The Roots of Democracy, The Roots of Evil

Why would someone walk across New Hampshire in January

I love the New Hampshire Rebellion Walk, a new project by the indefatigable and remarkably public-spirited activist Lawrence Lessig. He and a gang of “Rootstrikers” — I’ll explain the term in two shakes — are walking across New Hampshire (in January, for God’s sake) as part of a campaign for removing money from politics in the US.

Now, Lessig has written what I’m sure must be the definitive introduction to the problem of money in politics, Republic, Lost, and in it he proposes some really sensible policy measures which would probably quite simply do the trick of mostly getting money divorced from politics. As he says: we would probably entirely change our politics in a matter of “30 months, not 30 years”.

Lessig calls the people who are working on this issue Rootstrikers, after a wonderful passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Walden, of course, was another great civic activist.)

I like the idea of putting the body of the activist in play as part of their political work. It is a major part of the thinking of Martin Luther King and Gandhi (whom I spent quite a bit of time reading up on last year). There’s something magical about making a demand in an embodied way, bearing the consequences and the wear and tear of the action. It really adds moral force to the demand. We saw that In Tahrir Square, and on Wall Street, like we saw it in the segregated South and colonial India. And like we’re seeing it, in a really small-scale way, now. In New Hampshire. In January. It’s not a sit-in, and they aren’t getting arrested, but there’s still the sense of an escalation of the symbolic power of Lessig’s struggle.

Professor Lessig, contemplating something corrupt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Along the way, Lessig has been pushing two interesting ideas. The first is that of the 4 %:

I’ve been having fun with one particular shtick. Our most recent poll found 96% of Americans answered “important” or “very important” to the question: “How important is it to you that the influence of money in politics be reduced?” (68% “very important,” 28% “somewhat important”). So I’ve taken on the challenge of finding the 4%. We met a couple state rangers who had just policed an ice fishing pond. “Are you,” I asked him, “one of that 4%?” “Hell no,” he told me. “And you won’t find any of those people in New Hampshire.”

The second thing, based on the first thing, is the idea that the problem isn’t a lack of support, it’s a lack of belief that there’s something Americans can do about the problem.

There’s one thing I think I know after a week out here that I didn’t when I started this walk.

The thing I always wondered was why what ever pundit said about this issue seemed true: that people don’t care about it. “Care about it,” in the sense that they actually do something about it. That they don’t seems true.

This was a puzzle, for me, because as I’ve interacted with people, I’ve always been struck by the opposite: a yearning, almost passionate desire, that this problem be fixed. So is that just because of the peculiarities of the sorts I connect with? Or maybe just further proof of my winning personality?

But I realized as I thought through this along this walk that there’s two obvious reasons why people who care about something don’t do something about it. They either don’t care enough (the assumption of the pols) or they don’t think anything can be done. It seems clear to me now that it’s the second, not the first, that explains this issue.


This means the real work here is simple: give people a sense that change is possible. Show them how, make it seem manageable. Because if we could crack the 91%, we could free the energy needed to make this change happen.

I hope he gets some traction now. Lessig is right: this issue is the first issue. It’s what the US needs to fix first of all.

If you aren’t aware of this part of Lessig’s thinking, I think this TED talk he gave is probably the most concentrated introduction. (Incidentally, I think Lessig is really nervous and barely containing his emotion in that talk, which is interesting. Maybe he knows what a major audience he has.)

  1. bleep said:

    great post.

  2. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different result.”Albert Einstein

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