spreading across the United States.

The souls in these movements must now decide whether this third peak will have any meaningful effect — whether it will unite a radically divided America, and bring about real change, or whether it will be boxed up by a polarized media, labeled in predictable ways, and sent off to the dust bins of cultural history.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed a strategy of non-violence: that in the face of state sponsored and tolerated aggression, the strongest response was a promise not to respond in kind.

In this movement, we need a similar strategy. Of course a commitment to non-violence. But also a commitment to non-contradiction: We need to build and define this movement not by contradicting the loudest and clearest anger on the Right, but instead, by finding the common ground in our demands for reform.

So when Ron Paul criticizes the “Wall Street bailouts,” and attacks government support for “special businesses” with special access, we should say, “that’s right, Congressman Paul.” Bailouts for the rich is not the American way.

And when Rick Santelli launches a Tea Party movement, by attacking the government’s subsidies “to the losers,” we should ask in reply, what about the subsidies “to the winners” — to the banks who engineered the dumbest form of socialism ever invented by man: socialized risk with privatized benefits. What, we should ask Mr. Santelli, about that subsidy?

Or when Republican Senator Richard Shelby tells NBC’s Meet the Press that the message in bank reform “should be, unambiguously, that nothing’s too big to fail,” we should say that’s right, Senator, and it’s about time our Congress recognized it.

Or when Sarah Palin calls GE the “poster child of crony capitalism,” we should say “Amen, Mamma Grisly”: For whether or not we are all believers in “capitalism,” we should all be opponents of “crony capitalism,” the form of capitalism that is increasingly dominating Washington, and that was partly responsible for the catastrophe on Wall Street in 2008, and hence the catastrophes throughout America since.

We should practice “non-contradiction,” not because we have no differences with the Right. We do. We on the Left, we Liberals, or as some prefer, we Progressives, have fundamental differences with people on the Right. Our vision of that “shining city on the hill” is different from theirs. Our hopes for “We, the People,” are more aspirational. More egalitarian. More ideal.

But even though our substantive views are different, we should recognize that we have not yet convinced a majority of America of at least some of our fundamental views. And that in a democracy, no faction has the right to hold a nation hostage to its extreme views, whether right or not. We should fight in the political system to win support for our Liberal views. But we should reject the idea that protest, or violence, or blackmail are legitimate political techniques for advancing views that have not yet prevailed in a democratic system.

Instead, we should use the energy and anger of this extraordinary movement to find the common ground that would justify this revolution for all Americans, and not just us. And when we find that common ground, we should scream it, and yell it, and chant it, again, and again, and again.

For there is a common ground between the anger of the Left and the anger of the Right: That common ground is a political system that does not work. A government that is not responsive, or — in the words of the Framers, the favorite source of insight for our brothers on the Right — a government that is not, as Federalist 52 puts it, “dependent upon the People alone.”

Because this government is not dependent upon “the People alone.” This government is dependent upon the Funders of campaigns. 1% of America funds almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America. Is it therefore any surprise that the government is responsive first to the needs of that 1%, and not to the 99%?

This government, we must chant, is corrupt. We can say that clearly and loudly from the Left. They can say that clearly and loudly from the Right. And we then must teach America that this corruption is the core problem — it is the root problem — that we as Americans must be fighting.

There could be no better place to name that root than on Wall Street, New York. For no place in America better symbolizes the sickness that is our government than Wall Street, New York. For it is there that the largest amount of campaign cash of any industry in America was collected; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the policies that created “too big to fail”; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the get-out-of-jail free card, which Obama and the Congress have now given to Wall Street in the form of a promise of no real regulatory change, and an assurance of “forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness” — not of the mortgages that are now underwater. The foreclosures against them continue. “Forgiveness” — not even of the sins now confessed by Wall Street bankers, for our President has instructed us, no crimes were committed. “Forgiveness” — just enough to allow candidates once again to race to Wall Street to beg for the funds they need to finance their campaigns. The dinner parties continue. The afternoons at the golf course are the same. It’s not personal. It’s just business. It is the business of government corrupted.

There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend these policies. There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend this corruption. The single problem we all should be able to agree about is a political system that has lost is moral foundation: For no American went to war to defend a democracy “dependent upon the Funders alone.” No mother sacrificed her son or daughter to the cause of a system that effectively allows the law to be sold to the highest bidder.

We are Americans, all of us, whether citizens or not. We are Americans, all of us, because we all believe in the ideal of a government responsive to “the People alone.” And we all, as Americans, regardless of the diversity of our views, need to stand on this common ground and shout as loudly as we can: End this corruption now. Get the money out of government. Or at least get the special interest money out of government. And put back in its place a government dependent upon, and responsive too, the people. Alone.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil” — Thoreau, 1846, On Walden — “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.”

