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.

  • Anonymous

    Stupid posts like these completely ruin your credability. Bush hasn’t “attacked” Clarke. People are merely pointing out differences between what he says now and what he said then. Clarke is an obvious partisan who says nothing but good things about Clinton and nothing but bad things about Bush.

  • Anne Fullerton

    This does feel as if I’m coming into a conversation that’s already in progress, and I’m not quite understanding the dynamic (either of the conversation, or of blogging — to which I’m a newcomer). But it doesn’t seem as if the “more comments on Clarke” response relates to the “we need a good graphic” original post.

    As a non-American, but long-time (taxation without representation) American resident, might I say that it seems to me that the current electoral contest is entirely lacking in real choices? Kerry may differ from Bush in certain limited areas of specific policy, but there is no real conceptual differenence in orientation — it’s all just marginally left or marginally right of a very centrist, isolationist, U.S.-centric agenda.

    Are there any legitimate third-party choices? Does Ralph need to be perceived as a spoiler, or does he have something legitimate to offer? It seems to me that this this is an important conversation, and one that warrants raising above the current “this is a stupid post” discourse.

  • tom the cat

    - Hmm… the reason Clarke remains credible is that he is not an “obvious partisan” – the same goes for Lessig- and, unless I missed something major on the news, no one has yet shown that Clarke’s allegations are unfounded. Miaow.

  • tom the cat

    - Hmm… the reason Clarke remains credible is that he is not an “obvious partisan” – the same goes for Lessig- and, unless I missed something major on the news, no one has yet shown that Clarke’s allegations are unfounded. Miaow.

  • http://popageorgio.com Nick Douglas

    Clarke said good things about Bush when that was his job. Just noting this before anyone accuses him of hypocricy. cracy. crasy. Aha, now I know why Republicans decided to just call it “waffling.”

  • Anonymous

    Whether having this opinion of the Bush administration damages Professor Lessig’s credibility is largely a matter of personal perspective. It certainly seems odd to argue that he shouldn’t be making comments like this on his own weblog. He’s is entitled to have and express whatever political opinions he has, and we, his readers, can decide for ourselves what that means to his credibility.

    That aside, I’m not sure what subset of the hearings you were listening to, but Clarke seemed to be critical of both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. It was clear he felt that terrorism was an issue which presented increasing in threat, and was not getting adequate attention from either administration. He also did something that the Bush administration has not done: apologize for his own failures and those of his agency in their duty to protect the lives of American citizens. It’s far from clear to me how he can be labelled as partisan: if anything, the Bush administration’s response (against his character rather than the substance of his claims) make it seem that they are more deserving of that particular label.

  • read much?

    uh, did any of you actually READ the linked article?
    April fools, perhaps?

  • Alan

    Hey read much?:

    You hit the nail on the head…if you read the article it definitely is an April Fool’s joke. This makes Lawrence’s statement either foolish or sarcastic….I’m hoping for sarcastic.

    As to Clarke, a key thing to me is his character which he has called into question by coming out with scathing, damning remarks of the administration (more than Clinton’s by the way) after having praised them just two years ago. His explanation was that he was a member of the staff and had to toe the line….here is my take on it…
    1. Many of his statements in 2002 were of FACT, not opinion…so he is either lying now or then.
    2. If he did lie about how he really felt about the state of the administrations anti-terrorism efforts to save his job, then he is a moral coward and again you can’t trust what he is saying. He basically admitted he put his job and salary above the safety of the American public. Did he apologize for that?

    He is basically a frustrated bureaucrat looking for someone to blame for everything. His apology was theatrics and grandstanding.

    It is a sad statement that the 9/11 commission can’t just look for the facts so we can improve things. It has become a tool in the war to end the war on terror (ie. the enemy is us, not the terrorists).

    Fundamentally, nobody was prepared for 9/11 and even if a leader at any level was prepared, the public would have not allowed the actions necessary to quelch it. It was a turning point in history that opened a lot of peoples’ eyes – too many closed them again.

