A delightfully provocative history and review of voting in America.
Conceived as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, this handbook about elections and voting will undoubtedly appeal to both first-time voters and those who participate regularly. Bassetti, a political professional who has worked with various judicial and legislative bodies, provides a history of the struggle to secure and broaden the franchise and an analysis of who votes and why. She outlines the working of the Electoral College, the multilevel patchwork of election administration and the role of political parties. Federal election law, she explains, is at the top of a pyramid encompassing more than 13,000 electoral districts, each of which can be subject to different legal and procedural regimes. The author's initial provocation is that the right to vote was not originally enshrined in the Constitution. Excluded as one of the compromises that ensured adoption, the right to vote entered via the amendment process. Elections, she writes, have been driven since the beginning of the republic by disputes between those who want to broaden enfranchisement and increase turnout, and those who want to suppress the vote. She argues that it is through such political conflicts, as well as the emergence of much broader movements for emancipation, women’s suffrage and civil rights, that progress has been made. Bassetti also historically and comparatively discusses election turnouts and the demographic characteristics of those who vote. Vote buying and fraud are presented in a historical context, which emphasizes that restrictive administrative and legal measures have a far greater effect on the vote than individual criminality at the polls. Four appendices provide documentation and access to additional resources.
A well-organized, important tool that will remain useful beyond the present electoral cycle.
Reich (Public Policy/Univ. of California, Berkeley; Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, 2011, etc.) spells out what he thinks citizens need to do to ensure Washington acts on behalf of the public good, not special interests.
Bill Clinton's former labor secretary reports that, due to the emails he receives, he is well aware of the electorate’s mood. He believes citizens must band together “without scapegoating or cynicism” on the basis of “moral clarity and undeniable facts” if they want to succeed. Reich writes that the basic bargain—“that employers paid their workers enough to buy what employers were selling”—underlying America's post–World War II prosperity has been violated, with the result of increasing inequality and poverty. This reversal reflects a deliberate choice, which Reich attributes to “regressives,” embodied by such officials as Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. They want to “return America to the 1920s—before Social Security, unemployment insurance, labor laws, the minimum wage,” etc. Still others, writes the author, want to go back even further, promoting a political revival of 19th-century social Darwinism to justify shameless inequality and survival of the fittest. For Reich, the Republican Party, which disavowed social Darwinism in the 1950s, is marching backward, but the author writes that the Democrats' “stunning failure” to offer an alternative has helped regressives gain political traction. The author outlines a series of organizing initiatives intended to broaden citizen involvement at all levels of government and provides a handy list of the “Ten Biggest Lies” the regressives are using to fuel their campaign.
Short and lively, this is a timely contribution to making the ongoing discussion more productive.
How community deliberative processes can provide an alternative to divisive party politics and technocratic expertise.
Community organizer Clark (co-author: All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community, 2005) and historian Teachout (Graduate Studies/Union Institute and Univ.; Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism, 2009, etc.) believe that genuine deliberations by citizens have too often been replaced by top-down political decision-making, in much the same way fast food has been substituted for the genuine article. The authors present case studies in which citizens have come together to solve problems faced by their communities. They cite the city of Portsmouth, N.H., which has won international awards for the way citizens acted together to solve problems confronting their school system when the experts failed. They chronicle citizen transformation of social services, such as Chicago's Police Department, and citizen interventions to take control of municipal or county water supplies. The authors highlight the way Pennsylvanians have organized against fracking through town and county institutions. Each of these cases, they note, was precipitated by a particular set of circumstances that needed to be addressed in a timely way. Clark and Teachout complement their case studies with discussions of useful methodologies to bring people together for common purposes and with a brief history of the New England town meeting format. The major problem local communities face, they write, is outside “efficiency experts” armed with charts and graphs and prepackaged solutions. The authors offer the history of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia, as a dramatic example of how “slow politics” works over an extended period of time to build something of lasting value.
A valuable tool for improving the way government operates at the local level.
Loyola Law School professor Hasen (The Supreme Court and Election Law, 2003, etc.) keeps us current as he catalogs the old horrors and contests and new laws involved in the U.S. election process.
