Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have a lot in common, not least of which is an historic mission to save the America that every public school class, politician and public officeholder pledges allegiance to. That’s the message that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig is taking around the country in lectures, blogs and a new book titled "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It."
Lessig is a former Reagan Republican and Obama Democrat whose latest foray into the political sphere has been hailed as “the manifesto of the Occupy Wall Street movement.” That is how he was introduced recently to a large audience at Ramapo College of New Jersey that crowded into an evening lecture swollen with students at the state college in Mahwah, NJ and senior citizens from surrounding suburban communities.
These days in the United States created by our revered Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Franklin, our “government is an embarrassment to most of us,” Lessig thundered, undeterred by a faulty sound system. “This is not an issue of Left or Right,” he added, noting that nearly 90 percent of the American people have lost confidence in Congress, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
In a Huffington Post blog posted a few days earlier, Lessig summarized his on-the-road lecture in three concise points:
“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.”
In his campus lecture in New Jersey, Lessig drew a big round of applause when he said: “Revolutions happen in waves. The first wave was the 2008 election of Obama [who eloquently addressed this problem as a candidate]. Wave two was the Tea Party movement. The third crest is the Occupy Wall Street movement. My view is that each of these waves is linked. Each of these waves is driven by the grassroots.”
In his book, Lessig cites numerous studies showing the massive flows of corporate money cascading into congressional election campaigns and fielding armies of lobbyists flooding the halls, hearing rooms and offices of Congress in recent years. This money was used to buy votes or influence to tilt government policies and actions to financially favor the funders’ economic interests, he argues.
“My sense is that too many on the Right make the same mistake as many on the Left. They assume that change happens when you win enough votes in Congress,” he wrote. Not so, he argues, because “the current system of campaign funding radically benefits the status quo—the status quo for private interests and the status quo of the Fund-raising Congress.” That’s why both Republicans and Democrats in Congress voted to bail out Wall Street banks whose unregulated gambling spree drove the national economy over a cliff, he argues. And now both Obama and his Republican presidential opponents are trolling for mega-buck Wall Street donations to their campaigns.
Lessig’s proposed solution is to marshal a movement of “nonpolitician candidates” in both Democratic and Republican primaries to challenge congressional incumbents, support a new crop of reform presidential candidates, and mount a grassroots campaign for a constitutional convention with a mandate to limit the amount of money anyone can contribute to a candidate for Congress.
“I’m not sure that any of these strategies would work,” Lessig told Rolling Stone in a recent interview, “but if there is one that will work, it will have to be on different territory than the one lobbyists and members of congress now control. I think that the real challenge is we’re not used to exercising power as citizens anymore. We’ve been passive listeners to television commercials for too long, and not really active producers of democracy.”
To help spur civic activism on this issue, Lessig co-founded a nonprofit organization called Fix Congress First, which promotes an activist project call Rootstrikers that does outreach via a website, facebook and twitter.
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