Saturday, July 19, 2008

Netroots Nation 2008: The Good Side

I'm still drafting a post about the Bad Side of Netroots Nation--and trust me, there's lots to say--but I wanted to post about a very positive experience I just had, and it's name is Lawrence Lessig. Regular readers already know about my love affair with Prof. Lessig, and I told my company (who paid to send me here) that I was attending for the sole purpose of declaring my undying love to the professor. I just left his keynote speech and it was so good that I plumb forgot to prostrate myself before the entire liberal blogger community. But that's okay, because his speech was just damn good. I'm hoping he will post the slides and audio, but (a) he probably won't for months and, (b) you probably won't take the time to watch it. But that's okay, because I'm going to summarize his point, which is both simple and powerful.

He argues that the recent 9% job performance rating for Congress is a product of trust, or a lack thereof. Which stands in contrast to the claim that the rating is a product of policy outcomes. If you had asked me yesterday why Congress rating is so low, I would have pointed to their failure to end the Iraq War. But that answer never really seemed to be complete to me. Every vote has winners and losers, and there is no way that Congress is voting such that 91% of the entire country is losing. There's something more fundamental than policy outcome going on here, and whatever it is, it crosses the the isle to include an ultra-super-majority of the American population. Trust, it seems to me, fills in the gap. I buy the idea that 91% of the American people simply don't trust the product coming out of Congress, regardless of which side they fall on a particular issue.

Which isn't to say that Congress deserved our trust back when the rating was higher... more likely, we simply didn't have the needed information to "build" our lack of trust. But with the advent of blogging and increased political access of all stripes, it's becoming all too painfully obvious.

What I found most compelling about Lessig's presentation about trust was not that members of Congress are undeserving of our trust. In fact, he went so far as to say that this decade's Congress is far more deserving of our trust than any Congress before... not that this Congress is good, but that the past was so bad. What he pointed out is that there is culture in Washington, an accepted culture, whose byproduct is untrustworthiness. As an example he pointed to the bankruptcy bill, which in the late 90s First Lady Hillary Clinton opposed... but then in 2004 Senator Hillary Clinton supported. Clinton received significant donations from credit card companies during that time, leading to the claim that her vote was bought. She says the money isn't responsible for her changed position, and as Lessig said, "I believe her." The problem, he says, is that it creates the appearance of being bought and lessens trustworthiness. Hence the 9%.

He went on to pitch a new organization, change-congress.org, which has become his new passion, having put his free-culture crusade on hold. Which is not to say the free-culture fight isn't important, or that so many other issues aren't important. In fact, he's willing to say all these other issues are more important than the issue of trustworthiness. What makes trustworthiness worth his time, and I agree everyone's time, is not that it's the most important problem, but that it's the first problem. It is a pipeline problem that must be overcome before anything else can be really solved.

So, to Prof. Lessig, I was originally very disappointed when I heard you were leaving the free-culture fight, but now that I've heard your argument and see your direction, I applaud your decision, and I'm excited to start working on this, the first problem.

1 comment:

Alex Steed [of Make Something Happen} said...

We talked for a bit with Prof. Lessig for the blog. He discusses Change Congress for a bit. It's an exciting frontier, for sure. .09!