Ask the average U.S. citizen whether “the people” rule and “most would find the idea somewhat quaint,” writes Lawrence Lessig in his latest book “They Don't Represent Us,” a timely book for Election Day 2020.
“The crisis is not its president. Its president is the consequences of a crisis much more fundamental,” writes Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School. The author reduces the problem with U.S democracy to one word: “unrepresentativeness…The failure of our government to function is the existential problem we face right now.”
In his hard-hitting analysis, Lessig breaks down the major causes of the lack of representation:
• voter suppression which undercuts fair elections
• gerrymandering which allows politicians to choose their voters
• the “fraught” design of the Senate and the Electoral College which favor small states
• “money in politics”
“In every dimension, the core principle of representative democracy has been compromised.”
Lessig persuasively supports his argument that the U.S. political system is unrepresentative with numerous references to historic failures of our political institutions. But he does more than assess these failures. He offers corrections including:
• automatic voter registration
• eliminating the Electoral College and electing by popular vote
• cutting federal dollars to states that disenfranchise voters
• establishing “a congressional jury” made up of randomly chosen citizens to examine both sides of issues and make non-binding recommendations to their congressional district delegates.
The author purports that the most egregious problem to be addressed is the way campaigns are funded. Candidates spend 30-70% of their time seeking funds, primarily from big funders, and relying on billionaires to fund campaigns has a deleterious effect on the way politicians consider problems faced by the average citizen.
For example, Congress recently spent countless hours debating the fee banks can charge when someone uses a debit card. The average American does not view establishing this fee as a critical issue. However, because so much of their campaign funding comes from wealthy bankers and business leaders who do care, Congress prioritizes this issue.
Lessig not only criticizes politicians, but also blames voters for their part in the current political crisis. In the second half of the book he discusses the failure of the general citizenry to participate in in the electoral process. The electorate’s failure is the result of becoming increasingly partisan and/or uninformed about vital issues. The professor criticizes “We the people” for engaging in polling which reflects and normalizes voters’ ignorance and feeds it back to pollsters as the will of the people. He is critical of cable TV and social media who thrive by polarizing reporting and giving credence to pollsters’ misinformation.
To fix voter suppression Lessig suggests public funding. His answer is to give every citizen a “democracy coupon” worth, for example, $100. Each voter would designate their “democracy coupon” to their candidate of choice. Rather than receiving funds from the extraordinarily rich 1% of the population, as presently occurs, candidates would derive money from a wide-ranging group of people.
Lessig ends his book by pointing to some recent grassroots initiatives that jarred loose, outdated government policies. He especially lauds a Michigan initiative calling for redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries by 2021. This initiative was opposed by many powerful interest groups and yet it was passed by 61% of the voters. Lessig praises this kind of popular systemic change as a positive model for overcoming “unrepresentativeness.”