How To Hack(er) Our Democracy

Paul Bass Photos American democracy is sick, in the view of a local democracy doctor. His prescription: more democracy.

And that doesn’t mean just voting.

The democracy doctor is Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. He runs the university’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. A prominent author and opinion writer, Hacker has advised government leaders in the United States and abroad and was an influential voice for a public option in deliberations over crafting national health care policy.

These days he has focused much of his attention on the economic decline of the middle class and the loss of confidence and participation in American democracy (including in his latest book, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper). His concerns grew greater in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. He said he is wondering “whether democracy can survive.”

“I don’t think it’s a question I have ever asked before,” Hacker said Wednesday during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. “I turned 46 yesterday —  so in my adult life I’ve seen very big scandals. Iran-Contra. The impeachment of President Clinton. And the George W. Bush presidency. But I’ve never questioned whether our democracy could survive.”

He spoke of the growing inability of the political system to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to the new global economy’s impact on American workers. He spoke of voter ID laws that have restricted the ability of many low-income people to cast ballots. He spoke of government “dysfunction,” the evaporation of responsible business-sector civic leadership, and the inability of people to obtain legitimate information awash in a wave of fake and slanted news. (The New York Times’s Eduardo Porter tackled the same questions Wednesday in this incisive column.)

“We really need in this era of more than ever to teach people how to be informed consumers of and users of information. We are awash in information. But much of it — more of it than ever — is suspect,” Hacker argued.

In light of the stated agendas of the incoming Republican Congressional leadership and the Trump administration, Hacker called for citizens to participate in a “broad-based movement” that will “defend and protect certain core individual rights. I see that threat in manyy places, notably in the taking away of fundamental voting rights from significant of the voting public.”

He also called for systemic changes in U.S. government.

“I am not a fan of every state getting two senators,” he said. “I am not a fan of a state that has only two escalators in the whole state — Wyoming — also getting to have two senators. It is a tiny little state with a tiny population. As a result a voter in Wyoming has something like 60 times the influence of a voter in California in the Senate. It doesn’t make any sense.”

While changing the two-senator rule may be a long shot, Hacker said, the country needs in some way to address how the concentration of black and Latino voters in cities ultimately runs up their voting power in those districts, but overall diminishes their national political power. He supports some form of proportional representation or “ranked” voting. (Read about that here.) “The fundamental issue is the system involves enormous amounts of wasted votes,” he said.

And he called for fixing gerrymandered districts that have helped polarize the country and produce gridlock in Washington.

Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full interview with Jacob Hacker on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven.” You’ll learn what “autarky” means.

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posted by: wendy1 on January 6, 2017  12:46pm

Lucky to have this guy in town.  I completely agree with him and others concerned about our society’s chances of remaining mostly democratic.  There are many threats and already a diminished Bill of Rights.  Trump wasn’t the beginning but he may be the ending.  If we dont pay attention and if we are not willing to speak up and act up, then I fear for the worst…..think rise of the Third Reich but with more violence, better weapons.  Orwell, Huxley, Churchill, Eisenhower, King, Malcolm, Baldwin, Hansen, McKibben, and so many others warned us.

Change must come to us politically, socially, economically, and soon.  Most of our institutions are stale and long due for tune-ups if we want to remain a civilized species and beat out cockroaches for control of the planet.

posted by: Brutus2011 on January 6, 2017  2:08pm

I agree and disagree with Dr. Hacker’s main points as I understand them from this article.

I agree:
“We really need in this era of more than ever to teach people how to be informed consumers of and users of information. We are awash in information. But much of it — more of it than ever — is suspect,” Hacker argued.

This is really a call for an electorate educated in critical thinking—something that has been called for for decades now. Public education has not performed well here for whatever reasons.

I disagree:
“I am not a fan of every state getting two senators,” he said. “I am not a fan of a state that has only two escalators in the whole state — Wyoming — also getting to have two senators. It is a tiny little state with a tiny population. As a result a voter in Wyoming has something like 60 times the influence of a voter in California in the Senate. It doesn’t make any sense.” Hacker

The Senate structure of 2 senators per state was a compromise so that the House structure according to population would be balanced or the large states would not overpower the smaller states. I see no argument put forth by Hacker to change this system that I agree with.

