The State of Democracy

Fall 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014 – How New Hampshire Saved America

Americans believe our government is broken. According to a recent Gallup Poll, fixing the government is the most important issue for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. In this talk, Professor Lessig explains the fundamental corruption that has taken hold of our government and how we, the People, have lost touch with our Framers’ values.

New Hampshire has a critical role in restoring the Republic that the Framers promised. Professor Lessig examines how recent efforts—including the ongoing “New Hampshire Rebellion”—are mobilizing citizens to band together and form a movement capable of effecting fundamental and lasting change.

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014 – News and Democracy: Why Are Citizens So Misinformed?

A healthy democracy depends upon a well-informed citizenry. When cable and then the Internet came along, analysts spoke optimistically about the ability of these new communication channels to foster a better-informed public. Yet, the opposite trend has occurred. Ironically, media abundance is part of the problem. The rise of partisan news outlets and the emergence of journalistic techniques for attracting audience attention, such as excessive sensationalism and negativity, have contributed to the public’s misunderstanding of political issues. Also contributing is the decline in attention paid to news, particularly among young people, who, unlike past generations of young adults, are more attracted to entertainment content than to public affairs information.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but America needs a better form of journalism—one that more regularly delivers news that is relevant and trustworthy. The creation of such a form is a significant challenge both to news organizations and schools of journalism.

Thomas Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and author of Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism.


Monday, November 17, 2014 – Voting Laws Are Racist

Curtailing early voting. Felony disenfranchisement. Voter ID laws. Eliminating same-day voter registration. For the political right, these are necessary steps to eliminate voter fraud and protect electoral legitimacy. For the political left, these measures are flagrant attempts to keep their core constituencies from the polls. This talk empirically adjudicates between these views while locating the state-level consideration and adoption of restrictive voter access policies in the larger electoral context of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on campaign finance. We will assess the lessons for democratic responsiveness and differential policy messages sent by this latest round of ballot access legislation.

Erin O’Brien is associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the author of The Politics of Identity: Solidarity Building Among America’s Working Poor.


Spring 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015 – Who Has a Megaphone? Who Speaks in a Whisper? Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy

While inequalities of income are currently in the spotlight, political inequality receives much less attention.  A basic tenet of democracy is that the preferences and needs of all citizens should receive equal consideration.  Political voice—expressed when citizens vote, get in touch with public officials, protest, join organizations that take stands in politics, make political contributions, or otherwise take part in political life—informs policy makers of citizen preferences and needs.

Policymakers do not hear from everybody, and the people and political organizations they do hear from are not representative of the American public.  Those who express political voice, especially those who make financial contributions, are, on average, better educated and more affluent, and since the Supreme Court has taken the lid off campaign contributions, those with deep pockets are poised to speak even more loudly in politics.  If political voice is unequal, then democratic equality is jeopardized.

Kay Schlozman is the J. Joseph Moakley Professor of Political Science at Boston College and author of The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy.


Monday, March 9, 2015 – Convention, Culture, and Corruption: Democracy in Africa

The past speaks to the present, in an ongoing conversation on democracy as a political system, a model, and an adaptation. Africans do not define democracy as distinct from, nor outside of, the definition of development. That linkage creates a problematic question: can leadership and institutions that do not deliver development be treated as democratic? The lecture will argue that the Western-liberal definition of democracy is limited in its application, and that reading Africa through Western literature is not always useful. Democracy in Africa contains doses of militarism, authoritarianism, and prebendalism, while being constrained by the pressures of globalism.

Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria, a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, and author of The Power of African Cultures, Nationalism and African Intellectuals.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015 – Is the United States a Democracy or an Oligarchy?

In a well-functioning democracy, the preferences and needs of ordinary citizens help shape government policy. By this measure, American democracy is failing. To assess the influences on federal government policymaking, Gilens gathered data on thousands of proposed policy changes over four decades. His analyses of these data show that economic elites and interest groups have considerable sway over policy outcomes, and ordinary citizens have little or none. He’ll discuss what this research reveals about the failures of America’s democratic institutions, as well as the kinds of reforms that might give greater voice and political influence to ordinary citizens.

Martin Gilens is professor of politics at Princeton University and author of Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.