In a fascinating discussion on money, politics, and the growth of organic political reform movements in America over the last few years, Dylan talks with Harvard professor, author and advocate Lawrence Lessig about his new book, One Way Forward: An Outsiders Guide to Fixing the Republic.
We cling to labels of political self-identification (liberal, conservative, Occupier, or Tea Partier, to give a few examples), but when it comes down to it, we’re not as divided as we think. While the media frame the electorate as groups of shattered political tribes that exist only to fight each other, Lawrence Lessig believes there’s another way — that citizens have to come together to identify and fight common enemies that are dismantling our democracy from within.
While Lessig focuses heavily on the corrupting nature of money in our political system, as he did in his bestseller Republic: Lost, he also examines the citizen-driven reform movements that have sprung up in recent years, like the Tea Party Patriots, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the online campaigns against SOPA and PIPA.
“The world is focused on the left side versus the right side,” says Lessig. “And what we have to recognize is the interesting division in politics today is between the inside and the outside. The outside has been comprised of movements that have come from nowhere and taken over,” he explains.
Before you dismiss this as a wishy-washy “we’re all one,” kumbaya type book, don’t. If anything, One Way Forward is one of the most practical prescriptions for Americans to take the first steps in restoring a functioning democracy that we’ve read in recent years. He unapologetically rips into to the divisive nature of an American media/political machine that profits from pushing the left and the right to extremes and dividing the public. He asserts that there is untapped potential in the collaborative power of organic, networked reform movements, and says these could be even more powerful if they were to find common ground.
“If there’s some way for these movements to begin to recognize not that they are all the same, but that they have a similar potential, if they could focus it, and find their common enemy. Then this “outside” energy could actually have a profound effect. And I think there is a common enemy in this core corruption in our democracy, and these outside movements have the potential to do something about it,” says Lessig.
Overcoming divisions is not going to be easy, says Lessig. “We have to recognize how profoundly difficult that’s going to be. The reason why these groups are so focused on getting their members to hate somebody else is that it’s an extraordinarily effective way to organize and to build their movements,” he explains.
He points to one event as particularly formative when writing this book. In September of 2011, Lessig and the Tea Party Patriots hosted a conference at Harvard Law School about the idea of holding a constitutional convention. “It was an attempt to have a left/right, sit in the same room and talk about matters of importance.”
He said one speech by Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the Tea Party Patriots, set the tone for the entire weekend. Meckler “said that politicians profit from teaching us to hate each other. And we have to learn to get over that. And it was extremely powerful,” says Lessig. (You can watch Meckler’s speech from that event here.)
“Two weeks after that, when the Occupy movement had launched, I got an email from the Tea Party Patriots, which said ‘you’ve got to help us organize to stop these anarchist, American-hating occupiers. Send us $50, $100, whatever you can afford!”
“It’s like, here it is — the business model of hate! And of course it’s not just the Tea Party that plays this game, because what their business people tell them is the more you can energize the hatred, the more our contributions go up, the more we get donors to our list. I get the value of building a list, but if that’s all we’re focused on as Americans, we’re sunk. We cannot begin to address what is the real problem here, which is not the Occupiers, and it is not the Tea Party. It is a corrupted government which is not responsive to the people and will not be until we change that corruption,” says Lessig.
‘It’s the media, it’s politics, it’s also our own organizations that profit from keeping us focused and and intense, but separate. By teaching us who we need to hate, and how we express our hatred, without us recognizing that very act of separating makes it impossible for us to bind together and build the power we’re going to need to take on the greedy bastards — the people who have destroyed this democracy by selling it to the highest bidder,” says Lessig.
Lessig believes that the next step is to reconnect people to their politicians. “In decisions about democratic disagreements, votes should matter. And what should matter is how people persuade through the election process and not through the money process. That’s one agreement that you can get people on the left and the right to come to,” explains Lessig.
Getting money out of politics, he says, is the first step of many that Americans are going to have to take.
“I think our democracy has a pile of things we have to fix. But what I try to think about is ‘what is the sequence of repair?’ What is the first step? And what I fear is that so many Americans are turned off by politics, because they believe the system is basically corrupted, and they don’t recognize the polarized extremes… until we can get them to a place where it’s not a waste of their time because it’s so inauthentic, we’re not going to get them to a place where they’re going to want to participate again. And I think that’s a critical first step,” says Lessig.