Lawrence Lessig's New Book On Political Corruption Offers Protesters A Possible Manifesto
The protesters occupying Wall Street have been famously without a formal manifesto. But if they wanted one, firebrand Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig's new book about how money has corrupted Congress might be a contender.
Lessig had hoped to lay the underpinnings for a popular mobilization in his book. Instead, on the day of the book's publication, he is headed to what could be that movement's nascent heart. "I'm going to go down there and hang out and do whatever I can," he told the Huffington Post on Wednesday, from the train.
Lessig's contention in his book "Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It" is that Congress's overwhelming addiction to special interest money is at the root of the problems facing the country and the unprecedented levels of disillusionment with government.
In a Thursday morning blog post on The Huffington Post, Lessig cheered on the protesters. "#OccupyWallSt, Then #OccupyKSt, Then #OccupyMainSt," he wrote, calling the mass arrests on Saturday possibly "the first real green-shoots of this, the American spring."
But at the same time, Lessig said he is worried that the protest "will become too diffuse and not focused" on that root issue. "The key messaging strategy here is to try to get people to focus on what is the core problem," he said.
Similarly, for a protest to work, it needs to grow, he said. This one will only grow "if a wide range of people can be part of it." And that means coalescing around an issue "as fundamental as the corruption of the system," he said.
"People realize that it's a show; it's a charade," Lessig said of the modern American political process. "When you just look a little bit deeper, it's clear that what's driving both parties is whatever is the thing that's going to maximize the money."
For instance, he said: "What Americans can rally around is that this totally corrupt system brought about this financial crisis -- and now, astonishingly, it's bought Congress enough that Congress couldn't even respond to the crisis. That's something to be terrified about."
Lessig said the movement should appeal to people from the left and right alike. "I'm a cross-partisan advocate here," he said.
That doesn't mean averaging things out and being left with some "mush in the middle," he said; it means giving both sides a chance to fight for what they believe in.
"It's obvious why Congress being bought troubles the left," he said, citing a range of issues including health care and climate change where reform has been blocked by moneyed interests.
"But I think that people on the right have to recognize that the things they want they will never get either," Lessig said. A simpler tax system, for instance, is not in the cards as long as both parties in Congress continue to see monkeying with the tax code as the easiest way to milk the special interests. Smaller government is an impossibility as long as Congress is incentivized to "maximize the number of people whose chains they can pull," he said.
Lessig said the ultimate example of Congress's warped priorities is the extraordinary amount of energy members devoted this spring, in the midst of an economic crisis, to the issue of bank swipe fees -- as chronicled by HufPost's Ryan Grim and Zach Carter.
"The number one issue they focused on is bank swipe fees," Lessig said. "That's only because bank swipe fees was the issue that dumped the most money into campaigns."
Lessig has little hope for the supercommittee charged with coming to a consensus on deficit reduction.
The "super-Congress, were it not for the fact that it's just as tied to special interests as Congress, could have exercised independent judgment in a way that broke critical spending and taxing logjams," he said. "But they too will have internalized the recognition of where they can touch and where they can't touch."
Two grassroots political organizations -- one from the right, one from the left -- recently announced they had found agreement on $1 trillion in deficit reduction by targeting wasteful spending, ineffective programs and massive giveaways to special interests. But, Lessig said, "The reason why none of those happen is that each of those things that those sides agree about are exactly the triggers that flush cash into the process."
Members of Congress "just recognize what they need to do to flush the money into the system," he said. "Nobody has to tell them, nobody has to order them, they're just good money maximizers."
In his book, Lessig outlines long-term measures to reverse the corrupt power of money -- most notably a new constitutional convention.
But the first step is mobilizing the electorate -- which is why he's so excited about Occupy Wall Street.
That's not to say that he's overly optimistic. "There are a thousand other steps that have to happen afterward," he said. But, he said, "there's some issues you fight whether you believe you're going to win or not."