Now about the electoral college outliving it’s usefulness, etc.
I agree that change(s) should be seriously considered.
I would like to see the institution continued but instead of a winner-take-all electoral votes from each state have the electoral votes be distributed by the total vote percentages. For example, if a state has 10 electoral votes and Candidates A and B each gets 51% and 49% of the popular vote, then each would get 5 electoral votes instead of Candidate A getting all 10.

posted by: Renewhavener on January 6, 2017  2:10pm

*Head shaking slowly*

“He spoke of voter ID laws that have restricted the ability of many low-income people to cast ballots.”

Laws requiring proof of who you are seems quite a basic criteria for any functional adult.  So we want to enable dyfunctional voters, while demanding functional government?  Odd.

“He spoke of government “dysfunction”...”

Dysfuction is the only natural outcome when infinite expectations collide against finite resources.

“...the evaporation of responsible business-sector civic leadership…”

Ah!  An evaporation rooted in a neo-risk-management culture born out of instability and over-regulation, you mean?  Hard to expect a career academic to “get it” when they haven’t had any measure of business-sector responsibilities in their lifetime.

“...the inability of people to obtain legitimate information awash in a wave of fake and slanted news. (The New York Times’s Eduardo Porter tackled the same questions Wednesday in this incisive column.)”

Preposterous.  There is more access to information and potential for clarity now via the internet than there ever has been in human history!  What is lacking is the research and critical thinking necessary to validate and form an independent opinion.  Instead we have tried to boil all of that down to a “like” or “retweet” button.  Why think when there’s an app for that.

“And he called for fixing gerrymandered districts that have helped polarize the country and produce gridlock in Washington.”

Not a root cause issue, but agreed.

So recent political outcomes have caused you existential doubts Mr. Hacker? Indication of your youth and inexperience maybe?  Perhaps broadening the context of your comparative evaluation beyond the recent past or even beyond the late 20th century may steady your nerves.  While I am, for my own reasons, unhappy with the outcome, the fact that neither party has been able to sustain a permanent hold on the office is manifest evidence that they system is functioning as intended.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 6, 2017  2:31pm

I don’t know what Hacker’s problem is with how our Senators are apportioned.

The way the Founders set stuff up, Legislation is first approved in the House, which is proportional representation. 
As a final approval before going to POTUS, The Senators ratify the legislation.  This the ‘State’ vote., and no one State has an advantage in the final outcome.

Along those same lines, when looking at the question of proportional electors—I think it makes the most sense for the each district to cast their 1 elecotoral vote based on the will of the people, and for the two Senators Electoral votes to be cast based on the will of The State.  (btw—I did a mock analysis of this past election using this method—Trump still wins)

Things have taken a step forward though—Senators were once elected by the State Legislatures.
The 17th Amendment changed that to a direct vote of the people in 1913.

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 6, 2017  2:36pm

Et Tu Brutus!

Funny that we were on the same wavelength—
Our posts crossed through the ethersphere, unbeknownst to each other…

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 6, 2017  4:40pm

This election was stolen with the system call Cross Check. Hey paul get Greg Palast on the show.

Greg Palast

Look up your Name
on the Crosscheck Voter Purge-List

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/bestdemocracy/182803637

Jim Crow returns
Millions of minority voters threatened by electoral purge

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2014/double-voters/

posted by: alphabravocharlie on January 6, 2017  5:03pm

Most voters are uninformed so any increase in knowledge would be beneficial.

Consider all news from all sources fake or st least biased and slanted and seek your own truth.

Stop with the Nazi comparisons. Hype and hysteria do not inform.

