We Are Not Thinking Big Enough

Larry Lessig
Aug 19, 2015

Bernie Sanders stands for something. He stands for something big. He has ignited an incredible movement — stronger and more committed at this point than Barack Obama had in 2007. He has given America a vision of how they can get America back. Some doubt he could win. I don’t doubt that. I doubt he could govern. Not because he’s weak. He is not. Not because he’s inexperienced. He has more experience in Washington than anyone running. Bernie Sanders could not govern because Elizabeth Warren is right: the most powerful in America have captured America’s government. The most powerful own DC. And until we change that, nothing — certainly none of the bold ideas that Bernie Sanders is selling — will happen.

So everything turns on how we get that democracy back. How do we reclaim our power? If the “system is rigged,” how do we un-rig it? How do we make democracy possible again?

Bernie has given us no credible answer to that critical question. Not one. He talks about a “revolution.” But seriously, what is that rhetoric describing? Do we really imagine millions of people occupying Washington? Will we be camping out on the Capitol Lawn in January? Because remember, there is a Congress. It will be less Democratic than the one that greeted Obama.

What is the plan to get that institution to do what Bernie wants? What is the mandate that gets them to do what Bernie needs — to un-rig the rigged system, first. To give us back a democracy.

I fear we are not thinking big enough. So used are we to getting crumbs, we can’t imagine an actual meal.

That must change. Now. We must begin to think big, now, because it is small ideas that have gotten us here.

Yet another partisan election is not going to change America. An even more strident and unrelenting progressive is not going to unmake the powers that have corrupted this democracy. We need to dream not of turning conservatives into liberals, but of uniting America behind a principle that comes before “conservative” and “liberal.” We need to recognize the core problem with America’s democracy — that its citizens are not equal as citizens — and build a movement to unite America to a cause that no American, openly, could deny: that in a representative democracy, we should be represented equally, and that in this “democracy,” we are not.

Because the truth is that if we fixed that inequality first, extraordinary things would be possible again. It would not be fantasy to talk about taking on Wall Street — because Wall Street wouldn’t be the biggest funders of political campaigns. It would not be fantasy to imagine passing climate change legislation — because oil and coal companies would just be one voice in the mix. It would not be fantasy to imagine a government serving the people — because only the people would matter to that government. It would not be fantasy to talk about revolution — because this idea, this equality, was our revolution, our first revolution, as it has been with every revolution in the history of America since.

For this is the simple truth that we must come to see: Never in our history have we rallied except when we’ve rallied for equality. Never has the moral spirit of our people risen, except to unite us, not to divide us. And while at every stage in that history, there were other equalities to fight for, other equalities forgotten, the only successful political revolutions in America’s history have been revolutions for the equality that then seemed possible.

America is not now united on the idea of wealth equality. I wish it were. I desperately wish we all could see the devastation caused by us being Richistan. But I don’t believe we are there yet. I don’t believe that every American — or enough to win big enough to matter — believes in her heart of hearts that we should be Sweden. That is not who we are. Yea, I know the data. I’ve seen the polls. I understand why some think differently. But this equality is not yet in the story of who we are. It is not yet what we tell ourselves we should be.

But we do tell ourselves that we are a democracy. A representative democracy. And we do believe that as citizens, we deserve a system that counts us equally. We deserve a government that listens to us equally.

And if we could unite behind this fundamental idea — behind a principle, given to us at our nation’s birth, that our Congress be “dependent on the people alone,” and that the people, as Madison promised, mean “not the rich more than the poor” — we could have a mandate powerful enough to make that democracy possible.

I want a chance to wage a campaign for that principle. Not for me, but for it. I want to be its advocate. I want to stand next to it, and defend it, not because I am as great or as inspirational as it, but because it is right, and inspiration enough. I want a chance to make the case for America to choose it. All of America. First. Because if we chose that equality first — an equality of citizens, an equality that would end this corruption, an equality that would begin to undo the institutionalized inequality that rends the life of so many Americans, blacks more than whites — then everything that every other candidate in this race is talking about would be possible.

I am not as great as Bernie Sanders. I would not have had the courage that he has had to fight alone for as long as he’s fought. I would not have had the moral courage to stay as committed, without reward.

Nor am I as great as Hillary Clinton, rising as she did from nothing to the most powerful woman in our political culture. Inspiring millions, my daughter included. Having the moral courage to stay, when anyone else would flee.

I am not as great as these politicians are.

But the idea I want to defend is. It is as great as they are. It is greater than they are. It is greater than any of us is. And if we could find a politics that could rise above the person, we could make a democracy possible again.

Because democracy is not a politician. Democracy is not a leader. Democracy is an ideal: a “dream,” as Martin Luther King put it, a dream “expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportion”: that all are created equal.

If we could rediscover King’s dream, we would have a revolution that mattered. A revolution greater than anger and rage. A revolution of hope, made believable, because we have a reason to believe.

We need to think differently about this election. We need to make it bigger. We need to think seriously about what could make democracy possible. It isn’t anger. It isn’t a hero. It is a cause, expressed in a principle, powerful enough to win all of us to its side.

Help me in that cause. Help me have the chance to fight for it, not for me. Help me help us to get a government that the next great president — whether Bernie, or Hillary or someone else — might actually do something with. Help me make this election as big as the ideals of America. Ideals that we have lost. Ideals we could recover, in a single referendum, again.

Originally published on www.huffingtonpost.com.

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