Last week the unthinkable happened. While you were distracted by the banal and only marginally important presidential primaries, the lion, Harvard Law School, publicly lay down with the lamb, the Tea Party Patriots. The long-term political implications are, potentially, far more potent than a mere presidency.
The SuperElite and the SuperPopulists convened at Harvard for a “Conference for a Constitutional Convention.” It was co-hosted by Lawrence Lessig, from Harvard, and by Mark Meckler, co-founder of the 850,000 member Tea Party Patriots.
Lessig is a leading figure on the social democratic left, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard Law School. Elena Kagan (then Harvard Law School Dean, now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) once said, “Larry Lessig is one of the most brilliant and important legal scholars of our time…. His work has recast the very terms of discussion and debate in multiple areas of law, ranging from intellectual property to constitutional theory. His new focus on questions of governance and corruption will be similarly transformative.”
Lessig is also the author of canonical and subversive books on subjects as diverse as the Internet and copyright law. His most recent — and most subversive — work: Republic, Lost. Most scholars could (and do) retire on the job with much lesser accomplishments than this, happily disappearing into the status quo. So what the hell is this one up to, enduring a lot of hostility for showing respect to a vilified ideological opponent?
Meckler’s biography is more laconic than Lessig’s: “originally from southern California graduating from McGeorge Law School… credits his father with having passed to him a patriotic foundation and ‘cowboy ethics.’” But his role, as co-founder and one of the national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, the largest and most authentic of the Tea Party groups, is all the credential he needs to stand in equal dignity with Lessig. Similar to Meckler’s is the dignity of the Tea Party Patriots’ resident constitutional expert, Bill Norton, who also spoke at Harvard — as a citizen scholar.
Lessig and the Tea Party, and its guiding spirits, are populists. Populism was forever redefined by Jeffrey Bell (a business partner of this columnist) as optimism about people’s ability to manage their own affairs better than an elite can manage them for them. Populism is neither left nor right wing. Populists of all stripes share in common a conviction in “power to the people,” a belief that in a republic “citizen” is the noblest office. And while Lessig and Meckler may disagree about just about every ideological issue, their respect for the wisdom and dignity of the citizens unites them in a realm far more important than the ideological.
They came together to explore a mechanism by which America’s government can be changed by, of, and for the people. Jefferson was unequivocally right when he wrote:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
So. Are there insufferable evils?
Let’s start with the federal government spending over a trillion dollars a year more than it takes in. This provoked the Tea Party. Many of us both on the right and in the populist rank and file consider the ballooning national debt to be an insufferable evil.
Congress persistently is refusing to stop spending money it does not have. Sen. Curtis Olafson, a state senator from North Dakota, has a solution. He’s gotten the ball rolling with support in 6 to 12 states for an Article V constitutional convention to prevent raising of the debt limit without state approval. He serves as national spokesperson for the National Debt Relief Amendment.
The left seems, mainly, outraged by the decision of Citizens United allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures as is their clear First Amendment right. Lessig is a somewhat lonely figure on the left in not promoting a proto-fascist solution, censorship, to the problems being caused by “so damn much money” in politics. The core of Lessig’s approach is that of making available optional (rather than coercive) public financing of congressional elections. This is not radically dissimilar to the system in place for matching funds for presidential primaries and, while unequivocally “Progressive,” falls far short of Leninism (much to the dismay of the Communist Party USA, which attended the conference to denounce Lessig and push for a new, communist, constitution for North America).
Lessig is heartsick about how campaign contributions have come so to dominate the attention of candidates and members of Congress that it makes problems insoluble and is sinking America as a republic. Lessig is evenhanded in pointing out the distortions. He shows how political contributions clearly interfere with the free market process — contributions buying sugar tariffs leading to all kinds of degradations of the free market. Then he shows how campaign money destroys left wing priorities, mangling, perhaps terminally, the drive to get to sustainable universal health insurance. The current financing system also feeds popular cynicism, undermining our overall political health.
The corrupting effect of money in politics is more populist than left wing. The dean of the Article V convention movement, former Michigan Chief Judge Thomas Brennan, no left winger, attended the conference and blogged:
Money that flows like raw sewage from K Street to the Capital. Money that corrupts. Money that influences. Money that changes our nation from a democratic republic to a sinister oligarchy of career politicians, corporate fat cats, ward healing bosses, and the lobbyists who tie them all together.
The last thing the incumbents in Congress will do is to change the rules in a way that might level the playing field between themselves and challengers, leading to an almost 100% reelection rate even though Congress, as a body, suffers from a pathetic 11% approval rating. Therefore, Lessig is proposing to call an Article V convention to end run the Congress. So is Olafson in his effort to take away Congress’s credit cards.
To get there they need 34 states. There are pockets of strong resistance to such a convention, most notably the John Birch Society, Phyllis Schlafly, and … Laurence Tribe, surely a strange bedfellows coalition if ever there was one. On the other hand, the most respected state-based policy institute in America, the Goldwater Institute, has fielded Nick Dranias, who there holds the Clarence J. and Katherine P. Duncan Chair for Constitutional Government and is Director of the Joseph and Dorothy Donnelly Moller Center for Constitutional Government, to make an ironclad case that such an Article V call can be useful while constrained.
Yes, Meckler was there in his personal, rather than in an institutional, capacity, did not speak for the Tea Party Patriots, and did not endorse Lessig’s campaign finance reform. No, Lessig did not endorse Sen. Olafson’s debt ceiling limit. All beside the point. For the first time in modern history the populist left and populist right came together to endorse, and seek a way to operationalize, a transcendent belief in citizens over government.