Just before dinner time on Tuesday, the Occupy DC movement was visited by one of the establishment’s most prominent activists for change. Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, who made his name as a leader of the anti-intellectual property, “free culture” movement, was in town to promote his new book on government corruption, Republic, Lost. He stopped by the occupation in McPherson Square for what was billed as a “teach-in.” While there, he gave advice that made many of the left-leaning Occupiers uncomfortable: join hands with tea partiers, or your movement is going nowhere.
During some time I spent at Stanford, Lessig’s previous employer, I’d been impressed with his his ability to use the typically dreaded PowerPoint technology in a way that actually enhanced a lecture. But there was no projector in McPherson Square — in fact, there wasn’t even amplification, except for the now famous “human mic,” where occupiers repeat, clause by clause, everything a speaker is saying. The human mic wasn’t well suited to Lessig’s rambling style, so the few hundred people present just packed in closely on the grass, straining to hear over the din of the passing traffic.
Lessig, dressed like Steve Jobs in dark jeans and a black, long-sleeve pullover, began in a poetic tone. He observed that the “the American Spring” had come in waves: the first, the election of Obama, which frustrated liberals when it became clear that his administration was about “business as usual”; the second wave, the Tea Party, which he called similarly populist in character to the Occupy movement; and finally, the great “third wave,” the Occupy movement itself.
“I am a liberal,” declared Lessig, noting that while it’s more hip to say “progressive” these days, he prefers the old-fashioned L-word. He recited a litany of issues on which he probably agrees with the protesters: abortion rights, gay marriage, redistributive aid. He lamented to the protesters that “our leftist ideas still aren’t those of a majority,” before hitting his stride on his present crusade against big-ticket campaign financing.
The Occupiers, he said, had the potential to expose that “this government is corrupt.” Not garden variety corruption, like Illinois Governor Blagojevich — but systemic rot. The present arrangements, by which politicians must approach donors who can pay $2500, the maximum individual contribution legal under current law, forces them to be corrupt, he contended. He briefly turned his attention to Wall Street, claiming a connection: the current campaign system enabled a lack of new regulation after the 2008 financial crisis.
This systemic crisis could only be confronted by a coalition of left and right, he argued, referring to his recent meetings with Tea Party organizers, which included a conference on the possibility of calling a Constitutional Convention under the amendment process provided in Article V (see the November issue of TAC for a full report by James Antle). The conference had been one for elite opinion leaders like Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds and Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, but Lessig encouraged Occupiers to talk to “tea party members who have been out of a job.” Begin by “not challenging their integrity,” he advised, while cautioning that Occupiers not be as “completely convinced of your righteousness as those on the Right seem to be,” he said.
But Lessig’s biggest applause line returned to the roots of the Occupy movement — Wall Street. The Occupiers could find common ground with Tea Partiers on this issue, he said, because “no one believes in crony capitalism except crony capitalists.”
At the Q&A after Lessig’s remarks, one man stood up and claimed to be “one of the original tea party leaders.” “You have friends,” he said, to applause. But some of the occupiers weren’t having all the ecumenical talk. One objected that those on the left simply had too many fundamental differences with those on the right.
Lessig placated dissenters in the crowd with a combination of practical political advice and more aspirational rhetoric. “I think if we have to work out all these contradictions first, we’re not going anywhere.” To someone who suggested a third party, he said that a broad based movement needed not 20, but “80 percent,”a third party he called “the people.” Our country has “many different souls” he said, returning to an aspirational tone, and referring to his “sacred text,” Henry David Thoreau’s call to “strike at the root.”
After about 40 minutes, people seemed to tire of repeating questions via the “human mic,” and the Occupiers returned to regularly scheduled programming. Restaurant workers had been invited to talk about their fight for higher wages, but they couldn’t command the same rapt attention as Harvard rock star Lessig. Much of the crowd quickly dispersed, some going back to their tents, while other fans presumably headed off to Lessig’s next book signing.