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.

  • Ed Lyons

    As someone who does know how elections are won, Kerry is way behind Bush in money and local organizations in swing states. At this point in time, I don’t see how Kerry wins.

    As for the free culture issues you care about professor, neither candidate has positions you would support. Hmmmmm. If there was a nationally-recognized “free culture” organization (I suppose there are a few smaller orgs that would count like EFF) I wonder who would get their endorsement?

  • Larry Love

    My only comment would be that it is very early to calling the election. I grew up watching Kerry win races he wasn’t supposed to, which I would attribute to his ability to make adjustments. Much like a batter at the plate, he seems to change his gameplan to what he is being pitched. Sure that invites the old flip-flopper with no conviction critique, but having an idealogue in the Oval Office hasn’t really been effective. I think the reason you have been solicited to contribute to Kerry’s campaign is not that his organization is so together, it’s that there is a serious fear of Bush for 4 more years, and that is all that Kerry needs to tap into.

  • anonymous

    Plenty of conservatives hate Bush’s radical agenda, too. There have been numerous defections, only the most recent being Richard Clarke’s. If you don’t trust Clarke, by all means, corroborate his story with Paul O’Neil’s. On the Iraq war, add Anthony Zinni and Scott Ritter — both Bush supporters in 2000 — to the list of dissenters…

    Check out this quote from former Secretary of the Navy and conservative Republican James Webb:

    “There is no historical precedent for taking such
    action [against Iraq] when our country was not being
    directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush
    and his advisers have set will affect the economic and
    military energy of our nation for decades. It is only
    the tactical competence of our military that, to this
    point, has protected him from the harsh judgment he

    “At the same time, those around Bush, many of whom
    came of age during Vietnam and almost none of whom
    served, have attempted to assassinate the character
    and insult the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with
    them. Some have impugned the culture, history and
    integrity of entire nations, particularly in Europe,
    that have been our country’s great friends for
    generations and, in some cases, for centuries.”

  • http://www.kennypearce.net Kenny

    As Ed Lyons pointed out in his comment above, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans support freedom, as such – they both support bigger and bigger government. For instance, the new PIRATE Act is being co-sponsored by Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat, who is just as much in the record industries pocket as Orrin Hatch, the other co-sponsor, and it so happens that many Democrats voted for the Patriot Act, the War Powers Act, etc. For my part, I think we should elect Michael Badnarik, because a vote for a third party is NOT a wasted vote. A wasted vote is what happens when you vote for the lesser of two evils.

  • http://www.kaax.org Kaa

    “Basic corruption of the government” is a good concept. Unfortunately, on a basic philosophical level Democrats like the government more than Republicans. Democrats are also more prone to demagoguery (which is not to imply that the Republicans aren’t — all politicians are demagogues, more or less).

    I definitely don’t trust a Democrat, especially an inside-the-Beltway one, to deal with the corruption of basic integrity in the government…

    Actually, I don’t see anyone capable of doing this — anyone that has a slightest chance of being elected, that is. Maybe the next generation.

    And with this we conclude our pessimistic message of the day :-)


  • RJ

    We shouldn’t be so limited appyling freedom to our lives. Bush’s tax cut has provided average citizens more freedom to decide how we want to spend our money. It will have the bonus side effect of putting pressure on government to control the amount of money it consumes, I’m glad there’s a deficit that will give our government more pause before dumping our money into the next “big solution.”

    The fact is, as others have said, there is not a big difference between the Republicans and the Democrats right now any most freedom-related concerns. If we continue to demand more freedom to keep the income we earn, and government continues to shrink and exercise a less intrusive impact on our lives many of the freedom infringing policies supported by both parties will be forced to the wayside by a lack of capacity to enforce them. We can best disarm our government’s intrusion in our lives by taking away the resources it uses to invade our lives not by creating “feel-good” policy pronouncements that will be ignored when expedient. Starve the government of $ and there simply will be less people to ignore privacy.

  • Rob

    A Foreigner said:

    I am not an American but was brought up with the assumption that the US stood for certain principles. These principles were universal and the US was successful because it promoted these principles for all.

