Hacking Democracy

Do we dare look under the hood of American democracy? Or do we have the suspicion that Supreme Court decisions and political battles conceal a drift into disfunction, decay and corruption, too? This week we’re asking our panel of estimable guests where the problems lie with our government, and how to go about fixing it.

Guest List
Zephyr Teachout
lawyer and candidate for governor in the state of New York, mounting an insurgent primary campaign against incumbent Andrew Cuomo
Lawrence Lessig
the Harvard law professor turned agitator of campaign finance reform, and the director of the Mayday PAC.
Hendrik Hertzberg
the New Yorker's political reporter and a supporter of the campaign for the National Popular Vote.
Reading List

The bad news first: The New York Times declined to endorse Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. Why? Because he didn't clean up Albany, as he promised — in fact, he ended up at war with the ethics investigation he started for that very purpose.

Jill Lepore looked at Zephyr Teachout's campaign, and the history of corruption in America, in The New Yorker: "The Crooked and the Dead." She's puzzling after corruption, and how to define it — other than as a kind of invisible influence exercised over the government. Its medium? Cold, hard cash.

On the Bill Moyers site, Robert Reich gives voice to a general downward drift in democratic vitality and a sense of confidence. At its center is a quantitative report out of Princeton, which finds that "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."

If you're looking ahead to a change, look for a left-right convergence on limiting state military power and corporate control (call it the Warren-Paul nexus). Or else, a public coming to consciousness against corruption, and for campaign reform, in the age of Lawrence Lessig's "Mayday" PAC.

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  • Ali

    The top 3 problems with the american two-party dictatorship we erroneously call democracy:
    electoral college

    • guest

      dont forget the commission of presidential debates which only allows the two party dictatorship to be heard by the general public, and the first past the post voting system which scares people into voting for one of the two main dictators for fear of splitting the vote

    • toto

      To abolish the Electoral College would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

      Instead, by state laws, without changing anything in the Constitution, The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by replacing state winner-take-all laws for awarding electoral votes.

      Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

      The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of Electoral College votes—that is, enough to elect a President (270 of 538). The candidate receiving the most popular votes from all 50 states (and DC) would get all the 270+ electoral votes of the
      enacting states.

      The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founders. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

      The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founders in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for
      President. States can, and have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

      In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

      Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic
      group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls, almost always in the 70-80% range or higher.

      in recent or past closely divided battleground states like CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA –75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%;

      in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE -74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%;

      in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and

      in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.

      Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

      The bill has passed 33 state legislative chambers in 22 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 250 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes –
      61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


      Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

    • Kunal

      Terribly low voter turnout as well.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    There’s a hidden link between the suborning and subordination of American politics through money, corruption, and fraud and the entire ROS series on WWI.
    The 1932 masterpiece by Louis Ferdinand Celine, “Journey to the End of the Night” (Celine himself went nuts contemplating the very phenomena he was describing) is about the landslide into nightmarish chaos that Europe led the world into via WWI. One might as well rename the novel, “Journey to the end of the nightmare.”
    If you compare Celine’s description of European corruption with the ROS “Hacking Democracy” discussion, you will immediately sense the bridge of kinship connecting the two eras, for all the differences: ie the truth-to-lies ratio going the wrong way and infecting everything like a virus:
    ”Wounded men in increasing numbers hobbled along the streets, in rags as often as not. Collections were made on their behalf….People lied fiercely and beyond belief, ridiculously, beyond the limits of absurdity: lies in the papers, lies on the hoardings, lies on foot, on horseback and on wheels.
    Everybody was doing it, trying to see who could produce a more fantastic lie than his neighbor. There was soon no truth left in town.

    And what truth there was one was ashamed of, in 1914. Everything you touched was faked in some way—the sugar, the aeroplane, shoe leather, jam, photographs; everything you read, swallowed, sucked, admired, proclaimed, refuted or upheld—it was all an evil myth and masquerade…

    A mania for lying and believing lies is as catching as the itch…It was enough to make you weep.”

    (Celine, “Journey”, paperback, New Directions paperback, page 50)
    This sense of a country re-making itself or morphing into a “lie factory” from the politics downward, the sense of truth being sucked out of the system, connect Celine’s WWI atmosphere to the “Hacking Democracy” ROS sense of an American “tipping point” going in the same general direction towards a political mendacity cancer permeating the system, as Celine says: “THERE WAS SOON NO TRUTH LEFT IN TOWN.”
    Footnote: you’ll notice that Prof. Norman Stone’s recent masterpiece “World War One” ends with a discussion of Celine’s novel.
    Richard Melson

    • I was told:
      A man went over a hill and saw game. He returned to the group and reported: ”I saw no game.” I was asked what this represented, the first time it happened.
      I said: “It was the first lie.”
      The teller said: ”No, it was the first time man changed reality.”

  • martinbrock

    Why do we believe that the United States has a “democratic” form of government, other than the fact that it says it does? The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea says the same, and we don’t take them seriously. Must a state be as totalitarian as North Korea to no longer deserve the populist label that it assigns itself?

    Quantitatively, how much do I actually decide my own fate in this “republic”? Discounting more local officials with negligible power, I may cast one of hundreds of millions of votes for a President every four years, one Representative biannually and two Senators every six years. That’s 1.5 bits of information per year on the average, and I rarely much like either of the candidates for any office. That’s “democracy”? That’s the people ruling themselves? Sorry, I’m not buying it.

    Our “democracy” is practically as Orwellian as the Dear Leader’s. It’s a difference of degree, not of kind. Would I rather live in North Korea? Of course not, but a wider range of choices would be nice. Would the architects of the U.S. Constitution have decreed anything similar if they’d had an interstate highway system, jet airliners and an internet? Of course not.

  • Paul Lauenstein

    Whatever your first issue, restoring democracy should be your second. To communicate that to the Supreme Court, we need a Constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people, and money is not speech.