Nobody complains when their candidate wins. As, of all people, Joe Biden said, “It’s over”. Start thinking about finding a viable candidate for the next go round.

posted by: OhHum on January 6, 2017  7:28pm

I think it’s fantastic that every once in a while there is a change in gov’t that allows wingnut liberals the opportunity to voice a completely irrational missive as the one above. Does losing an election really affect the left in such a hysterical manner? Let’s do it some more.

posted by: TheMadcap on January 7, 2017  12:11am

The Senate is a dumb anachronism that there is no rational defense for in an era where states are negligibly important beyond the fact they exist as governing units. Many people never left their home county in the 1780s through their whole life unless they joined the military and the federal government had litttle daily impact on most people. Millions of people now cross state lines just to get to work in the morning and he federal government has immense impact on your day to day life. You cant even point to the supposed wisdom of the founding fathers when a good deal of them didn’t even think it was a “good” idea, it was just the only compromise that was going to move us past the Articles of Confederation. And even the ones who did like it on principle could never forsee the largest state having 65x the population as the smallest(For perspective in the 1790 census, Virgina had about 11x the population of Delaware and 1/3 of Virginia’s population was slaves on top of it)

“Does losing an election really affect the left in such a hysterical manner?”
Yes i remember when conservatives took Obama’s election with such grace. Rednecks literally burned effigies. At least Obama actually won the votes, Trump just won the system in place

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 7, 2017  12:14am

Brutus,

I also ran an election scenario as you described, apportioning out the electors based on the state vote—in this scenario, too, Trump comes out on top (By one electoral vote, mind you).  The other thing I noticed was that in larger states like California, there are enough electorals that a third party like Gary Johnson picks up an elector or two here and there….running at 2% isn’t much, but if you have fifty electors, you can pick up two votes…

Then there is also the problem of ‘rounding error’, which apportioning by district avoids…in other words it’s a box of Pandora’s…

posted by: wendy1 on January 7, 2017  9:33am

So far, it looks like the cockroaches are winning.

posted by: vpaul on January 7, 2017  11:35am

Education is the key to a successful democracy, and possible improvements should be discussed. The original founders expected us to keep re-examining our Constitution and keep improving it

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 7, 2017  3:24pm

Wendy1,

The only cockroaches are the ones that don’t participate in the process.

posted by: vpaul on January 7, 2017  9:29pm

It doesn’t really matter what Hacker’s opinions are as long as it gets a discussion going. The founders really expected future generations to examine our Constitution and find ways to improve it. They knew they didn’t have a perfect formulation. That’s in fact why they added 10 or 12 amendments in the first years of operation.

posted by: Brutus2011 on January 8, 2017  1:15am

I have to say that the Framers intended the Bill of Rights or the 1st 10 amendments to attach as soon as possible.

The Anti-Federalists (whom I identify with somewhat hence my pseudonym Brutus) stressed that most state constitutions had such protections against the national government’s excesses and the national fundamental law document required similar enumeration.

The Bill of Rights was meant to be included almost immediately.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on January 8, 2017  12:00pm

Can’t believe we’re having a conversation about Electoral College reform without naming and linking to the legislation, (that our Democratically controlled statehouse has failed to pass):

http://www.nationalpopularvote.com

“The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Explanation It has been enacted into law in 11 states with 165 electoral votes (CA, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA).  It will take effect when enacted by states with 105 more electoral votes.  Most recently, the bill was passed by a bipartisan 40–16 vote in the Republican-controlled Arizona House, 28–18 in Republican-controlled Oklahoma Senate, 57–4 in Republican-controlled New York Senate, and 37–21 in Democratic-controlled Oregon House.  It has passed one house in 12 additional states with 96 electoral votes (AR, AZ, CO, CT, DE, ME, MI, NC, NM, NV, OK, OR).”

posted by: Bill Saunders on January 8, 2017  10:12pm

In the History Books, they will write about our failed Democracy - the analysis will be short:

Technology grew faster than the Government’s ability to control the information.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on January 9, 2017  5:51am

