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Joe Mathews

Los Angeles Is the Capital of America’s Democracy Crisis

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Los Angeles, a city of 4 million people, has just 15 city councilmembers. That's a problem, writes Joe Mathews. (Shutterstock)
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If the crisis in American democracy had a capital, it would be Los Angeles.

Joe Mathews

Opinion

This may be news to Americans who, in worrying about the nation’s democratic decline, obsess about developments in Washington, pronouncements from Mar-a-Lago, or election-related legislation in purple states. But in fact, it is L.A. — the nation’s most populous county — that best demonstrates the most fundamental failure of our democracy.

Democracy in this country starts with elected representation, and we Angelenos have less of it than Americans in the other 49 states. Angelenos are often accused of not paying attention to government and politics. But perhaps that’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, population four million-plus, there are just 15 city councilmembers. That means each councilmember represents 270,000 people, the highest such ratio in the country. At the county level, L.A. is even less democratic, with just five elected supervisors to represent 10.3 million people—those two-million-person local districts are among the largest in the world.

At the state level, Angelenos have the misfortune of being Californians, who suffer under America’s least democratically representative state government. Our state Senate districts, with nearly one million people each, and our Assembly districts, with 500,000 Californians each, are the largest in the country.

The Fewer the Representatives, the Better for Campaign Funders

And if that’s not outrageous enough, look at Washington. Californians, with just two senators, have the lowest level of representation in the democratic fraud scheme that is the U.S. Senate.

The House of Representatives, by guaranteeing one seat to even small states, gives Wyoming three times the electoral power of Californians. And with San Francisco kid Stephen Breyer’s retirement, there is not a single Californian on the nation’s real ruling body, the unelected U.S. Supreme Court.

This sorry state of democratic representation is undermining trust in government. In order to get elected in districts of such size and scale, our representatives must more pay attention to those who can fund their massive campaigns. That, in turn, explains why people with less wealth or fewer connections—especially women and people of color—are so badly underrepresented in elected office.

There’s Momentum to Expand Representation

The answer to this problem is straightforward: massively expand the number of our representatives at every level. That way, each elected official would represent a smaller number of people. And creating more positions would open doors for people with more diverse backgrounds and less attachment to political careers.

An America with larger local councils and legislatures would offer many more opportunities for everyone to serve, and would make money less determinative of who wins elections.

The good news is that there is real momentum for change here. L.A. city attorney Mike Feuer, now running for mayor, has called for doubling the size of the Los Angeles city council. At the county level, the new Citizens Redistricting Commission pleaded publicly for an increase in the number of supervisors, to reflect the region’s diversity and give people more voice in government. And state ballot measures to increase the size of the Legislature have circulated in recent years.

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

Lately, I’ve been talking with Californians about expanding representation, as part of a national campaign organized by Citizens Rising. One crucial lesson: If you want to go big in democratic representation, it’s essential to think small. Adding a few districts to our city council, or even a few hundred to the House, won’t bring people that 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.

Pandemic Reveals the Potential for Larger Councils, Legislatures

Yes, that might give L.A. county 200 supervisors, and create a House of Representatives of 6,000 people. But the pandemic has shown that large legislative bodies can gather and govern via digital technologies.

An America with larger local councils and legislatures would offer many more opportunities for everyone to serve, and would make money less determinative of who wins elections. Indeed, such larger bodies might be filled not just by elections but also by lot, in the manner of citizen assemblies now being used around the world to bring everyday people into decision-making.

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

About the Author

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

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