    The U.S. does indeed stand for certain principles. What you failed to understand in your early life was that those principles are incredibly self-centered. Ever since its establishment, the United States has not cared if the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket as long as it didn’t affect its own interests. The Iraq invasion was not undertaken to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein; that was just a consequence. It was a war of revenge and (officially) prevention. Korea and Vietnam were not fought out of a deep concern over the welfare of their peoples under Communism. We didn’t really get involved in WWII until we were attacked ourselves. We didn’t get into WWI until the Zimmerman Telegram threatened to bring the war to U.S. soil. We fought the Spanish-American War and the Mexican War to expand our territory. Similarly the War of 1812 was a land-grab at Canada while Britain was supposedly distracted by Napoleon. And that’s just our military history; I can’t imagine how much of our economic history is littered with such examples. America is a young nation and we are a nation of adolescents, seeking immediate gratification and little caring about the long-term consequences of our actions.

    So our recent foreign policy is merely more of the same. Under Democratic administrations it is usually a little less overtly self-centered, but nevertheless we are basically unconcerned about what the rest of the world does as long as it doesn’t directly affect us. And now that there is no longer any military or (apparently) economic rival to force us to take their positions seriously, we are doing whatever suits our fancy. This helps messianic lunatics like Bin Laden promote their own agendas, and the cycle becomes self-sustaining: 1) Bin Laden sets up 9/11 -> 2) we bomb Bin Laden out of Afghanistan because he’s behind 9/11 -> 3) Bin Laden recruits terrorists opposed to our bombing them and bombs Madrid -> 4) See what a threat Bin Laden is, we better bomb him. Ad infinitum. There is no incentive to stop the cycle, because that’s “giving in to the terrorists” and heaven knows we can’t do that.

    The problem with Kerry’s candidacy is that the kind of people who might support him are less likely to vote than those who might support Bush. Kerry doesn’t inspire me, he doesn’t have the fire of Dean or the optimism and charisma of Edwards. He’s just kind of *there*, the alternative to Bush, and I’ll support him on that basis; but the large percentage of Americans who don’t really care about politics won’t be moved by him. That leaves the activist Conservatives vs. the activist Liberals, and ties go to the incumbent (and the big money).

  • Rob

    Bush�s tax cut has provided average citizens more freedom to decide how we want to spend our money. It will have the bonus side effect of putting pressure on government to control the amount of money it consumes, I�m glad there�s a deficit that will give our government more pause before dumping our money into the next �big solution.�

    Shirley you can’t be serious. “Average citizens” got a pittance, per capita, compared to the per capita benefits given the wealthiest Americans. There’s been so much spin on how really the majority of benefit went to the poorest Americans in overall terms that my head is swimming. You know, 100 million Americans getting $10 back is comparable to 100 Americans getting $10 million back! I feel so much better when I think of it like that. Puh-leese. And I see no evidence of THIS government controlling the amount of money it consumes, in fact I see just the OPPOSITE. Oh, I get it, you were talking about our KIDS’ government having to be careful in its spending. We’ll all be safely dead by then so who cares, right? Deficits don’t matter…to us!

    We can best disarm our government�s intrusion in our lives by taking away the resources it uses to invade our lives not by creating �feel-good� policy pronouncements that will be ignored when expedient.

    Like missions to Mars. Or No Child Left Behind. Or Healthy Forests. Or Clear Skies. Or Medicare drug benefits. Or PATRIOT II and III. Yes, we ought not to be seeing those kinds of feel-good pronouncements, unfunded mandates and intrusions into our lives any more. I’m with you there!

    Starve the government of $ and there simply will be less people to ignore privacy.

    But surely you’re not proposing that we cut Defense, Homeland Security, FBI and CIA budgets? No, that would be Un-American. So we’ll just cut everything else instead (Interior which is just a bunch of tree-huggers, HHS and HUD which just subsidize welfare cheats, Labor which is a shill for unions, etc.). Unfortunately for your theory, Defense, Homeland Security and the FBI are the biggest sources of privacy ignoring out there, so that ain’t gonna work. Next.

  • Anon

    Dr. Lessig,

    Your lack of blind enthusiasm for the de facto nominee of the Democratic party might cost him some votes, thus keeping Bush in the White House.

    Don’t say anything to detract from Kerry – you’ll be like Ralph Nader!

  • Dan S

    Bush vs. Gore – neither had been president before. But now, we’ve seen GWB in action. This can be used by either side. Either the good or bad could be highlighted and then – “if you like things this way, vote for the incumbent.”

    The only problem with Kerry using this is that it could be seen as “mudslinging.” Its nothing new. Maybe try a different tactic – and highlight on the tactic itself. Don’t resort to mudslinging and highlight “your issues.” Also, highlight the fact you are not mudslinging.

    Kerry’s campaign could use the “who have we become” or “burden our children” messages without explicitly pointing fingers at GWB.

