Tale of a Failed Nomination: Lani Guinier Talks Social Justice


By Lani Guinier

Simon & Schuster

352 pp., $25

If anyone has the right to demand their good name back from President Clinton, it's not Paula Jones, but Lani Guinier. Within barely an hour of meeting with her, saying he had no problem with her views (only with how others presented them), Mr. Clinton accused her on national TV of being "anti-democratic" and withdrew her nomination to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Despite this provocation - a deeper attack than Clinton ever made against political foes - Prof. Guinier's book, "Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback Into a New Vision of Social Justice," follows the advice of Roger Wilkins, "You must see yourself as a woman with an issue, not a grievance."

The proposals Guinier explored - proportional representation and legislative supermajorities (such as the 60 senators needed to end a filibuster) - are widespread in democracies around the world. What set her apart was employing them to overcome racial injustice - which made her a target for conservative attacks. But they spring from a vision transcending zero-sum politics, which according to her can empower us all. That vision is the underlying subject of her book.

The book's first section, "Trials," deals almost novelistically with her experience as a nominee. It traces the evolution of her own attitude against a wildly gyrating political landscape with shades of character and nuanced interaction. It reads as if Toni Morrison were rewriting "Advise and Consent" with a dash of Lewis Carroll, or was that Kafka?

Here, the dominant story appears to be how the Clinton administration - tactically, strategically, and morally frozen - imposed a gagrule on Guinier while wildly distorted attacks went unanswered in the press, then abruptly abandoned her.

Section 2, "Bridges," looks back at voting rights struggles of the 1980s that shaped Guinier's thinking, paying particular attention to the importance of community self-organization, and the role of civil rights lawyers as facilitators serving the community, rather than substituting for it.

On one level, it provides the back story for Guinier's ideas. Using specific examples, it shows how the original intent of the Voting Rights Act encountered a new generation of problems, including the strategic use of seemingly innocuous practices, such as at-large, winner-take-all elections, which blocked blacks from effective participation in local self-government.

On a deeper level, the book is self-critical of the civil rights movement in general - including Guinier herself - for forgetting the importance of mobilized community-based social justice movements. Neglecting that foundation allowed Guinier's casual betrayal; rebuilding it matters more than any individual nomination.

In Section 3, "Hearings," Guinier revisits her proposals for reinvigorating democracy. Though always race-neutral, they responded to racially based problems. Now she approaches them more broadly.

Using a miner's canary as a metaphor for race relations, an early warning of neglected dangers affecting the body politic, she explores how proportional representation can benefit all Americans - and how we can adopt similar approaches toward other racially - coded issues.

Second, she discusses the idea of a national conversation on race, an idea she first advanced in 1993, immediately after Clinton withdrew her nomination.

As rich with insight and fresh ideas as the rest of her book is, it's worth reading just for her ideas on what a real, bottom-up national dialogue on race might look like, how it might mobilize and empower individuals and revitalize our democracy.

As Guinier reminds us, "democracy takes place when the silenced find a voice, and when we begin to listen to what they have to say."

* Paul Rosenberg is a writer in Los Angeles and a founder of Reason and Democracy.

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