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October 08, 2011

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: A Declaration for Independence

Posted in: FDL Book Salon

Welcome Lawrence Lessig (FixCongressFirst) and Host Glenn Greenwald (

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

Republic, Lost: A Declaration for Independence

Host, Glenn Greenwald:

Much pundit ink has been spilled pondering why the OccupyWallStreet protest has grown so rapidly and resonated so widely. But the answer is really not difficult to apprehend. Our political system is fundamentally broken by corruption and oligarchical control. Many people know this. They have rationally concluded that voting fixes none of these systemic problems precisely because the problems are systemic. And going out into the street to protest and demand an end to this corruption is the only perceived means of redress.

The new book from Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress-and a Plan to Stop It — expresses the same point in a slightly different way in its very first sentence, quoting MSNBC’s Cenk Ugyur: “There is only one issue in this country: campaign finance reform.” That may sound like hyperbole to some, but it is not. Once one recognizes that this money-for-influence disease pervades every important American political institution — particularly the one meant to represent the people: the U.S. Congress — then all other specific political grievances become, in a sense, completely secondary.

If, as Lessig conclusively demonstrates, Congress is indifferent to the will of the people and to democratic debate — because it has been captured by monied interests to whose interests it exclusively attends — then the people lose the ability to affect what government does in any realm. It doesn’t make much difference which problem you believe is most pressing: this is the dynamic that lies at the heart of it. Inaction on climate issues is due to the power of polluters and energy companies; the power of the private health insurance industry blocks fundamental health-care reform; endless war and civil liberties abuses are sustained by the power of the surveillance and National Security State industries; and a failure to achieve real Wall Street reform is due to the fact that, as Sen. Dick Durbin amazingly acknowledged about the institution in which he serves, “the banks frankly own the place.”

Without finding an effective way to address that overarching problem, the only recourse for citizens becomes either passive acceptance of their powerlessness (i.e., apathy and withdrawal) or disruption and unrest fomented outside of the electoral system (the driving ethos of OccupyWallStreet). Lessig’s book is so vital not only because it provides such irrefutable proof of how fundamentally corrupt our political process is — most readers participating on this blog are already well-acquainted with that fact — but because it (and among books on this topic, it alone) offers a serious, plausible roadmap for how to uproot this corruption.

In that regard, Republic, Lost is like a prescient anthem for what is driving the eruption of Wall Streets protests, and is the definitive guide for understanding the depth of oligarchical corruption and what can be done to stop it. That’s not a surprise. Lessig has long been one of the leading voices in trumpeting how severe this problem has become and has developed an unparalleled expertise in this topic. Simply put, there is nobody who knows more about the legalized corruption swamping the country, speaks with greater passion or authority about its harms and the need to address them, and is more thoughtful about the needed remedies.

So driven by conviction is Lessig that he fully transformed from loyal supporter of the 2008 campaign of his long-time friend and legal academic colleague Barack Obama into a harsh critic of how both parties are subservient to the corporations that own the political process. Like many of us, Lessig saw that electing someone in whose goodness he believed (and still believes) changes very little. Indeed, Lessig doesn’t blink from following his premises of pervasive political corruption through to their logical conclusion about what that means for voting for one of the two parties. He makes clear what the implications are of this corruption: “Democracy on this account seems a show or a rule; power rests elsewhere. . . . the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real.”

Unlike most books of its genre — namely, systemic critiques of the political system — Lessig is determined not to confine himself to mere problem diagnosis or, worse, to spawn defeatism. For him, describing the problem is not an end in itself, but the necessary prerequisite for his ultimate goal: spawning support for his recommended courses of action. For politically informed readers such as those here, those proposals are the meat of this book, the reason this is very worth spending your time to read. What makes his proposed solutions so engaging — and important — is that they are not mere academic exercises, nor are they confined to the trite responses good government advocates often offer. Rather, Lessig is, above all else, a committed advocate, a reformer, and thus — perhaps uncharacteristically for a law professor — cares first and foremost about results, about outcomes. His solutions are accompanied by suggested tactics, grounded in reality, that take into account political impediments, and that is what makes them worthwhile.

You’re likely to disagree with some of his proposals; I do. As but one example, I have serious reservations in this political climate about opening up the Constitution to revision. But even when you’re reluctant to jump on board with each of his discrete proposals, you find yourself struggling with whether you should do so — precisely because he’s just presented you an irrefutable case that radical steps are necessary to begin to solve this truly radical disease in our democracy. That kind of provocative struggle is exactly what so few political books are able to trigger, but is exactly what we most need.

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