How social media has undermined our constitutional architecture

Article by Danielle Allen: “Our politics are awful. On this we all agree. Often we feel there is nothing we can do. Yet there are steps to take. Before we can decide what to do, though, we have to face squarely the nature of the problem we are solving.

We face a crisis of representation. And — put bluntly — Facebook is the cause.

By crisis of representation, I do not mean that the other side’s representatives drive us all crazy. Of course, they do. I do not even mean that the incredibly negative nature of our political discourse is ruining the mental health of all of us. Of course, it is. What I mean is that the fundamental structural mechanism of our constitutional democracy is representation, and one of the pillars of the original design for that system has been knocked out from under us. As a result, the whole system no longer functions effectively.

Imagine that a truck has crashed into a supporting wall for your building. Your building is now structurally unsound and shifting dangerously in the wind. That’s the kind of situation I’m talking about.

In that abstract metaphor the building is our constitutional system, and social media is the truck. But explaining what I mean requires going back to the early design of our Constitution.

Ours is not the first era brought to its knees by polarization. After the Revolution, the nation was grinding to a halt under the Articles of Confederation. Congress couldn’t get a quorum. It couldn’t secure the revenue needed to pay war debts. Polarization — or as they called it — “faction” brought paralysis.

The whole point of writing the Constitution was to fix this aspect. James Madison made the case that the design of the Constitution would dampen factionalism. He argued this in the Federalist Papers,the famous op-eds that he, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote advocating for the Constitution…

Madison couldn’t anticipate Facebook, and Facebook — with its historically unprecedented power to bind factions over great distances — knocked this pillar out from under us. In this sense, Facebook and the equally powerful social media platforms that followed it broke our democracy. They didn’t mean to. It’s like when your kid plays with a beach ball in the house and breaks your favorite lamp. But break it they did.

Now, the rest of us have to fix it.

Representation as designed cannot work under current conditions. We have no choice but to undertake a significant project of democracy renovation. We need an alternative to that original supporting wall to restore structural soundness to our institutions.

In coming columns, I will make the case for the recommendations that I consider most fundamental for a 21st-century system of representation that can address our needs. The goal should be responsive representation, which means representation that is inclusive of our extraordinary diversity and, of course, simultaneously effective. Our representatives get stuff done.

Increasing the size of the House of Representatives is one recommendation from a bipartisan commission on democracy renovation that I recently co-chaired. The report we produced is called Our Common Purpose. …(More)”