America is not a democracy: Until we fix the core problem, all other political promises are meaningless

BY Lawrence Lessig – NEW YORK DAILY NEWS – Monday, September 28, 2015, 5:00 AM

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There are some who insist that everything’s just fine with American democracy today.

They don’t see SuperPACs spending hundreds of millions of dollars to set candidates’ priorities and influence elections; they see “free speech.”

They don’t believe Congress is broken; they think those who say it is just don’t like what Congress is doing.

The apologists defend our democracy’s dysfunction through professed humility: “What do you expect?” they ask. “It’s just a democracy.”

Partisanship, in other words, just comes with the territory of trying to govern a large, diverse, and complex country. Gridlock is a feature, not a bug.

But here’s the dirty big secret: The government we have is not a democracy. It’s nowhere close. Instead, a corruption in the very idea of a representative democracy has rendered our nation almost ungovernable. We have entered the age of the “vetocracy,” as political theorist Francis Fukuyama puts it, where very small numbers in America can block almost any sensible change.

Gridlock happens not because Americans want it. Gridlock happens because it pays — for that tiny minority.

The reason is obvious once you know where to look. The core idea of a representative democracy is equality — not the equality of wealth, but the equality of citizens. Yet our “democracy” denies that equality in obvious and grotesque ways.

Four hundred families have given half the money to candidates and political committees in this election cycle so far, while members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money from a tiny fraction of the 1%.

No one can believe that the people at the front of this line — the 400 families, or the 0.02% of Americans who have given the maximum to even one candidate — have a political power equal to the rest of us.

And that’s not the only inequality: Think about the absurd way we gerrymander districts, with politicians picking their voters, rather than voters picking the politicians. They work so hard to keep their seat safe for one political party or the other, they effectively leave 89 million Americans with no effective representation, since they’re political minorities in districts that will never change hands.

Or think about the ridiculous ways we make it hard for people to vote: More than 10 million Americans had to wait more than 30 minutes to vote in the last election. For families with nannies and iPhones, that’s not much of a problem. But for ordinary working parents, that’s a poll tax too many can’t afford.

This inequality is everywhere. But here’s the critical point that too many miss: If we could break this inequality, we could crack the corruption that has destroyed our government. If we could find a way to de-concentrate the incredibly concentrated power that renders America a vetocracy, we could give representative democracy a chance. If we fixed our democracy, we could end this vetocracy.

This isn’t some far-off dream. It’s actually within our power.

We need to mix the hope that the politicians peddle — of renewed economic growth for the middle class, of a health-care system that Americans can afford, of a banking system that keeps America secure, of a social security system that will survive, of college that kids can afford, of climate change legislation that can slow the destruction of this planet — with a recognition of the reality of this democratic pathology, and a plan to fix it.

We need politicians to speak this truth: That if we’re to do any of the things we know must be done, we must fix this democracy first.

Congress could do that with a single statute, tomorrow. Congress could change the way campaigns are funded, tomorrow. The Supreme Court has not blocked this reform, nor will it.

Congress could end gerrymandering, and achieve a representative democracy, tomorrow. And it could end the discriminatory burdens on the freedom to vote tomorrow.

Congress could make a giant leap towards a representative democracy, if we only had politicians willing to take the first critical step — of telling the people the truth, and showing them how reform is possible.

Enough of the fantasies. We need to tell the politicians: Show us the plan that will fix this democracy, and then we’ll listen to the promises about what you’d do with it.

Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, is a Democratic candidate for President.

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