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The Fundamental Ailment
On Lawrence Lessig and unrepresentativeness
The only trouble with the world is all the people who start sentences with “the only trouble with the world is…”
Sometimes, though, those people are correct.
In They Don’t Represent Us, Lawrence Lessig, a political theorist at Harvard and candidate for president in 2016, gives us a sweeping view of how dysfunctional our democracy has become.
This is not due to any outright corruption, but because of a simple truth that politicians do not adequately represent our voices as citizens.
We all feel this at some level — we’ve seen the rise of populist candidates like Bernie and Trump who were able to piggyback on the anger felt by so many Americans. The ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric resonates with us because, as Lessig writes in his book, our representatives are failing to do what they have been elected to do: govern the country.
American politicians at all levels — local, state, and federal — are so mired in partisan gridlock, so beleaguered by the need to constantly fundraise, and so weighted by archaic, inflexible institutions of democracy, that it’s a miracle we’ve made it this far without a complete governmental collapse.
This dysfunction is an effect of a specific set of causes that all boil down to the lack of representativeness in our democracy. As the title suggests, our politicians don’t represent us.
There are many reasons for this failure of representation in 2021 America (echo-chambers, lobbyists, and voter suppression to name just a few). As a result, politicians represent voices that are extremified, corrupted by money, or effectively silenced altogether.
Most of these issues are well documented, but while so many other theorists just point out the problems, Lessig suggests concrete remedies. He proposes a set of experimental solutions, some more radical than others, that would aim to restore the voices of individuals in our democracy and make our representatives act in accordance with the actual will of the people.
In his own words, here are just a few of his proposals:
A move immediately to public campaign funding, leading to more representative candidates
A reformed Electoral College, that gives the President a reason to represent America as a whole
A federal standard to end partisan gerrymandering in the states
A radically reformed Senate
A federal penalty on states that don’t secure to their people an equal freedom to vote
Institutions that empower the people to speak in an informed and deliberative way
While many of these reforms are unlikely to see the light of day, we shouldn’t be fatalistic in assuming that none of them are even possible. The framework in which our policies get shaped is itself malleable, and so any one of these reforms would make others more politically feasible to achieve.
Let’s not despair in our current state of unrepresentativeness — let’s work to change it!