Increasing ‘Political Literacy’:
How Book Clubs Produce an Informed Electorate
Oct 7, 2014 By Anthony Del Signore
Informed voters are a dying breed. In an era of mass media consumption where partisan demagoguery rules the airwaves, it is tough to have a discussion on an issue without it devolving into talking points the average politico can repeat ad nauseam. This inevitably seeps into and devolves the American political process, a process once lauded for its malleability (as there can be different “flavors” of Democrats and Republicans for each individual), but is now as rigid and divided as ever.
The average American will not flip the television channel between Chris Matthews on MSNBC to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News to see what the other side is saying, so misrepresentation of the opposing side abounds.
Furthermore, the fundamental workings of government are not an important facet of middle school and high school education. One might get the basic idea of how a bill becomes a law and how often an official is up for re-election. However, if one wants to know how committees are set up and operated, who chooses to sit on these committees, and what a filibuster is and how it works, one would have to take it upon themselves to learn this information.
Thus, people do not understand why Republicans and Democrats are so entrenched in the political process that a governmental structure without them seems unimaginable.
Our political literacy is suffering, our ability to debate and reach compromise is suffering, and our understanding of the basic tenants of government is almost nonexistent. One solution is found in alternate forms of education, particularly in the tried-and-true institution of book clubs.
Since the invention of the printing press, book clubs, or literary societies, have remained popular among the reformed and educated. Once born out of necessity due to astronomical book prices, book clubs are now for those who perhaps want guidance on what the popular books of our time are, different perspectives on one piece, or a chance to socialize between like-minded book lovers.
Nevertheless, one book club is challenging the norm of sitting down in a living room and socializing over romantic contemporary novels or American classics.
Politics for the People, an online book club stationed in Lower Manhattan and sponsored by IndependentVoting.org, tackles important political questions of the day, such as the case for equality in the Declaration of Independence and the effects of the Jim Crow south on contemporary society.
Politics for the People began in 2012 with a mission to give a voice to independent-minded individuals frustrated with partisan bickering and one-track mindedness. Since then, the groups has become a huge success with monthly conference calls featuring such esteemed speakers as Isabel Wilkerson and Danielle Allen.
The conference calls include people from various walks of life: from political candidates to health care physicians to academics and college and high school students. It is an approachable and light-hearted atmosphere with a dedication to serious debate and discussion.
For example, the conversation with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, made me research and better understand the Great Migration and its effects on African-Americans today.
One quote from the conference call stood out to me:
“[African-Americans are] the only group of people who actually had to act like immigrants to be recognized as citizens in their own country.”
While we have come a long way since the Jim Crow south, Wilkerson wants us to understand that we still have a long way to go. Rising inequality, lack of adequate education, and lack of job training are just a few examples of the struggles many African-Americans go through every day.
It would have been unlikely for me to concentrate on this aspect of history if it was not for Politics for the People. This book club has helped me expand my horizons and tackle works that I either did not know existed or at the time I did not find interesting.
Thus, the political literacy of the average American would be better off with more book clubs such as Politics for the People. To engage in heavy debate and discussion about the nuances of historical and contemporary societal and political issues is something all Americans who vote should do.
In fact, it is something most Americans should want to do. So the next time someone wanders into a voting booth on Election Day, I hope they are well-informed of the issues of the day, the historical and contemporary context of the debates raging between the two (or more) candidates, and are confident enough they are making the right choice.