The most energetic, persuasive case I've heard for a civic-republican/democratic movement to dethrone both Republicans and Democrats who won't take big money out of elections was made this month to an audience of hundreds at Bard College's Hannah Arendt Center conference on "The Unmaking of Americans" by Harvard Law Professor and campaign-finance revolutionary Lawrence Lessig, founder of the MayDay Political Action Committee.
Lessig showed graphically that recent First Amendment jurisprudence equating money with speech has given a few thousand donors as much control over selecting our candidates as China's Communist Party has over candidates for the chief executive position in Hong Kong -- a brazenly anti-democratic tactic that has brought many thousands of Hong Kong citizens into the streets in demonstrations watched 'round the world.
I've argued in The Washington Monthly that Texas voters should emulate Hong Kong residents by turning out massively on November 4 to defy their state's and our Dred Scott Supreme Court's effort to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of citizens who've voted legitimately in the past.
It wouldn't have come to this had Texas' elections been fair enough in the first place to elect a legislature worth respecting instead of joking about. And that's why we need Mayday, funded by angry, ordinary citizens, a PAC to end all other PACs by defeating every congressional incumbent, Democrat or Republican, who won't support campaign-finance reform.
The effort may not get that far in the November 4 elections. But most American social movements didn't get far at first, either, as Evan Osnos notes in his New Yorker profile of Lessig, a self-avowedly "crazy" activist who must count on factors beyond his own powers of persuasion -- changes in public perception prompted by others' direct actions and by economic and other upheavals that converge fortuitously with efforts like MayDay's.
It took decades for the women's suffrage and black civil-rights movements to break barriers, but today's campaign-finance and environmental movements may grow more quickly thanks to mounting, frightening evidence of moneyed interests' destructive influence on politics and of global warming. It's getting harder to deny the devastating effects of casino-like investing in predatory lobbying, lending, employment, and marketing practices that would have horrified John Locke and Adam Smith.
But denials and rationalizations of this evidence are well-funded, clever, and sometimes frightening in themselves. Unless you're willing to be called a Communist or (gasp) a socialist, it's hard to break the taboo against saying that today's economic emperors have no clothes and that their capitalism has metastasized into something that seldom accomplishes what they say it does.
I've asked countless American conservatives, in many ways and in many venues, how they can square their proclaimed commitment to republican virtues and sovereignty with their knee-jerk obedience to global, algorithmically driven notions of "shareholder value" that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before their very eyes. We can all see the degradation of working conditions, marketing, entertainment, and recreation.
Yet I have never, ever, ever received an answer to my question, and Texans have been a lot more defiant and clever than people in most other states in refusing to answer my question. Partly that's because their understandings of republican virtue and sovereignty are more libertarian and aggressive than most people's. The state's well-nourished concentrations of power, custom, and conceit enable it to deny that things can't go on as they have. A lot of Texans call their denial Independence.
Lessig is something of a libertarian himself, but he and MayDay will tell Texans that the more they rely on "First Amendment" jurisprudence such as Citizens United to give rich investors in low wages and violent entertainment huge megaphones on TV and radio while leaving other Americans who want to speak hoarse from straining to be heard, the less effective Texas' politics will be.
The more paralyzed and destructive its politics, the more stressed and susceptible its citizens will be to demagoguery and scapegoating, including resorting to "Second Amendment" protections that bring them to the brink of shooting one another instead of talking to one another. And the less free they'll be, and the more maniacal in denying it by blaming feckless, big-government liberals for the mess.
Liberals are certainly often feckless, and leftists even worse when they indulge a politics of self-justification through moral posturing only ensures and even revels in its own defeat. But even the most feckless liberals are only symptomatic, not causal, of the riptides dissolving us. A better place to look is the deluge of big money that's destroying our elections and political deliberations to produce legislatures like Texas' (or like the U.S. Congress), which, with the John Roberts/Dred Scott Supreme Court, is reversing even half-century-old civil-rights gains with voter-identifications law that on November 4 will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands.
Now, as then, the only strategy left to people being degraded and assaulted this way is resistance through the MayDay PAC and, much more immediately, by showing up at the polls on November 4 as massively as Hong Kong demonstrators have been doing to demand fully democratic elections. Lessig's comparison of undemocratic China and undemocratic America at the Hannah Arendt Center conference wasn't as far-fetched as some may want to believe.
While big money's influence on legislators is more direct than ever before owing to Citizens United, it has also created a climate in which even some newspapers like the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News -- themselves business corporations, of course -- are more reticent than they should be. When I sent those and other Texas papers my Lessig-inspired argument that Hong Kong citizens have set an example with some resonance for Texans, they didn't respond. One editor did express interest and even edited the essay before his paper's Opinion overlords decided not to run it. The others were silent.
Fortunately, The Washington Monthly, a true keeper of the American civic-republican flame, has posted it, and we can thank the Internet for making my hair-raising assessment of recent doings in Texas accessible to Texans.