Do we have fair elections? Can we? Do we have equal representation? Can we?

Continuing with my 50th reunion, check out this map of Pennsylvania’s second Congressional district, which is actually not the most gerrymandered in the country, although it’s in the running. It illustrates what I had expected when I decided to go to the symposium on “Fair elections and equal representation.” Since I teach a unit on the mathematics of elections, I was looking forward to a different perspective — one that might include a discussion of gerrymandering, a topic that gets short shrift in my unit.

Gerrymandering was discussed — very briefly — but the focus was almost entirely on Citizens United, which I should have expected from the symposium description. Obviously a lot of us were interested in fair elections and equal representation, since the classroom was quite literally standing-room only; the organizers had booked a classroom that holds 120, but that turned out to be not nearly enough space. Fortunately for me, I arrived early as is my wont, and found a great seat in the second row. (The three other competing options offered at the same time were “Dance—shared movement,” “Leadership, Harvard, and You,” and “Why Harvard Medical School is the leader in aging reversal research.” How popular would you have expected the elections symposium to be?)

Moderator Charlie Cooper was low-key, passionate, and well-informed. His hope was clearly articulated:

Harvard certainly gave me a good academic education, but I am saddened, because I worry that confusion of prestige with merit has driven many graduates of elite universities to devote their lives to chasing wealth and power. I’m hopeful that in retirement more of us will find fulfillment in the public square, where we can strengthen real human freedom, equality, democracy, and sustainability.

As for me, I’m not so worried about the Harvard class of 1969 in this regard — I’m worried about my recent students in the Weston classes of 2009–2019. Too many of them confuse prestige with merit. I didn’t see that so much in my own Harvard classmates.

Anyway, back to the symposium. “People in Congress spend way too much time talking to rich people,” Cooper observed, and Citizens United has greatly exacerbated the problem. Money is the problem for a democracy; I don’t have the data, but Cooper claimed that more than half of all Americans have a net worth ≤ $0. So, can the Citizens United decision be reversed? There are several ways that could happen, but none seem very likely in the near future. One is for the Court to change its mind, one is a constitutional amendment, and one is to pack the court. The bulk of this symposium was about the second path, an amendment to the Constitution. Cooper is active in a political action committee called Wolf PAC, and his entire presentation was focused on getting the audience to support their work. As many people know, there are two ways to amend the Constitution, starting with either an act of Congress or a call by 2/3 of the states for a constitutional convention; though he’s not a lawyer, Cooper claimed that the legal consensus is that the fear of a “runaway convention” under the second path is unjustified, as 3/4 of the states would still need to ratify any proposed amendment.

Anyway, this was definitely much more of a discussion than the other events I attended, as was signaled by Cooper’s decision to sit on a desk the whole time rather than standing at a lectern. The only thing I don’t understand is this cryptic remark written in my notes in my own handwriting: “Constitutions are the Gary Cooper of the legal world.” What do you suppose that means? It surely can’t be what Charlie Cooper said, even though they share a last name!

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning, Weston