Spring comes in waves. At first, unrecognizably. And then, unavoidably. And when it finally fully comes, we wake up.
We, the People. The sovereign. We tumble out of the stupor that is our sleep and exercise a power that is ours exclusively. We might exercise it well. Many think we would exercise it poorly. So when its first hint becomes clear, we should take steps to assure that we will exercise it as well as we can.
The first step is to name it, this, our power. For it is different from the ordinary power that gets fought over in the context of ordinary politics. This is the thing that the commentators miss. They see a fight between the Right and the Left. That is the game, and the frame, they understand. There was Clinton. His side got defeated (sort of) by George Bush. Then his side got defeated (or so we thought) by Barack Obama. Left versus Right versus Left versus Right, fighting for the control of government and of government policy. And even when there’s a fight that doesn’t actually happen in D.C.—the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement—the chattering classes squeeze that battle into a Left/Right fight within Washington. The Tea Party, the insiders insist, is just a mobilizing (and very effective) whip for the Republicans, the Occupiers still a mere hope for the Democrats. As if politics is only ever about the normal battle to determine which side wins control of an existing government.But as well as the Left side and the Right side, there is an inside and an outside. There are those inside normal government (and their wannabes), who work to direct government policy or at least control government power. And there are those outside normal government, who want nothing of normal government save that it does its job and otherwise “leaves us alone.”
The outside spends most of its time ignoring the inside. Maybe once every four years it takes notice. Maybe in a catastrophe, or when some celebration rises above the ratings of 60 Minutes. But until then, the outside just wants to live its life. It wants to drive across a bridge without worrying about the engineering. It wants to believe that our kids are safe and that public education works. It wants to climb aboard an airplane without wondering whether the FAA is competent. It wants to know that there is a government that is at least trying to do what’s best for this nation. The outside wants to trust. It wants to trust that there’s an inside that’s at least competent.
The outside is us. It is the we who have other lives. The we who want to do different things. The we who find basketball or hockey more interesting than congressional politics. Or who believe that an afternoon helping at a homeless shelter or a morning at our church is a better use of our time than going door to door for a candidate for Congress. We, the outside, live our life (almost) never even thinking about this thing we call government—even though, for many of us, this thing called government is the single largest financial expenditure that we make every year.
But then something happens, and we can’t ignore the inside anymore. And then we start to wake up. Limbs twitch. Eyes open, ever so slightly. An arm moves, then a leg. And a lumbering and clumsy giant finally comes awake.
In that first flicker of life, that first twitch of this sleeping giant, we can see everything in the stories that would follow. The leaders didn’t create any energy; they tapped into it. They were able to tap into it because new technology made it insanely easy to do so. That technology leveraged a passion that was genuine—and cross-partisan. Not just the energy to click and send but also the energy to show up and organize. (Two weeks after MoveOn launched, the team asked for volunteers to “set up meetings with their member of Congress.” The response was “dramatic.” Within forty-eight hours, hundreds of volunteers had shown up at more than three hundred meetings.) At every step, the insiders were convinced that the outsiders were mistaken, until the insight of the outsiders became conventional wisdom for the insiders. As Wes Boyd recounted in an interview for this book,
We got blank stares for years and years and years from most of the professional political people. They had no idea what this was about. … The pros, when we made the mistake of consulting them, would warn very very strongly, “Do not just send volunteers out to do this work.”
But, of course, volunteers became the lifeblood of this new genre of political movement. They constituted the energy in “crowdsourced” politics, and they defined its power.
MoveOn’s wave has repeated itself again and again in the decade or so since. Not just on the tech-enabled Left but also on the traditional Left (Obama) and then on the Right (the Tea Party), then on the Gen X/millennial Left (Occupy Wall Street), and now in the unaligned Internet (the Wikipedia-driven anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign). Each time, the pattern has been the same: 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. We begin to celebrate the reality TV in politics, so long as we actually believe it is reality and not just Astroturf.
The aim of this short book is to point. It is to offer one way forward. I don’t speak as a leader of any part of these movements. But movements today are movements without leaders. They are movements of ideas mixed with passion. And so 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.
I have enormous respect for (at least some) politicians. I don’t diminish their sacrifice at all.
But it is time that we recognize a politics that doesn’t depend upon them. And time that we do something useful with it.
Lawrence Lessig is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is Republic, Lost, an attack on the destructive influence of special-interest money on American politics. He is also the author of Code and other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas, Free Culture, Code: Version 2.0, and Remix: Making Art and Culture Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. He is a founding board member of Creative Commons and serves on the board of Maplight.
This is excerpted from Lawrence Lessig’s One Way Forward, a Byliner Original available for $1.99 as a Kindle Single at Amazon, a Quick Read at Apple’s iBookstore, and a Nook Snap at BN.com.