On Tuesday, Nov. 7, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie reflected on the status of democracy today and its historical context for the annual Gilbert Lecture. The talk took place in Kohlberg Hall’s Scheuer Room and was hosted by the department of political science and co-sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
Bouie is a respected voice on race and politics in the United States. Born and raised in Virginia, he graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009. Since then, he has written about national politics at The Daily Beast and was chief political correspondent at The Slate for five years. In addition to his current role at The New York Times, he also works as an analyst for CBS News. Bouie has contributed to books, podcasts, shows, and blogs, as well as photographic work on race, politics, film, entertainment, and culture. Often acclaimed for his ability to introduce a historical lens to rapidly shifting current events and dynamics, Bouie has risen to fame for his ability to explain politics in the Trump era.
The Gilbert Lecture began with introductory remarks by Assistant Professor of Political Science Susanne Schwarz. Schwarz referenced Professor Emeritus Chuck Gilbert as the namesake and honoree of the Gilbert Lecture and then introduced Bouie.
Bouie began by challenging the audience to question the meaning of democracy.
“When we say democracy, do we mean just elections and the ability to choose our leaders? Do we mean protecting the political and civil rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to bodily autonomy? Do we mean a government that simply is responsive to the needs of the public at large? Do we need something like all of the above?” he asked.
Bouie went on to reject this premise and reframe “democracy” as a “belief in the fundamental political equality of all people in the society.”
Bouie then suggested how we might implement that reframing of democracy in society.
“A democratic society is one in which we try to make that belief a reality through structural features and various institutional arrangements. A democratic society is one where there is effective participation. Where there is equality in voting. Where there are opportunities to learn and gain a deeper understanding about political life. Where there is an ability amongst the public at large to exercise real control over decision-making. And it’s a society where, for the most part, all adults can have some part in the process,” Bouie explained.
To diagnose the problem with American democracy, Bouie rejected the idea that Americans should look at things like the controversy over the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the past month as “the problem.” Bouie argued that the problem is less superficial or recent, stating he’s “not sure when American politics has not been dysfunctional.” He continued on to proclaim his thesis: the problem with American democracy is and has always been a “fundamental lack of political equality in the system.”
The moral promise of democracy, Bouie said, is that it “roots the right to govern in the intrinsic worth of the individual, not some arbitrary notion of talent or ability.” Bouie later argued that this moral promise is “part of why democracy holds any appeal in the first place.”
Bouie acknowledged the various threats to that moral promise and claim of democracy throughout history and today. He also encouraged the audience and the country to not let the fear of “being at the awful mercy of our fellow citizens” overcome political actions and beliefs. As Bouie explained, such a fear is both the result and the cause of political inequality.
One threat to political equality he referenced was the representational structure of the U.S. Senate, something that Bouie calls an indication of unequal voting power. Bouie pointed out that in 1790, the people of Delaware, then the smallest state, had twelve times the voting power to elect senators than people in Virginia, then the largest state. Now, in 2023, that difference has only widened, and trends point to it getting even wider. Voters in Wyoming, a predominantly white state, Bouie points out, have 67 times the voting power of people in California, a much more diverse state, to elect Senators today. With population trends, it is possible that by 2040, 50%of the population will only have sixteen senators representing them. The Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and the rights of states to organize their own laws further opens the system up to political inequalities.
Bouie transitioned to discussing a way forward for American democracy. He told the audience that he believes that despite the many problems with American democracy, “we’ve maintained a surprisingly democratic political culture … and it’s within this broader democratic culture that we can find some of the intellectual resources to renew and expand the institutions of American democracy.”
Regarding the House of Representatives, Bouie endorsed eliminating gerrymandering, enlarging the chamber, and changing voting methods to make the House more representative. In regard to the Senate, Bouie suggested extending voting rights to citizens of U.S. territories, splitting up larger states, and reducing the Senate’s influence over legislation. Bouie also discussed rethinking policies about voting rights for felons and incarcerated individuals, the Electoral College, and more.
“In general, I think that the pursuit of political equality means taking every step possible to level the playing field for as many Americans as possible.” Citing the lack of constitutional amendments in recent history, Bouie commented, “And I think that this refusal to tinker has left us vulnerable to some of these functions in our political system.”
The talk ended with Bouie’s call to action in the form of a compliment to the Founding Fathers. He remarked that the leaders who constructed the U.S. government “had the real audacity to change their political system in the face of crisis, and in the face of what they felt was real urgency. They rejected arguments for mere reform. They rejected arguments for even caution and incrementalism. They rewrote the rules of the system.”
During the Q&A, Bouie touched on topics like the philosophy of voting, economic inequality in politics, the media, and the competition of elections. In response to a question about voter apathy, Bouie argued that people on all sides of the political aisle must rethink how they approach voting.
“We have this very individualistic approach and way of thinking about voting. I think that’s actually quite detrimental to getting people to vote. I think it is easier to get people to vote if they think that ‘This is an obligation I have to the people around me, this is a thing I’m doing because I’m engaged in this collective project.’”
Bouie also stressed the need to align political movements to economic causes, something that will prove pivotal as we go into the 2024 election cycle.
“There’s a reason why the March on Washington in 1963 was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom … for as much as our political system could be more democratic, certainly, our economic life could be more democratic.”
Referring to the media, Bouie referenced the decline of local news as a potential culprit.
“I wonder if the seemingly terminal decline of local and regional news is part of the story of rising polarization. People pitch in both on things that they have no influence over, and also things are just geared towards inflaming the passions.”
Ending the event with the controversial topic of term limits, Bouie discussed how increasing the competitiveness of elections was a better response to problems for which term limits are purportedly solutions. Whether by guaranteeing a floor amount of funding for campaigns, altering redistricting processes, or expanding the chambers of Congress, Bouie told the audience that solutions other than term limits could increase political energy, level the playing field between incumbents and challengers, and improve representation.