Friday, September 3, 2010


By: Lawrence Lessig - Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics

[Originally Posted: September 3, 2010 09:54 AM @ Huffington Post]

It seems that just about every hundred years (or so, I'm a lawyer; cut me some slack; numbers aren't my thing), the body politic we call America swells with fever as it fights off a democracy-destroying disease. That disease is "Special Interest Government," a government captured by the economically powerful in society, as they find a way to convert economic into political power; the fever comes from the reform movement, keen to kill that disease and restore an ideal of government of, by, and for "the People."

The rise of Andrew Jackson was the first of these cycles. His fight with the Second Bank of the United States and with the "monied interests" as he called them was the romantic political struggle for most Americans for much of the 19th Century -- far more important than anything Washington or Hamilton had done.

The rise of the Progressive Movement in the late 19th, and early 20th Century was the second of these cycles. Reformer after reformer focused the American democracy on the deep corruption that had captured government. The first round of "robber barons" had completed their theft. Smart and courageous souls fought on every front to end the threat of more robber barons, and reclaim the democracy that Jackson had promised.

We have now entered the third of these cycles. The anger that has broken out across America is rightly targeted at the captured and incompetent institution that our government has become. That capture, most Americans believe, is a kind of corruption. But not the corruption of bribery, or brown paper bags of cash hidden and traded among congressmen.

Instead the corruption of today is in plain sight. The mechanism of its reach is displayed to everyone. It is the simple and pervasive economy of influence that buys access and more through campaign cash. And then without explicit recognition, the actions of our government are guided by the understanding of how those acts will affect the opportunity to raise money.

I'm sure no one in the White House had a second thought about how bizarre it was that the first deals the administration struck to get health care reform was with the insurance lobby and the pharmaceutical companies. Yet how many of the 69,456,987 votes that Obama received came from them? And so why is it so obvious that they get the first seats in the negotiation of what could be Obama's most important (and only?) significant legislative victory?

As with each of these cycles of reform, when the fever gets hot there arises a political movement to fight the infection. Sometimes that movement has a leader. Some of us thought Obama was our Jackson, a thought that feels embarrassingly naive today.

Sometimes, however, it has no single leader. The resistance instead grows in a wide range of affected contexts, and an almost magical coordination among these disparate interests has an effect.

That was the story of the 20th Century's Progressive Movement. It had no single leader. It had no single plan. Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt were both leading progressives. But the two were as different as Jefferson and Hamilton. They shared a common ideal -- to defeat the power of "the Trusts" to control government -- but they had very different ideas about how that should be done.

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