Since the 2000 election, the 24-hour news cycle and computer-driven results have caused more contested elections than ever before. Especially notable are the Minnesota Senate race of 2008 and Wisconsin’s Supreme Court elections in 2011. The Wisconsin election hinged on the returns that the head election official had forgotten on her personal laptop and a local elections board official who didn’t “understand anything about computers.” Minnesota’s Coleman v. Franken took nine months to resolve, but as the author compares it to Florida in 2000, he notes that Minnesota’s superior handling was due to bipartisanship and transparency as well as the “niceness factor.” The cries of voter fraud that accompany every election rarely end in convictions, and Hasen points out that voter fraud is not worth the effort since the advent of the secret ballot. Selling votes only works with absentee ballots; the problem is that many of those ballots are never even counted. Republican demands for fraud prosecution that resulted in the firing of nine sttorneys brought attention to the partisan drive to control voting. The new voter ID laws in multiple states show just how far that control extends.
An astute but not terribly encouraging outline of the partisanship of election boards and the jockeying for power among local, state and federal officials.
Investigation of Arizona politicians who Biggers (Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, 2010, etc.) believes are anti-immigration, partly because of racism and partly because they are beholden to corporate agendas.
The author grew up in Arizona, noticing early in life that political and corporate leaders built on the narrative of the Wild West to thumb their noses at government intervention on matters of civil rights. Gov. Janice Brewer is one of many power brokers criticized by Biggers as a fearmonger and liar. Although the author’s language is sometimes intemperate, his extensive evidence gives the book authenticity. Biggers worries that other state legislators and governors will push inhumane and perhaps illegal legislation to drive immigrants back to Mexico. Although most of the book focuses on the past decade, the author is masterful at showing how the past is prologue. At one stage, numerous Arizonans would have rejected statehood because they worried the federal government would force them to combine with New Mexico, a territory populated by Hispanics. As he guides readers through Arizona's unusual path to settlement and then statehood, Biggers explains how carpetbaggers from the East Coast and other distant locales moved to Arizona to avoid winter weather and the melting-pot populations. As the ambitious carpetbaggers gained political power, often as Republican Party partisans, they sought a punitive rather than empathetic government. Biggers champions activists such as Cesar Chavez, who organized exploited immigrant laborers.
A timely book, especially with immigration policy playing a major role in the upcoming presidential campaign.
In his debut, gay rights activist Nicholson chronicles the successful fight for the repeal of the U.S. military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
DADT was first enacted in 1993 during the Clinton administration as a compromise to allow gays to serve in the military. Gay soldiers were still required to keep their orientation secret, however, and they could still be discharged for that reason alone. As such, DADT effectively kept the long-standing ban in place, and many gay and straight civil libertarians actively campaigned for it to be repealed. Nicholson tells his own story of being outed and ejected from the Army in 2002, which led him to activism. He writes of his feeling that the organizations already fighting for repeal weren’t communicating the message effectively to the general public. “We had the support of Joe Q. San Francisco...but we did not have the support of Betty and Bob Q. Omaha,” he writes. The author concluded that an organization of gay military service members was needed to help make people in Middle America listen. He got in touch with like-minded activists and, in 2005, founded what would become Servicemembers United, the largest organization of gay troops and veterans in the United States. Members met with political and military leaders, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and lobbied the Obama administration and Congress. The work of Servicemembers United and other organizations paid off: DADT was repealed and officially ended in September 2011. Nicholson’s narrative can be somewhat repetitive at times, and some of the minutiae of activist organizing may not interest casual readers. Still, he provides a rarely seen look at how activist organizations tirelessly work to build delicate alliances in Washington.
An intriguing look at gay activism inside the Beltway.
Anthropological take on the centrality of “message” to American presidential politics.
