Well, that didn’t take long. About ninety minutes after I posted an article criticizing Lawrence Lessig’s call for unity between the Tea Party and the Occupy movements, the good Harvard professor had a response locked and loaded. I appreciate that he takes the debate seriously enough to respond in such fast form, but that’s where my appreciation ends.
Lessig chose to ignore several of my points: that left-right alignments historically end in disaster, that he was serving to legitimize the Tea Party as a credible political institution, and that his call for alignment would repel everyone in the Occupy movement—unions, immigrants, people of color, feminists—that have found themselves in the Tea Party’s crosshairs. Instead, he focuses on the part where I said that Lessig himself, by going to Occupy sites and arguing for people to embrace the Tea Party, “wasn’t helping.” He replied,
Helping what, exactly, Dave? Helping the Left rally the Left? Agreed. That isn’t my aim. The #Occupy movements are doing that quite well on their own. As a Liberal, I celebrate that rally. Helping the Left lead a movement for real reform? You tell me how your path does that better. Here’s the fact about America: It takes an insanely large majority to make any fundamental change. You want Citizens United reversed, it is going to take 75% of states to do it. You want public funding of public elections? It’s going to take 67 Senators to get it.
What we have is a fundamental argument about where social change actually comes from. If the labor movement had waited for sixty-seven senators to give their approval, words like “Social Security,” “the eight-hour day” and “the weekend” wouldn’t even be in our vocabulary. If Dr. King, SNCC and the NAACP (the group that Lessig’s friend, Tea Party leader Mark Meckler, calls “racist”) had waited for 75 percent of states to sign off, African-Americans would still be riding the back of the bus. If women had waited for a pat on the head from sixty-seven senators instead of “striking for equality,” any notion of reproductive rights and pay equity wouldn’t exist (although for too many women it is still just a notion). In fact, the failed, legalistic, state-by-state approach to the Equal Rights Amendment is a painful example of how the Lessig method produces little more than well-meaning, excruciating failure.
If Lessig can’t produce the evidence that right-left alliances work in history, he finds proof in his calculator. As he writes,
It’s great to rally the 99 percent. It is a relief to have such a clear and powerful slogan. But explain this, because I’m a lawyer, and not so great with numbers: Gallup’s latest poll finds 41 percent of Americans who call themselves “conservative.” 36% call themselves ‘moderate.’ Liberals account for 21 percent. In a different poll, Gallup finds 30% of Americans who “support” the Tea Party. So who exactly are we not allowed to work with, Dave? 30% of America? 41% of America? All but 21% of America? And when you exclude 30%, or 41%, or 79% percent of Americans, how exactly are you left with 99%?