AIF Blog

What's at Fault for an Unrepresentative Democracy?

Oct 14, 2016
CATEGORY: Society, U.S.A.

Harvard Professor of Law and Leadership Lawrence Lessig at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2016.

The frustrations feeding the populist movement in the United States are the fault of US citizens, says Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and leadership at Harvard. He says citizens have built an unresponsive and unrepresentative democracy. He told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June that “at its core, it comes not from money and politics, it comes from a more fundamental flaw — that we have allowed an unrepresentative democracy to become the democracy we live within.”

He blames an unequal freedom to vote, citing a Brennan Center study. It mentions information from a Presidential Commission that found more than 10 million people had to wait in line for 30 minutes or more to vote in the 2012 election. “If you are relatively affluent with childcare and an iPhone, you might think ‘Ok. What is 30 minutes to vote,’ Lessig says, “but for others without childcare and with multiple jobs, or without something to distract them, this is, in fact, a poll tax.”

The unraveling of our democracy is also due to the “unequal weight of the vote,” states Lessig. He says members of Congress craft districts in their states to protect incumbents and determine election results.

Finally, Lessig points to the way campaigns are funded as another factor that has led to an unresponsive and unrepresentative democracy. First, he points to the amount of time members of Congress “dial for dollars.” One US representative told CBS News newly elected members of Congress are expected to spend 30 hours a week making cold calls for donations. Lessig says this impacts their views. “As they live this life, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness of how what they do will affect their ability to raise money,” he says. The policy preferences of the average American pale in comparison to the desires of large campaign contributors, he adds.

But the situation is fixable. In the video below, Lessig lays out how he thinks our democracy can be restored.

By Marci Krivonen, Associate Editor/Producer, Public Programs

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