The Paula Gordon Show
Democracy's Experiments

Lani Guinier

      . . . is the civil rights lawyer who was nominated to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. She refers without bitterness to the very public withdrawal of that nomination, without hearings, as her "dis-appointment." A graduate of Yale Law School, formerly a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Guinier now is a tenured law professor at Harvard Law School. Ms. Guinier voices her passionate commitment to America and to democracy in her most recent book, Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice.

Excerpts3 min:36 secs

      America knows Lani Guinier's name but we never had the chance to hear her voice. When her 1993 nomination to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights was withdrawn before hearings were held, not only did she not get the job, her ideas were silenced.

      That's too bad, because Lani Guinier challenges America's smugness about our "winner-takes-all" political system. And she is passionate about democracy. When Lani Guinier talks about representation and minorities, she's talking about people's ideas, about self-definitions, not about race. She insists people who consider themselves a minority should have a voice based on their particular ideas, not just on where they live. That's what she believes our winner-take-all, single member, geographic districts now force on us.

      How we express ourselves in the political process has huge implications for our society. How do people share power? How do we get along? Lani Guinier is certain that the key to answering such vital questions is giving everyone a sense that they have a voice and that their voice matters. It doesn't mean that everyone gets to be right. It means that everyone gets to be heard. We can find ways to do that in our own local and state governments, as well as in emerging democracies.

      We need to restore the balance our frontier forbearers had between the needs of the individual and those of the community according to Ms. Guinier. She's confident how we vote can help us restore that balance. Yet, while voting is important, it is not enough. We have to participate. Which leads us directly to "community." Communities have to be earned and built, she assures us, they cannot just be asserted.

      How do we re-build community? Look to models where we've seen it's power. For Lani Guinier, that model is the Civil Rights movement. When she was an NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer in the 1980s, she experienced her clients connecting powerfully with each other and with her. Their resilience and dignity were a shining example for Ms. Guinier as she struggled through her notorious 1993 "dis-appointment."

      Give people the sense that what they think can matter, says Lani Guinier. Do it in families, in local communities, in school systems, in voting arrangements at the local, county, state and national level. We must all learn to think critically and to engage in conflict constructively, not shy away from it. Figure out how to learn from our differences. Because if we don't change, we don't grow. And that applies to democracies, too.

Conversation 1

Lani Guinier tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why she is passionate about democracy. Ms. Guinier explains how profoundly America is affected by our fundamental definition of democracy as "not the monarchy." She describes how emerging democracies are working to answer the question we have failed to address, "If the people rule, how do you share the power among the people?" Ms. Guinier describes the implications of American-style win-lose democracy, where winners get all of the power, losers get nothing and the stakes to win are very high.

Conversation 2

Ms. Guinier sees us applying to politics the thinking we use in our adversarial legal system, "criminalizing" politics. She characterizes our legal system as a one which assigns blame, not one designed to solve problems. Noting how many politicians went to law school, she uses a business example of the debilitating effects this win-lose attitude has, reminding us that she is herself a "recovering lawyer." She turns to people's differences as a source for innovative solutions to our many challenges, seeking ways creatively to engage the conflict she believes inevitable between people, drawing examples from families, business and government.

Conversation 3

Ms. Guinier suggests we need to restore the balance between the individual and the community which helped people survive our early days as a nation. She suggests we look back to models where we've seen community work. For her, the model is America's Civil Rights Movement. She shares stories from her days as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She describes how that experience helped get her through her "dis-appointment" in 1993. She builds from the civil rights experience to include all the big issues of today and tomorrow. She explains why she believes people in a participatory democracy must feel they can make a difference on the issues that matter to them, urging us to lift our voices, in harmony with others. She reminds us that voting is important in a democracy, but it is not enough. She expresses concern for large segments of our society who are, in effect, not represented by our current institutions and ways of voting.

Conversation 4

Ms. Guinier suggests Americans are too smug about choices made on our behalf long ago when the nation, it's demographics and the assumptions on which we were governed were radically different. She explains how other nations, newer to democracy, address similar challenges. She offers a dreary picture of what happens when people and institutions are not open to change. She starts with families in developing her ideas of being inclusive in how we are governed, not restricting to racial minorities the need to give people a voice. She gives examples.

Conversation 5

Examples of other forms of governing democratically continue, including the use of what is called "cumulative voting," now in place in a number of states in America at various local and county levels. Ms. Guinier relates voting patterns back to building communities and dealing with conflict among individuals and groups. She addresses the question of the apparent unwillingness of people in power to relinquish it and talks about the fundamental need for legitimacy in governing. She notes growing concern for an apparent erosion of legitimacy in America as reflected by low voter turnout.

Conversation 6

Ms. Guinier explains why democracy and education in a multi-racial democracy must both be about training people to have a critical voice and to foster the capacity to engage with others with whom we may disagree. She wants us to listen and to learn as well being able to state our own views and persuade others to them. Her tells a story from when her son was very young to demonstrate the advantages of "win-win" instead of "winner-take-all."


Ms. Guinier was extraordinarily gracious. We thank her for her wisdom, wit and openness.

Related Links:
Ms. Guinier's book Lift Every Voice is published by Simon & Schuster.

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