By Hillary Smith
A broken and corrupt U.S. Congress threatens America’s representative democracy, said a Harvard Law Professor in his Wednesday speech at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s 74th annual Forum.
“At the core of our democracy, there is a hole where our framers imagined there would be a Congress,” Lawrence Lessig said.
Lessig addressed a crowd of more than 300 men and women in Schofield Auditorium on Wednesday. His speech focused on the broken system currently at work in the U.S. Congress and how it is negatively impacting America’s democracy and people.
Lessig argued all the problems politicians are called upon to fix, including racism, student debt, and social security, are impossible to change until the core issue of Congressional corruption is addressed and reformed. Lessig highlighted three central issues in this broken system, including unequal voting abilities, unequal representation, and the dysfunctional financial system driving the U.S. government.
Lessig first called for equal voting abilities. According to Lessig, 10 million Americans had to wait 30 minutes or more to vote in the 2014 presidential election. Working Americans are negatively impacted by such conditions, creating an unequal voting system, said Lessig.
Lessig argued another issue in Congress is the unequal representation, which he highlighted with examples of gerrymandered districts. Gerrymandering is a process where politicians manipulate boundaries to work in their favor, increasing their likelihood of being elected or re-elected.
“We’re creating a system in America where the politicians pick the voters rather than the voters picking politicians,” Lessig said.
According to Lessig, these inequalities in voting and representation are proof of America’s failing democracy.
The third point Lessig focused on was the financial system at work in Congress, which he considered to be the most major issue of all. Lessig said candidates go through a “money primary” before anything else, where the focus lies in raising enough money to be a viable candidate.
He said the power to choose candidates then lies with big funders, which is only .02 percent of the population. Since that minority controls the money, candidates adjust to win the approval and financial support of the big funders, leaving the remaining 99.98 percent of the population voiceless, Lessig said. Biased nominations result in candidates only representing the interests of the .02 percent, he said.
Lessig explained the elite candidates in both parties end up focused on financial needs, leaving a hole for more extreme candidates like real-estate mogul Donald Trump or Democrat-Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. However, Lessig reiterated the elected candidate is not relevant; until Congress undergoes systematic reform, no other changes can be accomplished.
According to Lessig, two obstacles face Congressional reform: there is no government entity in place with the ability to repair a broken Congress, and there is no presidential candidate brave enough to try and make the changes America is ready for.
Community member Kristi Hagen complimented Lessig’s remarks, “I think he’s really pulling out the biggest problem we face,” Hagen said. “ … we have a completely frozen government.”
Janice West, who lives in Eau Claire, also agreed with Lessig’s points on Congress corruption. “Gerrymandering is an absolute crime … it means the people have lost their voice,” West said. “A revolution can’t happen in my lifetime, but maybe it could in yours.”
At the end of his remarks on the threat facing America’s representative democracy by a broken Congress, Lessig called for commitment to solving the problem, “On our watch, we have lost that republic, and we have to find a way to act now and get it back.”