We are living in revolutionary times. Scary, yes, but it is the truth, and the signs are everywhere. Historians will point to two factors, and Lawrence Lessig is the clearest, most compelling voice speaking to both of them:
1. The corrupting influence of money in politics.
2. The Internet.
Enormous sums of money have deformed our political process and allowed an invading empire to grow inside us and attack us from within. But it is not in our nature, as Americans, to go down without a fight. Thus, a fight has begun. The Wall Street crash, the Wall Street bail out, the media-produced cover-up, Occupy Wall Street, the recent SOPA/PIPA showdown, and the bizarre reality TV show that was the 2012 GOP primary — all have these are signs of the times.
Lessig’s conversation with America has always been a two-way street — whether through The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, through his public speaking engagements, or through his writing. And, in revolutionary times, things happen fast. Thus, right on the heels of his 369 page masterpiece Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, Lessig released today a 73-page e-book called One Way Forward ($1.99, Byliner). Here he explains why:
First the good news: For the first time in a hundred years, we have the technology to empower ordinary citizens to be engaged and passionate about their government again.
Now the bad news: The business model for this engagement, of the entities that build these movements of passion, whether for profit or not for profit, make it extremely hard to imagine them ever working together on anything.
The DNA of America is a house divided. A Civil War without guns. Just at the time technology enables us the most, the business model of hate disables us the most. Unless we can find a way around it.
Lessig points out that our country is polarized by design, and decodes how this came to be. “As competition within media has intensified, so the drive to polarize has increased as well. Commercial media needs devoted listeners; devotion is most extreme at the extremes.” His concern is that the dominance of partisan news entertainment, as well as polarizing electioneering strategies, decreases civic participation by alienating the public. This in turn limits the conversation to people who can stomach the vitriol and are “obsessed with the horse race of politics” and “the pathetic drama” of power struggle. In our own circles, it may seem like this is the majority of America, but it is not. Our struggle to restore self-governance requires reinforcements.
Whether partisanship is engineered by media conglomerates for the sake of advertising dollars, or by political machines for the sake of donation dollars — the hyperbolic circus that is framed in our television sets does not reflect the sentiment of America at large. Most of us tune it out, and with it, tune out our civic duty. The first and most necessary victory in our “Civil War without guns” will be to realize that we are not at war at all, at least not with ourselves. The real power struggle is NOT one of R’s vs. D’s, gays vs. straights, Christians vs. not-Christian-enough’s, or immigrants vs. descendants of immigrants. The real power struggle is between “insiders” — i.e. the funders of political campaigns and the politicians who depend on them — and the “outsiders,” i.e. the rest of America — all 330 million of us. As Linda Cook wrote in her review for the Coffee Party Book Club, “The insiders believe that the outsiders (us) are powerless and need not be consulted. Professor Lessig asserts that the Internet is the tool that will change this perception. In fact, he says, it already is.”
Lessig traces the birth of what he calls “the age of open-source” during 14 years of unimaginable innovation in low-cost Internet technology. Lessig calls this a transformation from a “read only” communication stream, to a “read/write” communication stream. We have gone from consumers of information to spreaders and producers of information, and this is having an impact on political outcome. Lessig sites several examples dating back to 1998, but the most exciting one is the most recent — a groundbreaking trans-partisan backlash that defeated SOPA/PIPA — legislation designed to give the government, and thus, whoever we allow to control the government, the power to shut down websites.
It was an epiphany for me when Lessig pointed out that our culture had always been read/write up until the 20th century. Before the advent of mass-produced culture, popular music, for instance, permeated the land in personalized renditions with endless variation on front porches and in pubs across the country. Then, the phonograph came along. Music became a one-way street from mass producers to consumers. “We had more and better music to consume,” Lessig writes. “Think of record shops: an extraordinary diversity literally at our fingertips. We became much better consumers and, much less frequently, creators.” Singing became the work of professionals only, and we, the consumers were taught to do nothing more than browse, buy, and listen. We lost our singing voices, one might say.
“Digital technology has not only improved the ability to consume,” Lessig writes. “It has radically democratized the ability to create. When I was a kid, creative sorts shared mixtapes. My kids will share remixes. In five years, if all your kid can do is push play, you’ll worry that something is wrong.”
