by Jeff Mandell, Senior Associate at Stafford Rosenbaum LLP in Madison, Wisconsin. Jeff is also the Chair of the newly formed ACS Madison Lawyer Chapter.
Spend two days attending a participant-led conference about the ideas that should shape the future. That tempting invitation led me, a litigator in Madison, Wisconsin, to Washington, D.C. last week for Vox Conversations. The editorial team at Vox.com convened 150 invitees and asked us to raise and examine questions about how things could be different. It was just that open-ended and vague—how could things be different? Vox.com editor-in-chief Ezra Klein urged conference-goers to pursue and explore big ideas, without letting “the strictures of this political moment” constrain our discussions. My hope, as I tweeted out ahead of the conference, was that Vox Conversations would provide insightful discussions of policy—and maybe a little law. But Vox Conversations, like last summer’s ACS National Convention, reminded me that law and policy are rarely discrete spheres of inquiry but, ideally, intertwine with and inform one another.
The conference discussions were all over the map and covered a tremendous swath of intellectual territory. There were conversations about the prospect of increased government surveillance and about beneficial government uses of big data. I hosted a conversation about how the proliferation of guns is changing our society and I participated in a fascinating discussion on whether America suffers from too much democracy. Much of the conference was strictly off-the-record (admittedly an interesting choice for a conference convened by a media company), with a stated goal of allowing greater space for participants to think out loud, to express incompletely theorized ideas and to change their minds in the midst of robust give-and-take.
Among the on-the-record portions, I was particularly struck by Vox.com’s Matt Yglesias expanding upon his prediction that increasing ideological rigidity in our political parties will lead to persistent gridlock and, in turn, to a collapse of American constitutional democracy. Yglesias posits that our system of checks and balances, carefully calibrated for the world as the Framers understood it, is ill-equipped to handle our contemporary politics. Yglesias’ theory has a certain logical appeal, but I remain unconvinced, even after questioning the idea at the conference and continuing to turn it over in my mind for several days since.