The response to Lance Armstrong's admissions is ghoulish

If Americans are so invested in their sporting heroes that they are distraught when they turn out to be merely human then that's the nation's sickness, not just Armstrong's.

Last night more than three million people gazed at a man's eyes, waiting greedily to be the first to spot a tear. When he finally did break down, in describing the pain of admitting his crimes to his oldest son, the public reaction to his grief was glee.

Yes, Lance Armstrong lied. Worse, he also embarked upon bitter and unfounded lawsuits to maintain his lies. He was a bully to those around him, a hubristically unpleasant and arrogant man, and that is not to be defended: bullying is heinous. But – and this is the crux of the issue – we don't go after footballers with rape convictions with as much bile as we reserved for this man.

The Guardian's first words in the story covering last night's interview were therefore, "Lance Armstrong cried." The New York Times opened on "Amid tears." The New York Post did similar. So did ABC News. And Fox, E! Weekly. And the Daily Mirror. What is this obsession with tears? We saw it first in Britain after Princess Diana died – the national outpouring of grief that led to anger at those who were actually mourning at their failure to show weakness. What catharsis is it for the mob to see the strong break down and cry? What vindication does it represent?

Last night the words "public betrayal" was being thrown around, as if Armstrong had sold the nation out to its enemies instead of simply admitting to cheating. If I was a non-doping cyclist, I said on Twitter last night, then I would have been rightfully cross. But it looks as if those were pretty few and far between in Armstrong's era anyway.

I'll admit it: Armstrong was never my hero. I don't cry at sports games. Nor would I feel the victim of treason if, say, Bradley Wiggins or Jessica Ennis's performances in summer – which I enjoyed immensely – turned out to be spurious;  they would have been, to borrow a teachers' cliché, only letting themselves down. (I should point out that there is absolutely no reason to believe this might be the case.)

Yes, Armstrong started a charity by selling a narrative of sporting prowess that turned out not to be genuine. But he did genuinely overcome cancer to get there; moreover, Livestrong does and always did good work. What's honestly better – to tell the truth, and not save other lives, or lie to start a successful charity?

Moreover, there is something else at play than mere egotism. Sport is an industry in the US that so depends on such 'heroes' to sell products to the rest of us that they will turn a blind eye to almost anything, from doping to sexual violence unless it risks tarnishing their image – and pay them astronomical amounts of money to do so. Armstrong is set to lose more than $75m dollars in sponsorship money.

America, a young nation, idolises its heroes more much more than we British do. We look at ours with a sort of nostalgic fondness; just look at Michael Sheen's portrayal of Brian Clough, or Gary Lineker's self-deprecating advertising work for Walkers' crisps. We like a bit of weakness in our heroes; a touch of the bottle, maybe; a spot of darkness. America, in contrast, is the nation that invented the Hall of Fame: here, sporting heroes are golden calves to be worshipped unconditionally. That's why, when Armstrong or Tiger Woods turn out to be merely human, it hits fans so brutally, as a personal betrayal.

Armstrong has a tremendously long way to fall. But if Americans are so invested in their sporting heroes that they are distraught when they turn out to be merely human – egotistic, fame-hungry, and all the rest of it – then that's the nation's sickness, not just Armstrong's.

A man watches Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey in a bar in downtown Los Angeles. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.