Lempert (Anthropology/Univ. of Michigan; Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, 2012) and Silverstein (Anthropology, Linguistics and Psychology/Univ. of Chicago; Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W,” 2003, etc.) argue that high-minded moralizing about the victory of style over substance in presidential campaigns misses the point about what really goes into the power struggles of “late democracy”—their term, following the Frankfurt School’s formulation of “late capitalism.” “Our intent is not to…join the chorus that criticizes the electoral campaigns…for embracing theatrics, personalism, style and brand,” they write, “but to detail in this way the life of our political communicators at work and the peculiar conditions under which they must now labor.” While critics of presidential politics may presume this to be a shallow approach, the authors dig deep in their examination of message creation—as it is manifested during debates, ads, speeches, gesture and even “bloopers” (accidental or intentional). In essence, Lempert and Silverstein find message to be a sort of telegraphed biography of a candidate—a “cartoon” or “grotesque,” they call it. A positive message (“maverick,” “decider”) is constructed by the candidate’s campaign, a negative one (“flip-flopper,” “un-American”) by the opposition. It’s what campaigns hope voters instantly grasp about a candidate’s “character” before casting a ballot, and it is largely pieced together for them by the media during the height of election season. The authors don’t so much condone these “peculiar conditions” as seem resigned to them, as evidenced by a cynical humor in their presentation that shares the stage (not always felicitously) with dry but precise academese.
A quirky, sharp and depressing analysis of the current state of campaigning.
Two Senate veterans stand up for a little-understood and much-maligned legislative tactic.
For more than a century, filibusters have been attacked as undemocratic, unconstitutional, obstructionist barriers to the work of the Senate, yet they have resisted all but the most tepid attempts at reform or elimination. Old Senate hands Arenberg, who served as an aide to three senators, and Dove, the body’s parliamentarian emeritus, rejoice in that fact in this brief celebration of each senator’s right to nearly unlimited debate. The authors demonstrate that senators’ positions on reform of the filibuster undergo almost hilarious changes as members of a frustrated majority become members of an embattled minority, suddenly aware that legislative efficiency may not be the highest political virtue. While the authors admit that this dilatory tactic has been abused far more than the historical norm in recent sessions, they contend that any fault lies not in the rules of the Senate but in the increased partisanship and lack of comity among the senators themselves. Far from exemplifying the Senate’s allegedly dysfunctional nature, the authors regard the filibuster as an indispensable brake on the tyranny of a potentially despotic majority, essential to the building of consensus around well-considered legislation. Remove it, they argue, and the Senate will become only a pale shadow of the House of Representatives, where the minority party is consigned to impotent oblivion. Arenberg and Dove effectively demystify the arcane rules and customs that make possible the filibuster and related tactics like holds and “filling the amendment tree,” and they explain why perennial reform suggestions like requiring old-fashioned marathon speaking filibusters or ratcheting cloture majorities will not work. Finally, they offer some modest suggestions for reform while adamantly defending the underlying right that they consider to be “the soul of the Senate.”
An impassioned and cogent defense of the Senate’s most controversial practice.
Talking points to help trade unionists and their supporters rebut conservative attacks.
Fletcher (co-author: Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, 2009, etc.), the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees, organizes his argument as a refutation of 21 “myths” that opponents typically use to discredit unions. His historical context begins in the early 19th century, when unionists fought bloody battles to win the right to organize. By the end of World War II, at the height of their power, unions had consolidated gains won during the New Deal. They were considered to be “a part of the so-called mainstream,” although their numbers never exceeded “35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce.” A turnabout began during the Reagan administration, when the president fired striking air traffic controllers. Fletcher makes a strong case that the slogan “right to work” is a misnomer because without a labor organization to defend their interests, individual workers are without job protection. In answer to the first myth—“Workers are forced to join unions, right?” he responds, “The phrasing of a right to work statutes suggest they are about freedom of choice. Actually, they are not. They are about weakening the ability of workers—as a group—from exerting any sort of power.” Throughout, the author elaborates on the theme of the necessity of workers to be free to organize in order to fight for their own rights and also to stand up for social justice. He suggests that deceptive language is deliberately used to disparage unions and that today, unions are becoming increasingly marginalized by unemployment and outsourcing. These circumstances can only be turned around, writes Fletcher, when people assume responsibility for fighting for social justice for all working men and women.
