Democracy for Beginners (For Beginners)

democracy-header.jpgFor those who buy into the rhetoric that America’s "big government" is bad, this history of the democratic process has one simple message: don’t hate, participate.




116 pgs., B&W; 14.95

(W: Robert Cavalier; A: Reuben Negrón)

I’m not sure when "government" became a swear word, but it plays that role surprisingly often in American political discourse these days. Consider the citizen in South Carolina who told Rep. Robert Inglis to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." Or the departing governor of Alaska who reminded everyone in her farewell address that they must "resist enslavement to big central government that crushes hope and opportunity."

In case you didn’t catch the irony in those two statements, Medicare is a hugely popular government program and Sarah Palin secured about $27 million in federal earmarks for Wasilla, AK (population 6,700) while she was mayor. Clearly Americans aren’t against government when it’s giving them stuff, whether subsidized health care or $15 million to build a railroad connecting one undistinguished town with another. So why are political stratagems which incorporate railing against the government so often successful, even among people who are themselves recipients of government largesse?

The cover to Democracy for Beginners. Click for a larger image.I’m going to take a charitable view and ascribe the success of this type of rhetoric primarily to ignorance on the part of a large proportion of the American public, who understand neither the history of our system of government nor how it functions today. Despite all the free and mandatory public education on offer, we seem to have done a remarkably poor job in educating people to be informed citizens. But the anti-government crowd may also be expressing frustration at their apparent inability to influence public officials: voting dutifully in every election won’t get you very far if it’s lobbyist money that really talks.

Scorning the whole process may be fun but is ultimately futile while a little self-education and empowerment is more likely to lead to a positive result. Or at least that’s the theory behind Robert Cavalier’s Democracy for Beginners, which allots about half its pages to history (from Athens in the 6th century B.C.E. right up to today) and half to analysis of philosophic and practical issues relevant to democracy. It provides an interesting overview of a complex topic while expressing a definite point of view: Cavalier (currently a Senior Researcher in the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics at Carnegie Mellon University) wants more people to get involved in the democratic process at the local level.

Democracy for Beginners is not a textbook or a cram book for passing exams, and it’s definitely not the place to look for diagrams about how a bill becomes a law. Cavalier’s end goal is not mere knowledge acquisition but empowerment:  to this end he describes several techniques which have proven successful in increasing participation. Although this is the sketchiest section of the book and can be grating if you’re not looking to drink the Kool-Aid right this moment, it should be useful as a resource for grassroots organizers looking for practical advice about how to engage people in the political process.  

Democracy is a big topic and no one could do it justice in just over 100 pages. Cavalier’s approach is to name a number of important ideas and people (mostly white men, alas) organized chronologically and thematically, with the implied assumption that the reader can follow up on topics which connect with them. He provides only brief source notes, but given the ubiquity of electronic search engines these days it shouldn’t be hard to find references relating to the key words and historical figures named in the text.

Illustrations by Reuben Negrón generally complement the text and reinforce major points, although they’re more often adequate than outstanding. There’s an overall sketchy quality to the book’s layout and sometimes the illustrations look more like adaptations of public domain clip art than original drawings created to enhance this particular text. And here’s a pet peeve: by drawing some of the Ancient Greeks as statues Negrón emphasizes how distant they are from us today, while I would have expected that he would have wanted to stress the continued relevance of their ideas. | Sarah Boslaugh




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