    The way campaigns are won: Its a popularity contest. “The issues” are just something to talk about until you come up with a catch phrase like “where’s the beef”, “read my lips”, or “I feel your pain”. The voting public has a short attention span so the scandal/issue of the immediate past is all that really matters. If you mention “tax cut” the voting public sees a lollipop and doesn’t think about the consequences. In short, the voting public is a cross between a gossiping housewife and a 5 year old.

  • Jeff

    Kerry�s campaign could use the �who have we become� or �burden our children� messages without explicitly pointing fingers at GWB.

    Kerry has served in the US Senate for nearly two decades. How much has he “burdened our children” by the deficits of the 80′s and 90′s? Did he vote for the war in Iraq? Did he vote for the PATRIOT Act? blah blah blah blah.

    How Kerry can cast blame and Bush when he has been part of the problem for almost two decades?

    Of course, there will be those that will vote for the lesser of two evils, which leaves us with an evil in the White House.

  • http://www.blogforamerica.com/ Greely

    If Kerry fails to excite you, or rather perhaps you find yourself doubting the wisdom displayed by Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers, that which held that Kerry’s “electability” will win the day, then I think Dean takes a good turn at leading by example, suggesting by his actions that if Kerry’s not exciting enough, then you had better take the opportunity to go out and be exciting as his surrogate.

    I won’t pretend I’m excited to vote for Kerry, but I am certainly excited about the opportunity to depose Bush. If your overriding concern is freedom, and you think that tax-cutting is an obvious corrollary to that end, and you therefore lean Republican, just consider: this administration has amply demonstrated its ruthless dishonesty, and, what with the Clarke business and all, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore or deny that. Government propaganda and disinformation deprive you of liberty just as much as facially repressive and paternalistic laws. If Bush’s tax-cutting is premised on a “starve the beast” strategery, then shouldn’t he disclose this? Rather, he defends his tax cuts (disproportionately distributed to the very wealthy) as a means of stimulating the economy. But this very rationale is contrary to a libertarian approach: why should the government be meddling with the private sector? What business is it of the federal government to poke the market with a stick (in the hopes that it will rebound in time to help him win the election)?

    If it really were Bush’s position that “it’s your money, not the government’s,” then why doesn’t he propose repealing the 16th amendment? Instead, Bush wants to amend the Constitution to address a threat that apparently is as serious as all that egregious flag-burning that went on in the last decade: gay marriage. More government encroachment into your life. Think there’s no difference between Bush and Kerry on the freedom of our culture? Ask Howard Stern about Bush’s FCC.

  • Cranky Observer

    > I won�t pretend I�m excited to vote for Kerry, but I am
    > certainly excited about the opportunity to depose Bush.

    Two problems.

    First, if you look at Kerry’s record on issues such as personal privacy and copyright, you find that they aren’t so hot. Keep in mind that Clinton did serious damage to privacy while in office; it is often the Democrats who can be bullied into such actions to avoid seeming “weak” (on crime, terrorism, whatever).

    Second, whoever wins the election will have to deal with the situation in Iraq. It won’t just go away on November 5th. We are hearing a lot about what Kerry thinks is wrong, but what DOES he plan to DO in Iraq? I haven’t heard anything anywhere near convincing so far.


  • Eric Brunner-Williams

    Agree with fear about Kerry.

  • Anonymous

    Public Financing of Campaigns – to disconnect our elected officials from being bought by the monied interests

    Saving of the Last Ancient Forestlands in North America

    Access to basic first-level health care for every American as a matter of right

    A really serious program to diminish America’s reliance on imported oil. (e.g. higher mileage standards, higher fuel taxes, mandated bus/bike/pedestrian design of new transportation corridors)

    A sane public-interest-driven set of policies regarding copyright vs. fair use

    A new commitment to public diplomacy to adequately explain America’s ideals to the world

    A new commitment in our international relations to walk-the-walk of the ideals that most Americans believe in (free elections, free enterprise for individuals, no thugs-with-guns running the neighborhood)

    and, yes, unwavering response with extreme prejudice toward those individuals, groups, governments, or peoples whose lifestyle choice is the wanton murder of innocents (and/or American citizens, if you are the sort who cares to make such a distinction).

    Kerry stands for none of this. Kerry sucks. The Democratic party, as a whole, stands for none of this. The Democratic party sucks. The only thing I can say in favor of GWB, is that he stands for the last point, with a firm resolve not shown by any politician on the Democratic side – otherwise he sucks too, but he still wins by a score of 1 – 0 on this list of some of the items that matter to me.

