How to Reform American Democracy

Topic: Historical Precedent

Michael Waldman:  There have been a lot of other times in the country’s history when people looked at their government, looked at the institutions of government and said you know what, it’s not working anymore.  It’s not right for this moment.  We’ve gotta fix things.  The Progressive Era, a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, people from top to bottom said you know what, we need a different kind of government, and they created stronger national protections for food safety.  They began conservation and they did all these things that we now live with in the federal government, and they reformed their politics.  They passed all kinds of changes in how politics worked, including having senators directly elected by the people, just as one example.  There have been many times throughout the country’s history, whether it’s the progressive era, or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, or even if you want to look at it that way, the Reagan revolution of cutting back on government, where people looked at their institutions and said you know what, we need a change.  There’s nothing baked in the cake that says that we can’t have that kind of focus now.

Question: What are your specific recommendations?

Michael Waldman: In very significant ways, our democracy is broken.  It needs repair.  And a lot of the progress that’s been made in recent decades, we’ve really fallen back.  You have this remarkable situation right now in 2008.  On the one hand, there’s a huge upsurge in citizen engagement, in interest, more people voting, more people giving campaign contributions in small dollars through the Internet, all these signs that the public is deeply excited and engaged about politics.  On the other hand, our government’s broken.  Our democracy badly needs repair.  We have tens of millions of people who are not registered to vote because of flaws in our voter registration system.  You’ve got campaign spending going up fivefold in the past quarter century, the number of lobbyists tripling in Washington, D.C. in the past decade.  These are all things that have been around for a long time, but they’ve gotten worse and they’ve compounded.  And so the sense that Washington and national politics is stuck, that special interests are keeping action from taking place on key issues, the voice of ordinary citizens is frozen out, and that politicians are caught up in this crazy system of chasing after money and spending much of their time fundraising, that’s all real and it’s something people are waking up to the need to change.  And when you have that sense of public engagement colliding with
broken institutions, throughout our history, that’s when you get real change.

Voting is the heart of democracy, and we need to make it so that everyone who wants to vote can vote, everyone who wants to register can register, and every vote that is cast is actually a vote that is counted.  Today our voter registration system is a remnant of a time when we set up all these rules to keep former slaves and Irish immigrants from voting 100 years ago.  There are tens of millions of people who today, aren’t on the voter roles because they slipped off when they moved or for all the other kinds of reasons.  There is no reason that we could not have universal voter registration in this country.  We should just make it a policy that every adult citizen who’s eligible to vote is registered to vote, whether they move, they’re registered.  If we did that, and it’s easy for the government to do it, we would make it so that the politicians no longer are spending their time trying to appeal to the narrowest part of the electorate, but they know that on election day, everybody might show up and that would change politics.  Another thing we need to do in the area of voting is make sure that everyone who votes has their vote counted.  Now there’s been a move toward electronic voting machines since the year 2000, since the Florida debacle, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But my group, the Brennan Center convened a task force of top computer scientists from all over the country, including the federal government to look at these new electronic machines and ask well are they really safe?  Could somebody hack the machines?  Could somebody tilt the election?  There’s a lot of worry, a lot of conspiracy theories.  What are the facts?  And what they’ve found out was that every single one of the electronic systems is, in fact, very vulnerable, very vulnerable to hacking, to fraud and to error.  You know it turns out even paranoids have enemies when it comes to electronic voting.  The good news is there are all kinds of fixes that could solve the problem, including a paper record and auditing to make sure that the machine’s really counted the vote.  Unfortunately, while many states have made some of the changes, there are no states that have made all of the changes, so there’s still a risk that votes that are cast won’t be properly counted in this November, and there’s still a lot to be done in that area. Another set of changes that would really help democracy has to do with making sure that elections are competitive and that the voices of ordinary citizens are what the politicians are listening to.  Campaign finance reform is something people have been worried about for a long time, but it’s really gotten much worse, and there’s now an opportunity to make it much better.  What I think we ought to do is move to a system of public financing of elections, especially for congress.  Congress, right now, is gridlocked with special interests.  Members of congress have to raise their money from lobbyists.  They have to raise their money from the people who want something out of government.  It’s one of the reasons very little happens, or certainly, very little that’s good.  If you go down to Washington, D.C., you want to look for a member of congress, a lot of the times, go down a block, not to the capital, but to the campaign committee offices and you’ll see the members of congress sitting there in little warrens dialing for dollars.  It’s not like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  It’s like Glenn Gary, Glenn Ross.  I mean it’s not what you want your elected officials to be spending their time doing.  And they don’t like doing it, either.  There’s an opportunity now to pass reforms that would liberate them, give our elected officials real independence and give the voters a bigger voice.  If you had public financing of elections, as you have in places all over from Arizona, which is quite conservative, to Maine, which is liberal, to New York City, what you would have is candidates who qualify, would get public money.  And there’s a way of doing it that would really boost one of the best developments.  One of the best things that’s happened in this election is the explosion of small contributions, mostly to Obama, but to other candidates also, that has democratized fundraising and made it so that fundraising is a form of organizing.  And it’s small dollars.  It’s not the big bucks.  We could make it so that that’s how congress gets elected, also. 

