Saturday, June 27, 2009

Book Review of Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny

The bottom line: the Liberal Arts Dude gives a hearty standing ovation to Theresa Amato for writing this book. I give it an enthusiastic five out of five stars! Why the overwhelmingly positive review? Let me explain by illustrating with a story about ordinary people seeking a change to the status quo to something better resembling the promise of democracy.

In more than one occasion in online forums which discuss social and political problems in the U.S., I have observed people say that they are sick of seeing professional politicians pay lip service to reform and solving problems but who, upon closer inspection are ineffective, corrupt, or turn out to be uninterested in reform despite their political rhetoric.

The disgruntled citizen then offers him or herself as a viable alternative to the status quo and announces his or her intentions to “throw the bums out” by running for office. The citizen seeks to prove that an honest and concerned citizen can do much better at cleaning up American politics than the traditional, professional politician.

For every concerned citizen who has ever felt this way and are serious on a run for electoral office I suggest very strongly that they first read Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny. This book should be required reading for those who seek to make a difference in American society and who aims to make that difference by using political office as a vehicle for social and political change.

I would even assert that every concerned citizen should read this book as a guide to where the roots of the problems lie and to distinguish real, effective reform efforts from non-issues that sidetrack reformers and which distract from what truly needs to be done to reform American politics.

The book, in large part, is an exhaustively-researched and documented chronicle of the pitfalls, traps, lopsided and unfair rules and regulations, legal and procedural hurdles in the American system of running for political office for those who operate outside the traditional major parties, the Republicans and Democrats.

Grand Illusion will strip away any illusions the average, civic-minded citizen might have about the notion of fair play, fairness, efficiency and ease of participation for political outsiders in American politics. In fact, the author puts to question the oft-boasted claim of traditional politicians that America is a shining beacon of democracy, that it values democratic practices and does its utmost to encourage democratic participation among as many and as wide a range of individuals among its citizens as possible.

In reality, the author Theresa Amato argues that the rules for political participation are lopsided overwhelmingly in favor of the two major parties. Third parties and independents are at a distinct disadvantage by design of the two major parties who govern and make up the rules for political participation in the U.S.

From rules surrounding ballot access, signature requirements for candidates to get on the ballot, redistricting rules which favor incumbency, control of the governing bodies which make up the rules for elections (the Federal Election Commission and Congress) to who gets to participate in televised debates the major parties have made it so onerous, financially expensive, and a nightmare to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the political process. These processes of course, largely exempt candidates from the two major parties.

Thus, just starting out of the gate, third and minor parties and independents—most likely cash and resource-strapped shoestring operations already—are very much at a disadvantage. And this is just to enter the ring.

Amato also describes in great detail—using the Ralph Nader 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns that she headed as case studies—what happens when a third party or independent candidate presents a legitimate challenge to the two major parties. She presents in mind-numbing detail the outrageous and dirty tactics the Nader campaign experienced largely in the hands of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic party sought to prevent the Nader campaign from getting into the ballot in as many states nationwide as possible. To make this happen they initiated a campaign of harassment, intimidation of campaign volunteers, sabotage, outright threats and even bribery. Most outrageous and maddening were Amato’s description of the Democrats’ strategy of tying up the Nader campaign’s resources, time and energies in expensive litigation and lawsuits.

More than just a disgruntled person with an axe to grind, Amato is a practicing lawyer and activist who is deeply knowledgeable about the strategies needed to fix the flaws of the political system. To this end she details nine important court cases that need to be revisited at the Supreme Court level in Chapter 5.

In addition, in the Conclusion, among the many great ideas for reform she proposes are:

  • eliminating the Electoral College

  • consider adopting alternative methods of voting which remove the spoiler factor in voting for third parties and independents such as Instant Runoff Voting

  • add an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution

  • Federalize Federal elections

  • adding third-party and independent representatives in the Federal Elections Commission and the Election Assistance Commission to make them truly non-partisan

  • federal financing for federal elections

  • free airtime for all candidates regardless of political party

  • rewarding low-donor campaigns or PACs

  • adding proportional representation at the federal, state and local levels to make them more participatory

  • Adopt a binding NOTA (none of the above) option in elections

  • The Commission on Presidential Debates should be reconstituted as a nonpartisan entity

  • Move Election Day to the weekend to encourage greater participation

  • Remove administration of federal elections from partisan secretaries of state, state election boards or their subsidiaries

  • A permanent, national registration of voters

Regardless of how you feel about Ralph Nader, third parties, and whether or not you consider yourself an independent, Grand Illusion is a book that is, first and foremost, about the practice and procedures regarding democratic participation.

