In This Review

We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America
We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America
By Jennifer M. Silva
224 pp, Oxford University Press, 2019
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They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy
They Don’t Represent Us: Reclaiming Our Democracy
By Lawrence Lessig
352 pp, Dey Street Books, 2019
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Silva and Lessig both seek to diagnose the troubled American electorate. Silva depicts a landscape of despair in which the social institutions that connect individuals to the “we” around them have largely disappeared. Lessig paints a searing portrait of a defective political system that is nonetheless full of hope, community spirit, self-empowered individuals, and ways to fix what is broken. 

Silva spent two years interviewing white, black, and Latino individuals in a declining coal town in Pennsylvania. They shared stories of trauma, violence, abuse, addiction, lack of health care, unemployment, and jobs that don’t pay enough to live on. The American dream—to give their children a better life—has vanished for them. Unions, churches, and community organizations play little if any role: Silva’s characters turn to themselves for answers to their pain and disappointment. They don’t expect help from the government and reject the idea that it could or should help others. Most of them voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Silva doesn’t expect much change in these conditions; any that occurs is likely to be “infinitesimal and slow.”

Lessig’s America could be on another planet. A passionate advocate of political reform, Lessig writes of what is wrong with “them” (the elites who run state and federal political systems) and “us” (the general public). He dissects gerrymandering; the winner-take-all Electoral College, which throws away the votes of most Americans; a U.S. Senate that over time has come to represent less and less of the population; voter suppression; and a corrupt campaign finance system. For all his railing against those who wield political power, he offers an even harsher take on “we, the people”: drenched in media but terribly ignorant and unable to see how bad personal choices add to collective costs. Still, the book ends with an unmistakable message of hope in extended stories of major political change, each starring an ordinary individual who was able to galvanize many thousands of others.