    Why must I have to choose between a strong national security posture and a tolerant, caring society at home (and abroad)? History gives me more than ample reason to want both.

    Democracy is about dividing and uniting various aspects of the electorate in ways that provide majorities on election day. The way the Republicans and the Democrats currently choose to define their constituencies guarantees us years to come of polarization and partisanship – with the advantage to the Republicans.

    Democrats will win again (someday) when they retool their nominating process so that new people with new ideas (and a few choice old ones!) can receive prolonged exposure (and enhancement of stature) by virtue of a long, loud, vigorous, campaign of big ideas that DOES NOT ALLOW for an early winner to be chosen prior to the great mass of the voters getting their say. Imagine – New York, California, NOT EVEN HAVING VOTED and the Dems have declared the race over. It’s sickening.

    Our systems, both political and governmental, are seriously broken, and the party that should be offering the solutions offers none. It’s so very sad …

  • Anonymous

    Sorry for the multiple posts – they were unintended. Please delete this message and all but one of the previous. Thanks!

  • Anon

    Politics is not about perfection, contrary to what you might think from some of the above posters who are whining about “the lesser of two evils.” Anyone with a real commitment to the long-term changes that need to be made in this country should understand that abstaining from voting because you are too high and might to vote for the lesser of two evils only makes it more difficult for those who want to work for change.

    It is immoral, in fact, to sit on the sidelines when the outcome will take our country further down the destructive world that George Bush has put us on, both at home and abroad. Freedom will die unless people are willing to make the tough pragmatic choices which the world presents us with.

    Take John Kerry. People say they “are afraid” of him. But even the most cursory acquaintance with Kerry’s record shows that he would never do the country what George Bush has done in many areas: to take two that come to mind, on environmental issues; he would not be leading the assault on women’s rights, both at home and abroad under the noxious Gag Rule.

    No one thinks that John Kerry is a saint. But at this time, 2004, after the nine candidates who were willing to make the race for the Democratic nomination have been through the primary process that exists, John Kerry is the candidate who persuaded the most people that he could oust George Bush. Notice that I did not say, the candidate who would be the polar opposite of George Bush; or the candidate who would never let his progressive followers down. We are where we are: it’s John Kerry or George Bush.
    Only the most self-indulgent among us would continue to pretend that there is “no difference” between the two of these men and their basic approaches to governance. Standing aside and allowing the re-election of George Bush would be one of the greatest tragedies of American history. Let’s get John Kerry in the White House, and then get on with the hard, hard work of building a political movement that can produce the kind of long-lasting positive, progressive change we all want.

  • Neil K

    If Kerry was to take the bolder positions you prefer, he would have to first expose the GWB Republicans as radicals. This is a pretty mainstream opinion in my home country, but from what I see, it isn’t in yours.

    The Democrats soundly rejected all the transformative leaders, preferring the reasonable, omni-pandering message of the Kerry campaign. Why should he change now?

    That said, when survival is threatened, John Kerry seems to be capable of bold, risky manuevers. We’ll see what happens in the campaign.

  • http://markstroup.com/movabletype/ Mark Stroup

    Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley put it this way over a hundred years ago:

    Years ago, Hinnissey, manny years ago, they was a race between th’ dimmycrats and th’ raypublicans f’r to see which shud have a choice iv principles. Th’ dimmycrats lost. I dinnaw why. Mebbe they stopped to take a dhrink. Annyhow, they lost. Th’ raypublicans come up an they choose th’ ‘we commind’ principles, an’ they was nawthin’ left f’r th’ dimmycrats but th’ ‘we denounce an’ deplores.’ I dinnaw how it come about, but th’ dimmycrats didn’t like th’ way th’ thing shtud, an so they fixed it up between thim that whichiver won at th’ iliction shud commind and congratulate, an’ thim that lost should denounce an’ deplore. An’ so it’s been, on’y th’ dimmycrats has had so little chanct f’r to do annything but denounce an’ deplore that they’ve almost lost th’ use iv th’ other wurruds.

  • jerry lobdill

    The best thing Kerry has going for him is George W Bush. If it weren’t for him I don’t think Kerry could win. Did you notice how Kerry’s silence on the torture issue shot him into the lead? That’s just where this is all going. The Plame issue is not dead either. When a Pres hires an outside criminal lawyer he’s usually in trouble.

    I wanted Dean–still do, but I want to put the W back in Crawford even more. Guess who gets my vote?

  • http://www.achelandoor.com/ آچیلان در

    Wooow m thanks for good post :-)

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