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Election 2008 Obama Political Philosophy Politics Videos

Process Revolutions

Lawrence Lessig
[Photo by Robert Scobel.]

[digg-reddit-me]Lawrence Lessig described an interesting concept in his “Change Congress” presentation. He briefly mentioned an idea that I do not recall hearing before; yet this idea neatly provides a missing explanation in my understanding of change and revolution.

Throughout history, revolutions, though beginning with glorious idealism, have almost never ended well. The French Revolution was a bloody affair that devolved into totalitarianism; the revolution of Communism was likewise bloody and totalitarian; the same can be said of many of the smaller and less ideological revolutions against colonial powers and monarchies. As often as not, the main change these revolutions accomplished was to replace one evil with another.

A period of change is always a period of danger – and when the leaders of a revolution are focused on achieving hubristic goals, especially goals based on abstractions and ideology, they must resort to totalitarian means. As Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon wrote about a fictional Communist revolution:

The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first.

The great anti-totalitarian novels of the second half of the twentieth century, Brave New World, 1984, Darkness at Noon, and Animal Farm, all drove home this single insight: that ideological, goal-oriented revolution inevitably led to totalitarianism; that when revolution prioritized the ends over the means, enormous suffering was the immediate result.

The rare alternative to these goal-oriented or ideological revolutions are process revolutions. While American history has had a number of ends-focused revolutions – the original American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement – these movements all had more or less discrete goals which could be achieved (seceding from Britain; preventing the secession of the South; and ending the legal discrimination against African Americans). These were revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.  The concrete nature of the goals of these revolutions in addition to extraordinary leadership1 of these movements mitigated the dangers inherent in revolution and rapid change through American history.

What Lessig points to is that there have been other less dramatic, and equally as important, revolutions in American history. Lessig cites some examples: the Second Constitutional Convention; the Progressive movement; and the Watergate reforms. These revolutions focused on creating and changing processes rather than on specific ends; their results have profoundly affected our society and have been generally beneficial, standing in stark contrast to the more extreme and more painful ideological revolutions.

Lessig suggests that today our society may be primed for another process revolution, that a political movement may be able to reform our politics in order to allow us to tackle the many festering long-term problems we face: global climate change; terrorism; growing domestic and international inequality; a broken health care system; an imbalance of power in Washington; institutional corruption; a declining manufacturing sector.  Senator John McCain in his 2000 campaign and Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign2 did and have based their candidacies on reforming our politics to allow us to tackle the more fundamental problems we must face.

Obama has taken the further step of advocating process-based change.  He does not just want universal health care; he wants to televise the task force and committee meetings, and make as many of the discussions of how to implement this idea public and available via television and the internet.  While Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, tried to push through health care reform by meeting secretly with lobbyists, cramming her bill with special deals for all sorts of special interests, and threatening members of her own party who proposed alternate plans, Obama believes that how we achieve health care reform is as important as achieving it.  With this, and many other policies, and given many of Obama’s top advisers, it is clear that an Obama presidency would attempt a process revolution to set the country back on the right track.

As you might guess – based on his focus on long-term issues and on the corruption of the political process – Lawrence Lessig was an early endorser of Barack Obama. (Lessig’s lecture referenced here, is below the fold.)

  1. George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King, Jr.: all canny politicians who married idealism to pragmatism, who exercised great restraint, who called on our “better angels”, and who did not seek personal power. []
  2. Though John McCain has paid lip service to reform in his 2008 campaign, he now endorses most of the fruit of the tree he called corrupt. []
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Election 2008 Foreign Policy McCain Political Philosophy Politics The War on Terrorism

Killing the United Nations

[digg-reddit-me]Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.

  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []