05/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing America with Grassroots Organizing

In a long and important article in the February 22 issue of The Nation, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig provides a masterful diagnosis of what is wrong with America's politics. That he does not develop a strategy strong enough to overcome our political maladies detracts only little from the value of his essay.

The Congress, writes Lessig, "has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash." As a result the American government is dysfunctional. He states: "This democracy no longer works. Its central player has been captured. Corrupted. Controlled by an economy of influence disconnected from the democracy."

Lessig is disappointed that the Obama Administration has not "taken up the fight" to change the system. He says he "would have bet my career" that Obama, having articulated the need for fundamental change, would accomplish that goal once in office. A year later however, he concedes "it is impossible to believe this kind of change is anywhere on the administration's radar, at least anymore. The need to reform Congress has left Obama's rhetoric."

According to Lessig, unless integrity is restored to government, American democracy "will spin further out of control." Achieving integrity where it is really needed - in the Congress - requires two major reforms: first, "citizen funded elections" such as the Fair Elections Now Act currently before Congress; and second, banning members of Congress from lobbying for seven years after leaving the government. In combination, he thinks that these reforms would free Congress from its thralldom to wealthy special interests. With that, the public could be weaned from its cynicism about politics in general and government in particular.

This is all good. But when it comes to the question of how to secure reforms, Lessig unfortunately is not a reliable guide. Because he believes that the Supreme Court under its current Right-wing domination would invalidate a public campaign funding bill, Lessig wants to have the states call a constitutional convention "to assure that reform can survive the Roberts Court."

Well, maybe. But Lessig provides no reason to believe that the outcome of such a convention would liberate the now-blocked progressive agenda that voters endorsed in 2008. Such a convention could well simply mirror the same domination of wealthy interests that plague our politics today, continuing to thwart the preferences of the electorate.

The simple fact of the matter is that liberals have not done sufficient grassroots organizing to ensure that legislative outcomes correspond to the public's mainly liberal preferences. Progressives are not able to make members of Congress feel continual intense local pressure. Instead, the pressures that are felt in Washington are those emanating from the political Right, an effective alliance of wealthy, largely corporate-based, donor/lobbyists and conservative activists. Sadly, a mobilized liberal political constituency large enough to push back against this alliance does not now exist.

It is not that the people whom Glenn Beck mobilizes outnumber the Left. They don't. But the political Right has worked hard and successfully to develop a grassroots activist base that can be relied upon to attend meetings, demonstrate, and generally keep the heat on politicians. Their strength is that since they are not tied to specific candidates, they can exert great leverage on office-seekers who need their support.

The truth is that at the moment progressives do not match the Right in grassroots activism. We do not possess a unifying message like the Right's call to miniaturize government. But worse, even on those subjects where we do agree, liberals do precious little people-to-people organizing.

Responsibility for this debilitating state of affairs lies in many places. Failing to possess a sufficiently long time horizon, liberal foundations do not fund such work, and typically neither do progressives with deep pockets. The seduction of working within the Washington beltway has convinced many on the Left that they are doing what needs to be done when they lobby on behalf of deserving causes. Lobbying is important. But for those without the clout that derives from big political donations, it can only be effective if backed by serious grassroots organizing.

The really worrisome thing is that, as Randy Shaw has recently noted on the BeyondChron website, grassroots organizing for progressive change has, if anything, declined since Obama's election. Shaw reports that such efforts are "being replaced by less effective e-mail mobilizations and other short-cuts." These short-cuts are, as he notes, no substitute for face-to-face activism.

Lessig is sharp concerning the disappointments of the last year, but not as helpful concerning the future. It is the case that we might have to call a constitutional convention. But we have a lot of work to do organizing the American people before a convention will result in public funding for Congressional campaigns.