What is the status of democracy in the United States today? Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig, answers that question in his book They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming our Democracy.
I think leaders need to know about their governmental systems. It doesn’t matter what political affiliations or ideas you have. Understanding due process and policy issues can help leaders adjust their businesses according to the laws implemented by their host governments.
Specifically, America has a decision to participate in a democracy, and the book explains that. However, to what extent is the government representative of the entire population? The book primarily discusses the United States’ republic, but it could apply elsewhere, too.
They Don’t Represent Us is a comprehensive view on representativeness within a democracy, and how it can be distorted or corrupted. Then it provides thorough answers to such issues we face as citizens and voters in the United States.
First, I’ll give a brief summary of the book, and then talk about what I liked and didn’t like.
In the beginning, the book lays out the issues associated with representative democracy in the United States. For instance, each person should have an equal right to vote without unfair disadvantages, i.e., voting stations without wheelchair accessibility and unequal distribution of voting kiosks, just to name two.
Issues highlighting non-representativeness include super PACs, the electoral college, the Senate, gerrymandering, and presidential primaries. Mainly, the book also highlights corruption in the way candidates are chosen for their campaigns. Instead of citizens nominating and voting for candidates, there are emplaced systems and people to select candidates for the people to vote.
To highlight this point, Boss Tweed famously said: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I do the nominating.” An abhorrent senator, Tweed was famous for essentially buying his way into the Senate.
Polarizing media has had an effect on polling and which candidates receive press coverage. The book argues that we, the people, have a plethora of entertainment choices that overshadow the citizen’s responsibility to be informed. And, negative attack ads are more attractive to viewers than positive ads during election cycles.
Most striking, the book advocates for leniency on the public’s knowledge of political issues. Pop quizzes of people from any party on the street do not represent the whole of their party affiliation.
You wouldn’t ask a Supreme Court justice to give an impromptu answer in a controversial issue. People in political office have staffs, think tanks, and deliberative sessions to develop their talking points.
Similarly, the citizen shouldn’t be thrust into a political conversation without some preparation. It’s almost impossible for lay citizens to be informed of every issue because citizens aren’t privy to the staff of other governmental leaders.
The remainder of the book focuses on solutions to the issues previously identified. For instance, ranked-choice voting could be a useful tool to allow a majority vote to elect candidates instead of a plurality. Or, reform the electoral college Winner Take All system to elect the president.
What I liked
Thought-provoking ideas like ranked-choice voting was a game-changer for me. It never occurred to me that people can be underrepresented in a democracy by using the one person, one vote model.
Instead, ranked-choice voting opens a path for one candidate to have a clear majority victory instead of a plurality victory, as exemplified by the Lincoln presidency.
Watch this video to learn more about how ranked-choice voting works:
The Senate’s representation, or lack thereof, surprised me as well. I loved how the book explained how the Senate occupies a strange place in our government.
For instance, the Senate’s purpose is to represent the states. Yet, the people elect senators. If the people elect senators, then should the senators also represent the populations of their states just like the House? James Madison thought so, but he forewent that idea and compromised on this issue by implementing equal representations of states in the Senate.
Race was a tender theme, as well. I enjoyed the openness and delicacy nature of how race and voting are non-representative. For instance, the book cites that African Americans are disproportionately represented for a plethora of unfair reasons that the book discusses. It was one of the best explanations of race and the political system I had ever encountered.
Finally, equal representation resonated in my mind while I listened to the audiobook. I have watched several mindblowing YouTube videos from Trump and Biden rallies, universities, marketplaces, and street corners with agony. For one, are these people who are being quizzed truly a representation of their entire party? I would say emphatically, no.
Most strikingly, the role of ‘citizen’ is a political office. We in the United States do not think about it that way. But, if we did, then we would be more inclined to participate in our electoral process.
What I didn’t like
For the most part, the book stayed politically neutral even though Lessig claimed to be a progressive. I still felt like the book was mostly fair to all sides. However, there were points in the book where it veered off-script towards a partisan bias. Notably, the book sharply criticized Senator Mitch McConnel (R-KY) for not allowing a voting rights bill called HR1 to be brought before the Senate for a vote. HR1, sponsored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), covered many of the topics that the book addressed like gerrymandering, ranked-choice voting, and campaign funding. Regardless of what side of the aisle you espouse, the book’s critique of McConnel sounded more like a jab than maintaining scholarly discourse.
I’ll concede, however, that the book’s critique of Senator McConnel could be justified. The frustration that voting rights became partisan through HR1 was a startling reminder that anything dealing with citizen’s rights cannot be partisan. They Don’t Represent Us ultimately achieved that objective to portray voting rights as non-partisan. At least, it should be non-partisan. But, the book fell short in explaining how to be non-partisan when dealing with voting rights.
Again, I’ll acknowledge that saying how to be non-partisan wasn’t the purpose of the book. It was a thought that I had while listening to the book that would have been good to address.
They Don’t Represent Us was a phenomenal book. I believe that leaders must know their government’s processes. Also, it’s vital to know them and participate in due process.
As citizens of whichever country we find ourselves, we must be aware of diverging viewpoints, issues, and solutions that contribute to society. That’s why They Don’t Represent Us is a powerful tribute to political literature.
Also, leaders must understand their roles and responsibilities in their own local communities. The federal government is one thing, but local government is another thing entirely.
Overall, They do not Represent Us is a wake-up call for leaders of all positions and ranks.
I give this book a solid 9/10.
If you want to buy They Don’t Represent Us, click here.
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.