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Gray Colloquium Speaker Dr. Lawrence Lessig on Reclaiming Democracy
Gray Colloquium Speaker Dr. Lawrence Lessig on Reclaiming Democracy

This year's fourth Gray Colloquium speaker in our "Democracy in the 21st Century" series, Harvard Law Professor Dr. Lawrence Lessig, spoke to St. Markers about reclaiming democracy in the United States. On February 17, in the Putnam Family Arts Center's Class of '45 Hall, Lessig argued that the country's "precariously majoritarian system" is about to become "predictably minoritarian" because of vote suppression, gerrymandering, money and politics. "We are at the precipice," Lessig told students. "My generation has taken a majority democracy and left you with a minority democracy."

Lessig's visually engaging presentation highlighted a couple of examples of minoritarian democracy in the United States throughout history: the 1924 all-white primary in El Paso, Texas and Tweedism, a technique attributed to American politician William M. Tweed who said: "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Minoritarian democracy, according to Lessig, undermines the principles of representative democracy, of a government for the people and by the people. He views the current state of the nation's democracy with great concern.

"The system is broken," Lessig declared. In the United States, "funding is its own primary." As he sees it, the wealthy primary funders vote and decide the candidates who "the rest of us" get to vote for in elections. In other words, our nation's democracy is responsible to funders. To support his argument, Lessig gave the example of "relevant funders," defined as those who donated more than $10,000 to a campaign; in 2018, there were 43,827 relevant funders, representing .02 percent of voters, "who mattered in campaigns" stated Lessig. He also cited a Gilens and Page study, which supported his claim that the interests of economic elites' and organized interest groups are adopted in this country, while citizen preferences do not change enactment; in his words, they have a "statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." Another problem, Lessig said, is the "new normal" in the Senate: the filibuster.

If the system is broken, as Lessig believes it is, then who will fix it? "You've got to fix it," he announced to the St. Mark's students. Why? Because this system, contends Lessig, "renders the U.S. ungovernable" and students and young people are "paying the price." He pointed out that Congress has not passed a single bill addressing climate change, and cited other issues in this country he feels are influenced by corruption, like gun violence, healthcare costs, and national debt.

"Your generation is the only chance to get democracy back," Lessig insisted in his concluding remarks. "I'm sorry we failed and left this mess with you. Now it's time for you to join this fight."

Dr. Lawrence Lessig is an academic, attorney, and political activist. The Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, he was a candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States in 2016. Lessig is also the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including: They Don't Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy (2019); Fidelity and Constraint: How the Supreme Court Has Read the American Constitution (2019); and America, Compromised (2018). You can read more about him here.

Photograph by Al Williams Photography