An effective presentation of the importance of trade unions in a democracy.
A 16-year veteran of Congress examines why political partisanship has become so dysfunctional.
Aspen Institute vice president Edwards charges that the political parties are private clubs that control the primary process, the electoral districting and the national political agenda. Believing that they “cannot be allowed to control our politics,” he presents a series of proposals intended to transform the processes of elections and governing. Edwards argues from his own experience that the political system is working exactly as it has been designed to work, as a vehicle for party advantage, intransigence and a constant battle for domination. The author documents how partisanship has increased since the 1980s and how gaming the electoral process through primaries has shifted power to the extremes of both parties, narrowing effective electoral choice. In the ’90s, Newt Gingrich arrogated more power to the office of speaker of the House, taking over committee appointments, setting the legislative agenda and dispensing other patronage on the basis of his own definition of party loyalty. Some of Edwards’ corrective measures include taking control of elections away from the parties by opening up primaries to all comers and ending gerrymandering. He also wants to ensure that political campaigns are paid for by people, not corporations, while reducing the need for massive money outlays. Our current system, he writes, “is ordained by neither the Constitution nor common sense.”
A spirited, well-constructed argument for reform that does not shy away from comprehensive solutions.
A cogent reality check of President Obama’s Recovery Act.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill, signed into law in February 2009, less than a month after Obama’s inauguration, proved the most important piece of legislation of his administration, yet was quickly excoriated by Republicans and overshadowed by the health care debate. The huge $787 billion injection into the collapsing economy inherited from George W. Bush was called a “massive boondoggle to our maxed-out national credit card” and allowed the ailing Republican Party to get its “mojo back.” In fact, writes Time senior national correspondent Grunwald (The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, 2007) in this detailed breakdown of the bill’s provenance, debate, passage and effects, the “stimulus” (no longer so-called because it became a bad word) contained the seeds of all that Obama had promised in his inaugural message of change regarding energy, health care, education and the economy, and has proved remarkably fruitful despite the bad publicity and slow growth in jobs. The author compares its importance in arresting widespread depression and worsening economic scenarios to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, although the stimulus was much larger. Further, Obama, unlike FDR, did not remain silent during the crucial transition period between administrations but embraced the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the bailout of the U.S. auto industry. Obama’s choice of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff strenuously communicated the need for urgency in acting, while the president’s stocking his economic team with Clinton insiders underscored Obama’s determination for a Keynesian “prime the pump” approach to saving the economy. Obama’s stimulus launched massive clean energy investments, electronic medicine, infrastructure repairs, high-speed rails, Race to the Top and 100-plus other forward-seeing programs.
A pointed, in-the-trenches study whose thrust will be borne out with time.
Lofgren draws on 28 years as a professional staff member in Congress to expose deep, disturbing trends in Washington.
“Creative and constructive work is always harder than demagoguery or fear-mongering,” writes the author. “We have had too little of the former and too much of the latter during recent decades.” Lofgren tears into Congress’ “high measure of low cunning,” especially among Republicans, whose use of “political terrorism” illustrates the party’s principal objectives: delay and gridlock, obstruction and disruption. They consistently play to their base but with no positive workable agenda, and the cries for a reduction of the debt are often followed by the desperate need to increase defense spending. Lofgren astutely points out that defense spending is the personification of inefficient spending, and it creates no jobs. As "chicken hawks" play to the crowd and their fears of illegal aliens, drug wars and terrorists, talk-show personalities stir up the more radical elements until rational thought can no longer be found. The author distinctly lays the blame for the current situation at the feet of the Bush/Cheney administration, which nearly perfected the propaganda with the War on Terror, the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. Lofgren certainly doesn’t excuse Democrats, who often fail to offer a good alternative; plus, they lack the fanatics that drive the far right. President Obama must also assume responsibility for continuing some of the more heinous practices of the Bush administration, though the author neglects to mention the fact that the obstructionist Congress has thwarted him at every turn.
A well-argued call for more sanity in American politics.