  • http://www.dpklaw.com Steve Kramarsky

    I just have to point out here that anyone who knows Larry Lessig even a little (I am a former student of his, so that’s about what I can claim) knows that he is far from a knee-jerk liberal or Democrat. It’s clear he doesn’t think much of Bush, but a lot of smart, conservative (in the true sense of that word) Republicans feel the same way. I’m not saying Larry is a Republican (though he once was, a Young Republican, I believe) or even a conservative, but his feelings about Bush don’t necessarily reflect liberal Democratic political leanings either. When I knew him at the University of Chicago I would have been very surprised to hear him accused of being a bleeding-heart.

  • lessig

    hey, team, lighten up. the article I linked to was a joke april fools article. and it was in the theme of that article I was suggesting another with a graphic.

  • Matthew Saroff

    Clarke said good things about Bush when that was his job.


    When specifically instructed by his superiors to give a positive assessment of the Bush administration’s actions regarding terrorism at a press briefing, he did so.

    As to his congressional testimony, he specifically said that the administration was engaged in its first 11 months.

    911 occurred on month 7.

    Translation: “They paid attention AFTER 911.”

    Then you have them trying to out Clarke as gay via CNN and Blitzer, and you have a quote from a book saying essentially that the Iraq policy was so stupid that it could have been written by Osama (using a common literary metaphor), and it’s cast as “Osama can use his alien mind control powers.”

    If these folks had said something to the effect of, “Clarke is a guy with a hammer, so everything looks like a nail, and he did not get the big picture,” this would all be over now.

    They can’t because they believe that they have something like Papal infallibility.

    Look at the s***storm stirred up from Letterman showing a kid nodding off during one of Shrub’s speeches.

    No sense of proportion. Any criticism is an attack on America.

  • MRL


    [you said] “Many of his statements in 2002 were of FACT, not opinion�so he is either lying now or then.”

    I’m not so inclined to agree given that: (1) Pat Buchanan (a Nixonian republican) has backed up Clarke’s statements then and now; and (2) Clarke himself has called Bill Frist’s bluff to “open the record” and said: fine! open it all. let everyone look at my record.

    This doesn’t sound like a liar to me. And it certainly looks a hell of a lot better than an administration that won’t let its NSC advisor testify “under oath.” What good is Condi’s testimony if she can lie with impugnity. Richarde Clarke testified under oath to congress. If he lied in his testimony, he’s committed multiple felonies — an not just perjury. Lying to congress is a felony all by itself.

  • Alan


    My main data point included a statement to the effect that the Bush administration was spending 5x as much as the Clinton administration on anti-terrorist activities in 2002.

    Perhaps you can clarify – when Condileeza Rice testified in private to the commission – wasn’t that under oath? I think it was but I’m open to learning different.


    When specifically instructed by his superiors to give a positive assessment of the Bush administration�s actions regarding terrorism at a press briefing, he did so.

    Let me ask you what your assessment of a person is who was charged with such a serious responsibility as leading our fight against terror who would mislead the public. Spin is one thing but his statements are far beyond spin. If he didn’t believe them, then what kind of person is he – ie. willingly misleading the public on such an important issue. Doesn’t it seem a little worriesome to you? This is not a salesperson saying a product is a bit better than it really is – this is someone who literally had the lives of hundreds of millions of people in his hands. It is a sad comment on society that his excuse (I was told to say that) did not lead to the deep questioning of his character.

    I’m not happy with many of the administration’s recent responses – I think it is a sign of worry over the stakes being played out.


    Free Culture is a great read – I have to digest your ideas for a while but as always you argue well from both a principle and factual basis. I’m glad my hope on this post was well placed…and I apologize for questioning you on something sooooo obvious.

    You have a lot of passionate readers obviously (this one not excluded).

  • http://homepage.mac.com/wlwesq/iblog/index.html William L. Wilson

    Lessig is almost right. What we really need is a picture of Nixon morphing into GWB.

  • lessig

    much better!

  • http://lightningbug.blogspot.com lightning

    Uhh … don’t you mean George III? There was another president named George, a log time ago. Lots of things used to be named after him. (Posted from Reagan, DC)

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