If this fever is to have its effect, if this revolution is to have any meaning, if this struggle — and the carnival notwithstanding, it is an obvious struggle to sleep on the streets — is to have real consequence, then we all, Left and Right, must strike first at that root.

“It is the duty of youth,” they say Kurt Cobain said, “to challenge corruption.” He may have meant a different corruption, if indeed he uttered this poetry too. But whatever he meant, embrace his words. It is your duty to challenge this corruption. And once you have ended it — once we have restored a government that cares about what its people care about first, and not just its funders — then let us get back to the hard and important work of convincing our fellow citizens of the right in everything that is left.

  • Iain

    I’m not sure what you mean by “3d”, but I assume “1st” is a reference to the first black President. I think Obama would make an excellent President, but I don’t think it likely that someone who’s name rhymes with Iraq Osama is likely to carry many more states than Illinois. Obama is very popular here in Illinois right now, but it may be prohibitively difficult to make a connection in the other 49.

    Incidentally, I have heard at least two other commentators say they expect Obama to be President one day. Anyone who particularly wants to see a President Obama one day should probably start dropping his name in their writings now, and not stop stop until he’s elected. (Which, of course, some have begun to do.

  • http://www.goldbergandguthrie.blogspot.com Goldberg

    I had Obama at U of C law school for voting rights. He is a very smart and decent man, and his primary campaign showed that he ain’t a half bad pol, either. I think I missed Prof. Lessig by a couple of years. Anyway, Obama will make waves at the national level, and rightly so.

    Some other recent alums and I held a fundraiser for Obama in early March, with special guest Studs Terkel. Pictures can be found by clicking my name and scrolling down.

  • Anonymous

    OK, I give up, what’s the 20% rule?

  • lessig
  • Maggie

    Mr. Obama should read this opinion piece at Black Commentator.

    Good luck to him!

  • Steph

    Obama will be the third black senator in U.S. history, and then the first black president. And he will! It was a privilege, as a Chicago resident, to be able to vote for him in the Illinois primary.

  • http://michaelphillips.blogspot.com michael phillips

    5th black senator in history, 3rd black to run for president, and first to win.

  • http://therandomwalk.blogspot.com Duncan Young

    “3rd black to run for president”

    Err no

  • Mike B

    3rd President from Illinois? (If you don’t count Ronald Regan…) Lincoln, Grant, and Regan so far…

  • Anonymous

    3rd black senator since reconstruction, 5th black senator ever, 1st black president. Oh, wait, but that wouldn’t be 3rd and 1st at the same time.

    I give up! Please answer the Sunday puzzle!

  • http://www.geocities.com/reaper1147 Charles Grimmett

    Obama is America!
    He’s Black! He’s White! He’s the child of an immigrant and a native born citizen. He is an Ivy School graduate, from a middle class family. He has a wife with movie star good looks and two beautiful daughters. All he need now to make him complete is a scandal developed by the right wing to overcome his perfectly clean image. Once he’s eliminated that hurdle he will be a candidate for President in earnest.

  • Edward Kanterian

    Correct answer: 3rd black senator.
    We had
    1st 1966 Edward W. Brooke/Massachusetts
    2nd 1982 Carol Moseley Braun/Illinois.
    And now Obama as the 3rd…

  • David Noha

    If it’s “3rd and 1st in the same year” then he can’t be referring to being the 3rd black senator… and he’s the 5th black senator anyway. Two were elected between 1870 and 1881, and two more since the mid-sixties. See the CBC history page.

    I’d guess it’s something nuanced about the nomination, like the 3rd black presidential candidate to win a major party primary or caucus, something like that. I know Jesse Jackson has carried states for the nomination before, I’m not sure who else has.

  • David Noha

    Excuse, he will be the 5th black Senator.

  • http://thebigmouth.blogspot.com a&w

    I’m guessing he’ll be the third U.S. citizen born overseas to seek the nomination of a major party (the other two are Romney and McCain), as well as the first to seek such nomination as a democrat (the other two were Republicans). This is the only answer that does not depend on him actually winning the senate election in 2004, or the democratic nomination in 2012.

  • Edward Kanterian

    Sorry, I meant the 3rd after reconstruction. Before that we had Hiram R. Revels (1870) and Blanche K. Bruce (1874).

  • DR Harris

    Black senators:
    Hiram R. Revels, MS, 1870 to 1871
    Blanche K. Bruce, MS, 1875 to 1881
    Edward W. Brooke, MA, 1967 to 1979
    Carol Moseley Braun, IL, 1993 to 1999
    Barack Obama, IL, 2005 to . . .

  • http://jchris.mfdz.com Chris Anderson


    In case anyone is interested in history after reading those comments…

  • bob

    2012 never made sense. What is the 3d? I doubt Shirley Chisholm carried any state primaries, and I know Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton did not.