By Ari Berman
THEY DON’T REPRESENT US
Reclaiming Our Democracy
By Lawrence Lessig
THE GREAT DEMOCRACY
How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America
By Ganesh Sitaraman
One of the biggest divides in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is whether Donald Trump is a cause or a symptom of the current dysfunction in American politics. Joe Biden has argued the former — replace Trump and everything will go back to normal — while the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have based their campaigns on the need for “big, structural change.” This is not just an ideological divide but a generational one: In a recent New York Times poll, 85 percent of prospective Iowa caucusgoers under 30 said they were likely to support a Democrat who “promises fundamental systematic change” while 70 percent of voters over 65 preferred a candidate who “brings politics in Washington back to normal.” Two new books — “They Don’t Represent Us,” by Lawrence Lessig, and “The Great Democracy,” by Ganesh Sitaraman — are firmly in the big, structural change camp, making a strong case that there is no normal to go back to. “The crisis in America is not its president,” Lessig writes in his opening pages. “Its president is the consequence of a crisis much more fundamental.” That crisis is the state of democracy itself.
You could fill an entire bookshelf with works about the crisis of democracy in the Trump era, but Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, has been eloquently hammering this point longer than most. He isolates the problem with American democracy to one word: “unrepresentativeness.” Voter suppression undermines free and fair elections, gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their preferred electorate, the Senate and the Electoral College favor small states and swing states over the rest of the country and the post-Citizens United campaign-finance system gives a tiny handful of billionaires far more clout than the average small donor. “In every dimension, the core principle of a representative democracy has been compromised,” he writes.
This is by now a familiar critique, but Lessig tells it with skill, citing a plethora of studies and historical examples to make a persuasive case about the unrepresentativeness of America’s political institutions. He suggests a wide range of policies to fix this, ranging from practical ideas like universal automatic voter registration and a $100 “democracy coupon” for every voter, to more controversial ones, like scrapping the Electoral College and reducing federal funding for states like Georgia that disenfranchise their voters.
The second part of Lessig’s book, where he discusses what ails “us” — by which he means society at large, not just political institutions — is more surprising but less convincing. For someone devoted to expanding democracy, Lessig is sharply critical of how the will of the people is expressed in American politics today. He’s skeptical of polling, calling it “a system designed to render us embarrassing,” even as he cites polls showing public support for the positions he’s advocating. And though he rightly condemns the anarchy of social media, he’s strangely nostalgic for the world of 1950s-era broadcast news, when three networks dominated by white males largely determined what the public did and didn’t see.
Most startling of all, Lessig thinks the few, not the many, should determine public policy. He admits that “sounds scandalous,” an example of the very kind of unresponsiveness he’s critiquing in the book. But what Lessig wants is to create an enlightened citizenry refined enough to act collectively; he cites as an example the citizen-driven effort to draft a new constitution for Iceland after the 2008 financial crisis.
Lessig ends by spotlighting a more recent model, closer to home, in which a 20-something political neophyte named Katie Fahey started a grass-roots group in Michigan to create a citizens commission to redraw Michigan’s state legislative and congressional districts in 2021. The ballot initiative, which was bitterly opposed by the Republican Party and powerful corporate interests, was approved by about 61 percent of voters in 2018. Lessig sees this effort — citizen-led, nonpartisan and focused on systemic change — as a template for the rest of the country. If politicians won’t reform a broken system, he concludes, maybe the Katie Faheys of the world can.
In contrast to Lessig, Ganesh Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, emphasizes how a rigged economy has led to a rigged politics, and vice versa. He quotes Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote in 1914, “There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”
Sitaraman believes the election of Trump ushered in “a new era in politics — the third since the Great Depression and World War II.” The first was the liberal era of the New Deal and Great Society, defined by regulated capitalism and social democracy, followed by the neoliberal era from Ronald Reagan to the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“The central question of our time is what comes next,” he writes. One possibility is the rise of “nationalist oligarchy,” where politicians like Trump, Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Victor Orban exploit racial and cultural divides to motivate their base while pushing economic policies that enrich themselves and their friends. “Conservatives can support an oligarchic economic system, rig the political system to stay in power and use nationalism to divide and conquer,” he warns.
But the end of neoliberalism also creates an opening for “a new era of democracy,” in which political reform, economic equality and social solidarity are interconnected. This expansive notion of democracy is the key revelation from Sitaraman’s illuminating book. He advocates many of the same ideas for promoting democracy as Lessig, but also urges populist economic policies like breaking up big banks and tech companies, and providing a government option for internet service and health care. Additionally, he wants to boost the “democratic ethic” through a new national service program, a public fund for journalism and a renewed effort to assimilate new immigrants.
Sitaraman has a lot of well-intentioned ideas, some more aspirational than practical, but collectively they would represent a huge expansion of government that would be very expensive and sure to attract bitter opposition from the country’s economic elite, not to mention a Republican Party that benefits from the status quo. Sitaraman is a longtime adviser to Elizabeth Warren, and reading this book you can see the outlines for many of her plans (he also went to Harvard with Pete Buttigieg, and thanks both candidates in the acknowledgments).
Like Warren, Sitaraman urges Democrats not to be timid, to avoid making “minor changes to the current trajectory of society” instead of pushing for “big reforms.” He wants Democrats to take a page from Republicans and play hardball by embracing far-reaching changes like ending the filibuster, transforming the structure of the Supreme Court and breaking up destructive monopolies. “In moments of extraordinary politics,” he writes, “the struggle is not to save the old regime. … The struggle is to achieve a new equilibrium.”
The challenge encountered by both authors is how to build an enduring mass movement for democratic reform. Part of the problem is that systemic threats to democracy are too often overshadowed by horse race media coverage and relegated to the purview of good-government groups. The crisis of democracy should be the issue in the 2020 election, Lessig and Sitaraman agree, not an afterthought or one of many topics. As Sitaraman puts it, “It isn’t possible to win substantive victories on health care, climate change or anything else if the system is rigged.”