Yes, the book is largely, about democratic participation among those who are marginalized in American politics—those most likely to go against the grain and take on public stands on controversial topics which need to be addressed in the public sphere but the two major parties are reluctant to touch.

But if you believe that in a democracy, that every vote should count, that people should be given a wide spectrum of political options that truly reflect their beliefs and values, and that society should encourage, support and reward political participation and civic-mindedness among its citizens, Grand Illusion is a book that you should read.

The book largely outlines how American society and government in modern times largely fails to live up to the promise and ideals of participatory democracy. But if you care about such matters you owe it to yourself to shake up your perspective of the stability, fairness, and essential benevolence of the American political system. Once your equilibrium has been disturbed by this book hopefully it will spur you into seeking out and joining with the reformers who seek to turn to practical reality the ideals of democracy and democratic participation.


The Angry Independent said...


This is easily the best post you've ever done here. Maybe your best ever....

You hit on all the key points. I used to discuss this quite often here.

It's so frustrating to see all the obstacles that are built into our phony system that are designed to prevent genuine participatory democracy. It has created a charade.

I will try to post this book (and a few others on my list) to the sidebar over the next few days.

Unfortunately i'm working on a broken computer (have been for at least the past year) everything I do with the blog takes forever.

Good read... thank you.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Many thanks AI! As a blogger who strives to take this craft and medium seriously, your kind words mean a great deal.

The author (Theresa Amato) is on a book tour and will be stopping by Washington DC on Tuesday at Busboys and Poets. I will attend her talk and perhaps even get my copy of the book signed.

This is definitely a book that deserves to be read widely and taken seriously by those who take participatory democracy seriously. I'm an avid reader of political books -- especially those that deal with political reform and which give insightful and spot-on critical perspectives. Grand Illusion is easily one of the best books I have read in that vein.

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]adding proportional representation at the federal, state and local levels to make them more participatory[/quote]

My friend Rikyrah:

Could you define what "Proportional Representation" means?

What are the constructs?

* Race?
* Gender?
* Sexual Preference?
* Age?
* Education?
* Economic Strata?

and of course:

* Ideology?

Thus should a Gay Philippino Female Conservative With A Masters Degree but is Poor deserve a protected slot in your system?

A few months ago you were calling for a "Progressive Only Democratic Party". Have you been smitten with CHANGE since then and now seek a more open system?

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Hello CF

For a definition of "proportional representation" try this link from Wikipedia.

In a nutshell it is a reform designed to allow third and minor political parties and independents who are not members of the two major parties (Republicans and Democrats) a voice and representation in the legislative arena.

From Wikipedia:
Proportional representation (PR), sometimes referred to as full representation, is a category of electoral formula aimed at a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates (grouped by a certain measure) obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive (usually in legislative assemblies).

Liberal Arts Dude said...

And yes, if a "Gay Philippino Female Conservative With A Masters Degree but is Poor" gets a substantial amount of votes in an election for a position in political office, proportional representation will allow her to take office instead of being shut out if she isn't a member of the two major political parties. Her taking office would be because she won the seat fair and square instead of, as you seem to insinuate, because of some special protected category.

rikyrah said...

This is an excellent post, and I'm glad you did this.

Anonymous said...

consider adopting alternative methods of voting which remove the spoiler factor in voting for third parties and independents such as Instant Runoff Voting

A) IRV does not eliminate the "spoiler factor". E.g. in the last mayoral election in Burlington VT, a group of voters who preferred GOP>Dem>Progressive would have gotten a better result by insincerely top-ranking the Democrat.

B) Score Voting (aka "range voting") effective does fix this problem, and is simpler and superior to IRV in essentially every way you can name.

C) This is more important to breaking duopoly than probably every other issue combined, since e.g. Nader wasn't able to get more than around 10% of voters who preferred him to vote sincerely, even THOUGH he got ballot access and (by definition) had enough money to convince the other 90% of those voters that he was the "best candidate".

I would suggest a read of William Poundstone's Gaming the Vote for anyone who cares about actually fixing this problem.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of proportional representation -- it probably won't get very far in the USA unless we first adopt Score Voting.