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%?
These numbers actually tell us very little about what ideas hold sway among the mass of people in the United States. Instead, look at the powerful majorities that support taxing the wealthy (80 percent), universal healthcare (62 percent) and increased spending for public education (81 percent). If you read Rasmussen’s poll in 2010 that shows almost half of those under 30 “prefer socialism to capitalism,” you see the potential for even more: a new twenty-first-century radicalism.
As for the 30 percent who support the Tea Party—and let’s be clear, some polls have that number at 20 percent or even 8 percent—these are overwhelmingly working- and middle-class people influenced by Tea Party ideas, but hardly the card-carrying members who gather in dwindling numbers on the National Mall. Any progressive movement worth its salt will reach out to those people—and anyone—trying to move from anger to action
But there is a world of difference between debating patiently with Tea Party sympathizers and linking arms, as the professor has proudly done, with actual Tea Party organizations. You don’t win people over by providing cover for Koch Brothers/Freedom Works–funded institutions that exist to deflect anger and destroy unity. You do it by building a strong Occupy movement and publicly making an argument that Wall Street is a much more apt target than whomever Glenn Beck is choosing to scapegoat on that given week. By catering to the Tea Party/Beck crowd, the Occupy movement would alienate far more people—women, LGBTQ people, people of color, unionists—than it could ever hope to win.
I’d advise the professor to put down the high school citizenship textbook, take a break from the Federalist Papers and read some Malcolm X instead. Malcolm said:
You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you’ll do anything to get your freedom; then you’ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they’ll label you as a ‘crazy Negro,’ or they’ll call you a “crazy n——r”—they don’t say Negro. Or they’ll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red, or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough, and get enough people to be like you, you’ll get your freedom…. So don’t you run around here trying to make friends with somebody who’s depriving you of your rights. They’re not your friends, no, they’re your enemies. Treat them like that and fight them, and you’ll get your freedom; and after you get your freedom, your enemy will respect you. And I say that with no hate. I don’t have hate in me. I have no hate at all. I don’t have any hate. I’ve got some sense. I’m not going to let anybody who hates me tell me to love him.
Please don’t tell me to love the Tea Party, Professor. And please don’t use your considerable stature to guide the Occupy movement down a slow path to certain failure. It’s movement time. Please join us or please get out of the way.