JOE MATHEWS: Why California is the real capital of America’s democratic crisis | Opinion

If the crisis of American democracy had a capital, it would be Los Angeles.

This may be news to Americans who, worried about the nation’s democratic decline, obsess over developments in Washington, statements from Mar-a-Lago or election legislation in purple states. But in fact, it is LA – the most populous county in the country – that best demonstrates the most fundamental failure of our democracy.

Democracy in this country begins with elected representation, and we Angelenos have less of that than Americans in the other 49 states. Angelenos are often accused of ignoring government and politics. But maybe it’s because our politicians don’t pay attention to us. They are too distant from us to represent us effectively.

In the city of Los Angeles, which has more than four million inhabitants, there are only 15 members of the city council. This means that each council member represents 270,000 people, the highest ratio in the country. At the county level, LA is even less democratic, with just five elected supervisors to represent 10.3 million people – these local districts of two million people are among the largest in the world.

At the state level, Angelenos are unfortunate to be Californians, who suffer under the least democratically representative American state government. Our State Senate districts, with nearly one million residents each, and our Assembly districts, with 500,000 Californians each, are the largest in the nation.

And if that’s not outrageous enough, look at Washington. Californians, with only two senators, have the lowest level of representation in the Democratic fraud system that is the US Senate. The House of Representatives, by guaranteeing a seat even to small states, gives Wyoming three times the electoral power of Californians. And with the retirement of San Francisco brat Stephen Breyer, there is not a single Californian in the nation’s true governing body, the unelected US Supreme Court.

This sorry state of democratic representation undermines trust in government. In order to be elected in ridings of such size and scope, our representatives must pay more attention to those who can finance their massive campaigns. That, in turn, explains why people who are less wealthy or less connected — especially women and people of color — are so severely underrepresented in elected office.

The answer to this problem is simple: massively increase the number of our representatives at all levels. Thus, each elected representative would represent a smaller number of people. And creating more positions would open doors to people with more diverse backgrounds and less attached to political careers.

The good news is that there is real momentum for change here. LA City Attorney Mike Feuer, currently running for mayor, has called for doubling the size of the Los Angeles City Council. At the county level, the new Citizens Redistricting Commission has publicly advocated for an increase in the number of supervisors, to reflect the region’s diversity and give people more voice in government. And statewide ballot measures to increase the size of the legislature have been circulating in recent years.

There is also momentum to expand representation nationally and across the political spectrum. In December, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published The Case for Enlarging the House of Representatives. The proposal would lift the 1929 cap on the House of Representatives. A resulting increase in the number of House Representatives would also increase the number of Electoral College members — mathematically, it would be harder for the loser of the popular vote for president to win the election.

I recently spoke with Californians about expanding representation, as part of a national campaign organized by Citizens Rising. A crucial lesson: if you want to think big in democratic representation, it is essential to think small. Adding a few wards to our city council, or even a few hundred to the House, won’t bring people so much closer to your representatives. Instead, the country needs a real commitment to keeping districts so small – between 30,000 and 50,000 – that we actually know our representatives.

Yes, it could give LA County 200 supervisors and create a 6,000-person House of Representatives. But the pandemic has shown that major legislative bodies can come together and govern via digital technologies.

An America with larger local councils and legislatures would provide many more opportunities for everyone to serve, and make money less of a determinant of who wins elections. Indeed, these larger bodies could be filled not just by election, but also by lottery, much like the citizens’ assemblies currently used around the world to bring ordinary people into decision-making.

Such changes would make the biggest difference in Los Angeles and California, where our democratic deficit is greatest. So the next time you hear public officials here saying they’re saving American democracy, ask them to start by giving us more democracy right here at home.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.


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