By the same token, before the television industry, politicians knocked on doors and climbed on soapboxes to get their messages out. There was more give and take, more direct engagement with the public. It was “read/write.” Then came broadcast media which made it possible, and indeed necessary if you wanted to win elections, to televise your message instead: “Read only.” We the People became consumers of political content. Lessig writes:
The twentieth century killed this political read-write culture as well. As campaigns were professionalized, command and control were centralized. The audience was expected to shut up and listen. The worst possible idea was for ordinary supporters to produce their own copy. Campaign material was professional material. The job of the amateur was simply to show up and vote.
Due to the advent of blogging, crowd-sourcing, web video, live streaming, and social media, millions of voices are in the process of awakening — the very voices we will need to reclaim our Republic. Yes, political speech is easier if you have money to purchase it in large quantities, but in a country with 320 million people, you can only buy so much compliance. If "read only" propaganda is all you offer, you can only hold your consumers for so long before they seek out content that is more fulfilling and more honest. Lessig writes:
A surprising and unpredicted “open-source” energy, enabled by cheap and ubiquitous technology, shows us a part of us, We, the People, that conventional politics had forgotten or thought lost. One movement sets the expectations for the next. The character of each sets the framework of legitimacy overall. Organic becomes more significant than organized. Authentic always beats professional.
In the age of open source, manufactured political polarization, and the blindness and weakness it creates in us all, is the only formidable obstacle to restoring our Republic. That’s why Lessig has demonstrated another path. His devotion to trans-partisan dialogue and respect for a diversity of ideas is reflected in his research, and it pays off in One Way Forward. Lessig serves as our philosopher/guide as we travel into the heart of a Tea Party convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also brings us with him on visits to encampments at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy K Street, showing a willingness to see the patriotism, the good intentions, and the incredible potential in both. Lessig points to the ways in which the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and others in this country and overseas have used the Internet to collaborate on solutions and become active citizens with far-reaching impact. The Tea Party focused our nation on the federal debt, and reshaped the Republican party in their image, transforming the electorate in the 2010 midterm election. Occupy Wall Street forced into the public consciousness the realities of income inequality, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and the true causes of the Great Recession, transforming the rhetorical playing field of the 2012 election. They are both examples to which we should all aspire, and by "we" Lessig means not only all activist movements, but all citizens. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are “outsiders” who changed the behavior of “insiders.” That's what we all need to do.
These 73 pages are the most “Coffee Party” pages you will ever read. And perhaps it’s no coincidence because Lessig’s insight and his grace were there at the start of the Coffee Party, and deeply influenced who we became. On the other hand, the alignment between our mission and the thesis of this very, very current book suggests something more than that. As the Coffee Party partners with more and more organizations, including No Labels, Public Citizen, Move to Amend, and Lessig's own United Republic, we are finding that just about any American will, if we can rise above the false framework of left vs. right and embrace a more enlightened framework of inside vs. outside, come to the same set of conclusions.
Lessig writes, “I offer these ideas, mixed with my own passion, not as a politician or as a politician wannabe but as a citizen, and a committed outsider, who wants a citizen politics to have an important and lasting effect on this Republic. Again.”
Lessig proposes several reforms, and several actions in One Way Forward, including draft wording for the 28th Amendment to the Constitution. But where this tiny and timely book is most profound and most inspiring is in Lessig's recognition that:
Change will take time, and over time our strategies will need to evolve. We need to learn from what has worked and adjust as we go forward. And, most important, we need not a commander but a conversation, among citizens who recognize that none of us has ever done this before, but that all of us must do it now.
I won’t quote or try to characterize the masterful way in which Lessig unveils his grand solution. That would rob you of the most thrilling moment of your reading experience, and, there are more than a few. The book is only so 73 pages. When you come to the page I am speaking of, you will thank me. But the conversation doesn’t end there. In the spirit of "read/write," Lessig invites his readers to collaborate with him on One Way Forward by commenting at oneway.lessig.org. Version two of One Way Forward, he writes, “Will be licensed freely from the start, and live on a wiki. That means that no single one of us will own it, but that all of us will be able to direct it.”
If there is a single message in Lessig's body of work, it is the same single message that will define the revolutionary time in which we live. Systemic corruption will destroy all that we hold dear unless the People respond. The tools are there. Pick them up, and help us save the Republic. We the People are rapidly developing what Lessig describes as “a network that feeds authentic collective action. And when that network awakes, as it did to stop SOPA/PIPA, it has more power than the insiders have ever imagined.”