Monday, May 21, 2007


The Larry Lessig Lesson

One of the highlights of last Friday's Personal Democracy Forum Conference, which brings together many of the nation's most innovative thinkers and practitioners in online politics, was getting to hear Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig talk about his latest mission to make video of the presidential debates free to use for everyone over the Internet.

Lessig is regarded as one of the nation's leading public intellectuals, largely through his pioneering work in the complex field of digital copyright, and he did not disappoint at PDF. His presentation was nothing short of captivating -- he raised PowerPoint to an art form in exposing the absurdity of reducing everything in modern American politics to a series of "either or" choices.

But in spite of Lessig's brilliance, or maybe because of it, what was most striking about his talk was just how politically oblivious and ultimately ineffective it was as a piece of advocacy.

Here you had a preeminent legal scholar making a high-minded pitch for what he himself touts as a non-partisan idea -- the more access to candidate information the better for our democratic discourse -- yet he could not resist taking repeated, mocking potshots at President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and other Republicans. Nor for that matter did he notice that he had used a picture of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in his slide to identify Hastert's short-lived predecessor, Bob Livingston (R-LA).

You don't have to be one of the nation's top 50 visionaries -- as Lessig was named by Scientific American -- to see that pissing on the uncoverted while preaching to the choir is hardly the way to construct a cross-cutting coalition necessary to advance a cause like this. Any Republican who might have been open to Lessig's compelling arguments would have tuned out long before Lessig could have finished building his case.

Now I am sure some will argue that because the PDF crowd skews overwhelmingly Democratic that Lessig was just playing to his audience, though that itself is a naive tact to take in the age of Google. The fact is, if you say something political to a public audience today -- particularly a roomful of online activists and bloggers -- you are really saying it to the world at large. So high-level advocates -- or candidates for that matter -- really don't have the luxury any more of speaking out of one side of their mouth one day and the other on another.

Besides, the PDF program prominently advertised that there were several leading Republican techno-politicos who would be speaking that day -- and who could have been helpful evangelists for free debate video if Lessig had not done so much to alienate them.

But I suspect that Lessig was not playing to his audience but embodying it -- and its worst self-defeating impulses. To him and his acolytes, the Republicans in the room were not invisible -- they were simply not worth addressing.

Indeed, the sharp disdain for Republicans that suffused Lessig's speech is not just a common characteristic of the progressive Netroots but a (and arguably the) defining norm. Much like the hard-core conservatives they despise, who came to view liberalism as a disease to be eradicated, the online left has come to consider the Party of Bush to be a form of evil to be destroyed, not merely beaten at the polls.

Now, as I have said on multiple occasions, the anger the Netroots feel towards Bush and his enablers in Congress is more than justified, and the work the liberal blogosphere has done to substantively reveal the Republican leadership in all their incompetent, intolerant, arrogant and corrupt glory has been beyond beneficial.

But where the Netroots have gone too far, I believe, is broadly transferring their anger at the Republican leaders in Washington to rank-and-file Republicans throughout the country and thus failing to make the distinction between those who have lost our trust and those whose votes we want to win.

This is not a matter of right or wrong, or fight between center and left, but a basic question of strategy and tactics. Much of the Netroots seems to subscribe to an even purer version of Karl Rove's base-rallying approach for winning elections, where independents are often deemed insignificant and Republican votes are not just expendable but execrable. But this divisive strategy proved corrosive for Republicans in relatively short-order -- they lost independents by 19 points in the 2006 midterms.

Moreover, it is a poor fit for progressives at the moment, with self-identifying conservatives still outnumbering liberals even six years into the Bush catastrophe, which means we don't have a big enough base to out-base the other side. Not least of all, it ignores the trendlines that show American growing more departisanalized while Democratic activists are growing more radicalized -- the fastest growing party affiliation as of last year was no party. For these voters, hyper-partisan appeals are not just ineffective, but more than likely repellent.

But my biggest concern about the hostile, snarky tone that the Netroots too often take -- and which Lessig's talk showed is leeching out across the Democratic landscape -- is its long-term impact.

The Bush regime has given Democrats a huge opening to not just win back the White House and add a few blue seats in the House and Senate next year, but to effect a structural realignment and lock-in a sustainable, FDR-like majority for the foreseeable future. However, if we are to capitalize on that opportunity, we can't afford to let our emotions cloud our judgment or drive our rhetoric. We are simply not going to persuade moderate Republicans to come to our side and stay there by reviling or insulting them just because they chose to join the other party at one point.

That doesn't mean we should not hit Bush and his enablers in Congress hard for all their misdeeds and draw a vivid contrast between Democratic and Republican priorities. I'm just saying we can do that without attacking or blaming the Republican voters we are courting -- particularly in the purple states -- for their leaders' damaging behavior. Which is to say, go ahead and hate the sinner, just not the sinner's extended family.

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