The evaporation of civic leadership is occurring because American citizens are not personally participating in the true, good, and beautiful. Americans have lost the personal interest in having a firm disposition towards categorical goods and instead look for others to have their desires fulfilled and then blame them for their unavoidable personal dissatisfaction.  Classical liberalism presupposes for its continued existence a citizenry that actually practices objective virtues for the price of freedom.  Modern liberalism creates equality, which is indeed precious, but then does not communicate how worthy it is to personally participate in this objective good because it is too busy looking for injustices that for the most part have entirely disappeared. This is the education that Americans need: how good we have it and how we each personally have the duty to personally participate in making our lives conform to the truth by practicing goodness, which is indeed beautiful.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on January 9, 2017  9:39am

I should also state that apart from the education of appreciation that we might impart in our citizens, we might also consider teaching them the fundamental truth that we do not live under a democracy in America.  We rather have a republican government, whose representation elects those for whom we vote. If we do not like the results of the electorate (the representation for which our Founding Fathers fought), we have to wait for the next election cycle and get out the vote.  It is unjust to claim that there are any real objective impediments to voting.  People just do not want to vote, which brings me to my point that we need to impart objective moral goodness in our citizens if our Republic is ever to recover the hope of ages past.

posted by: Brutus2011 on January 9, 2017  10:35am

I believe a core reason we are experiencing this (hopefully) political hiccup, is income inequality.

The statistics are staggering. In fairness, not everyone agrees. Check the links below for differing views
http://inequality.org/income-inequality/   
https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/five-myths-about-economic-inequality-america

Another reason is the notion that big government is giving away free money to folks who don’t want to work. Or that cutting taxes for the wealthy and big business (not small business) will result in investment and more jobs.

The only thing that increases investment resulting in more jobs is increased demand.

When you cut taxes for the wealthy, they do not invest it in hiring workers unless there is increased demand. Thus, the way to increased prosperity is to put money in the hands of consumers not as conservatives continually say.

Conservatives are the most disingenuous political creatures ever to exist, imho. Of course, liberals aren’t far behind.

And now, we have the Repubs in control of the legislative and executive branches of gov’t.

I hope folks pay attention the next couple of years and vote in two years accordingly.

posted by: Renewhavener on January 9, 2017  1:23pm

@Timothy G. ORourke Jr. “...It is unjust to claim that there are any real objective impediments to voting.  People just do not want to vote, which brings me to my point that we need to impart objective moral goodness in our citizens if our Republic is ever to recover the hope of ages past.”

Well put.

@Brutus2010 “I believe a core reason we are experiencing this (hopefully) political hiccup, is income inequality…”

Perhaps that is why our fair city is considering paying someone to perform a “Community Wealth Building Assessment”.  Not sure how encouraging it is that they were only able to generate interest from one firm to respond to the RFP:
http://www.cityofnewhaven.com/PurchasingBureauOnline/uploads/Respondents List 2017-12-1144.pdf

posted by: William Kurtz on January 10, 2017  11:39am

@Timothy O’Rourke Jr.:

This is some next-level nonsense:

Modern liberalism creates equality, which is indeed precious, but then does not communicate how worthy it is to personally participate in this objective good because it is too busy looking for injustices that for the most part have entirely disappeared. This is the education that Americans need: how good we have it and how we each personally have the duty to personally participate in making our lives conform to the truth by practicing goodness, which is indeed beautiful.

Where do you get the idea that injustice has “for the most part entirely disappeared”?

Oh and this:

“I should also state that apart from the education of appreciation that we might impart in our citizens”

sounds much more appropriate for North Korea. Please excuse those of us unwilling to engage in infantile shows of ‘appreciation’ for our ‘dear leaders’.

posted by: Timothy G. ORourke Jr. on January 10, 2017  1:05pm

@ Mr. Kurtz
Hello, I am not quite sure what you mean.  Do you mean that people in North Korea should be happy with their lot or did you think that I was propagandizing for our representatives?  If the former, there is no greater country than ours.  If the latter, my remarks clearly put the onus on our citizens in the vein of “Ask not what your country can do for you…”  As far as my remark about injustice, I just do not see anybody getting any more of their due than they can possibly expect save by their own efforts. If you chose to respond, please suppress the ad hominem. In any case, peace to you, Sir.