Friday, May 06, 2016

The Mysteries of the Cycle Revealed: Votes of Confidence: A Young Person's Guide to American Elections by Jeff Fleischer

"If there's one thing we know for sure about American government, it's that a lot of Americans don't know much about it.

An Annenberg Center study showed that only 36 percent of Americans could name the three branches of the United States government, while another 35 percent could not even name a single branch.

So that's one problem. Another is that voter turnout in American is lower than it is in a lot of other countries."

Generations educated since the Baby Boomers, when "civics" studies were required as an assumed bulwark against Communism, clearly don't know much about how our election system works, and for that matter, much about how our various governments work at all. Many think elections are an activity of the "government," particularly the federal government. While the appointed and fairly weak Federal Election Commission and thereby the Justice Department is charged with seeing that the Constitutional right to vote is fairly observed, state and local governments mostly run elections with largely part-time and volunteer workers, (often partisans) and the choices for office are virtually dominated by the political parties--private voluntary associations that are mostly free to make their own rules about candidates and electioneering. The current kerfuffle, in which the leading candidate of one party is suddenly shocked (SHOCKED! I say!) that the party he chose has wide latitude in how delegates are selected for their proprietary conventions to choose a presidential nominee, surely shows that even the candidates themselves can have abysmal levels of knowledge about how our election cycle rolls.

With such ignorance rampant in the electorate, it's no wonder some discouraged realists think it's a good thing most of the electorate stays away from the polls.  But that's not the system our Founders foresaw  and the promise our nation believes in.  Jeff Fleischer's slim paperback volume, Votes of Confidence: A Young Person's Guide to American Elections (Zest Books, 2016), takes on the challenge of explaining the election cycle to secondary students and for the most part the author deserves a 21-gun salute for his cogent and readable exposition.

He begins with "American Government 101" in which he explains the enormous compromise arrived at by the Constitutional Convention that enabled the country to exist at all--the "Great Compromise" that settled the dispute between large and small states which gave every state two senators and each state proportional representation by population in the House of Representatives.  Fleischer goes on to trace the development of the political parties in an essential chapter on the role of political parties in American elections and how they shape elections by changing rules, fund-raising, and particularly their choice of candidates.  His chapter on "How Voting Works" also digs deep into the history of voter law and process and how each evolved through history. A following chapter "What's Going On" takes a long look at the history of electioneering--"dirty tricks," blanket advertising, polling, including "push polling," and the more recent phenomenon of candidate debates.

There's a lot there to take in, enough to make this readable book an excellent textbook for a high school or even college course. With clarity, succinctness, and a bit of ironic wit, this book is a definite first choice for high school and public libraries, for young people approaching voting age and for adults (e.g., those who can't name the three branches of federal government and the balance of powers that it provides to keep us going) to read almost everything you need to know before you vote! Kirkus Reviews gives this one a well-deserved starred review, saying, "Fleischer's primer tenders a wealth of insight in a generous and welcoming manner." And boy, do we need that insight!

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