Right now, that small dollar revolution is just a rumor in congress.  They’re still raising their money overwhelmingly from big interests.  But if you had a system of matching funds, especially something like if I give $100 to a candidate, then the matching fund is 4 to 1, which is the way it is in New York City’s elections, then you would boost ordinary citizens.  You would make it so that every $10 contribution suddenly mattered to the politicians.  You would force the people running for office to do some organizing in their communities, and you would change and greatly diminish the power of special interests in Washington.

Question: What is preventing campaign finance reform?

Michael Waldman:  Well when it comes to campaign finance reform, very often the people in office don’t think like liberals or conservatives.  They don’t think like democrats or republicans.  They think like incumbents and most incumbents benefit from the current system.  It’s how they got there, and they can always out-raise their opponent.  But what is happening that’s exciting is that there is a real movement among people in congress to change the system.  You’ve got people in both houses who have said okay, now is the time to move to public financing.  John McCain and Barack Obama are big supporters of public financing, so there is a real moment here where you could have, I hope, bipartisan support for something that’s very real.  And that would change America.  It really would.  If people want to have healthcare reform, if they want to see action on climate change, if they want to see a fairer tax code, whatever it is you want, it’s going to be much, much easier to do it if we had a different campaign finance system, if we had universal voter registration and deep reform of our democracy.  Another big change that would make a big difference is in the electoral collage.  One of the things that’s been very thrilling in this election is to see all these primaries in all these states all over the country, places like Indiana, and South Dakota, and North Carolina, Guam, all these places that don’t have, usually, a really competitive election.  Well the bad news is now that the general election has started, a lot of these places are never going to see a candidate again, because suddenly, everyone’s worried about a few states.  And it sometimes feels like these presidential elections are just held in Ohio and maybe Florida.  And if we had a national popular vote, we would not have the phenomenon which has happened four times of the guy who comes in second winning, and we wouldn’t have the phenomenon of the candidates campaigning only in a few states and basically leaving out the rest of the country.  Now you know how do you get the end to the Electoral College?  You need a constitutional amendment, which can be done, but is very hard.  But there’s actually a way to bypass the Electoral College that doesn’t need a constitutional amendment.  It’s called national popular vote, and it’s basically an agreement among states.  A state will pass a law, as Illinois, and Maryland, and New Jersey and others have done, said we will cast our electoral votes for whoever wins the national popular vote, as long as enough other states do it also, so that that’s who wins.  And if you get enough states to do it, then you’ve ended the Electoral College as a practical matter, even without a constitutional amendment.  And if the Electoral College didn’t matter, you would see candidates going to where the votes are, not just those handful of swing states.  And again, that would be a big deal.

Michael Waldman unpacks his vision for a strong democracy.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.