Al Bell is writing some short commentary on each chapter in UNRIGGED as he reads it. Join him in his exploration of David Daley’s book.
In this installment, Al reads Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and the Conclusion.
Chapter 7: Donald Duck and Goofy No More
Let’s be clear about this. Politicians who choose to play games with our electoral system rather than doing the hard work of serving the people they allegedly represent are behaving in immoral, anti-American, duplicitous acts for which they should be deeply ashamed. That goes for lobbyists, campaign strategists, fundraising operatives, donors who contribute to such behavior and anyone else complicit in that kind of activity. They may be clever; they may even be highly intelligent. But they are patriotic dwarfs and they dishonor the very heart of the Great American Experiment.
I do not know how they find it in their wildly distorted moral code to justify such behavior.
What I do know, now that I have read this chapter of David Daley’s exceptional experience living with real American heroes for many months, is that true Americans exist and they are able to create leverage that operates far beyond their individual fighting weight. One of the most distorted legislative districts in America is—was, that is—in Pennsylvania, home to a cesspool of cartoonish characters betraying the public trust. The story of how this cabal was outmaneuvered by a piano teacher, a youth pastor, a pro bono attorney, a young number cruncher and a computer whiz. We would probably label the last two as nerds. In this case, they enabled a map to tell a truth that not even a loaded court could ignore.
One of the most impressive aspects of this tale is the amazing pivoting power of the team for the people in dealing with obstacles thrown at them by the power structure. Perhaps, in this case, the small size of the team was a blessing in disguise that allowed them to move fast and focus brilliantly.
I do not know what seed of commitment grows in Americans like the sterling examples described here, but the evidence is overwhelming that it has immense power to make the truth invulnerable to the forces seeking to conceal it. Now, this is a tale of woe for the distortionists worth reveling in!
Chapter 8: Mathematicians Enlist for Duty
The minds populating this chapter leave mine so far behind, you could wonder if they are made of the same cell structure. I do. They talk a language I will never understand and view the world through prisms I cannot perceive. And they blew apart bankrupt theories about why candidates should select voters instead of voters electing candidates.
What is even more inspiring to me—you can be inspired by what you cannot possibly understand?— is that they not only knew how to unearth the devious practices of political operatives dedicated to exploiting voters; they knew why their unprecedented application of genius mattered. In the words of one of them, “I would like some day to live in a democracy.” Yes, wouldn’t we all (well, most of us)?
Default by the Supreme Court places crafting common sense legislative district boundaries at the state level, where maps are beginning to tell the only story logic would normally require. Logic and politics, of course, have trouble occupying the same space; sort of a mental law of physics. I was particularly fascinated to learn that the secret to unraveling thousands of district map boundary schemes actually originated with the Manhattan Engineer District, the mystical organization that produced the first and second atomic bombs in 1945. Who would have guessed that this esoteric product of the world’s top physicists would come back to help rescue the nation again—this time, not from axis forces dedicated to destroy democracy from the outside, but from political forces intent on doing the same thing from the inside? Ironies abound.
Chapter 9: People Power
In a sense, the title of this chapter manifests in all of the stories related to us by Mr. Daley. One of the central messages weaving throughout the book is that people power, properly recognized, is capable of accomplishing great things, especially when the power structure is overplaying its hand.
This chapter reveals one of the more sordid features of the “stacking, packing, and cracking” strategies embodied in legislative district boundary manipulation in recent years. It entails collusion between both parties and gamesmanship to preserve representation by citizens of color that helps to create byzantine, distorted maps that intentionally avoid legitimate representation. It is more complicated than that, but the point is that party strategists are looking through the wrong end of the tube.
Competent, highly motivated, energized people are making the difference. They may or may not have a lot of experience with political matters, but that can be an advantage. They see things the traditional party players miss. What stands out to me in this chapter is the combination of extreme personal commitment—far beyond what most of us would make—and technical moxie that most of us don’t have. These are highly impactful people and they apply their talents fighting the hard knocks the system routinely delivers. We read here about real American patriots in the finest tradition of that term.
I hope I live long enough to see their names on a desk somewhere in a state or federal legislative chamber, knowing what they know, applying what they believe and heading off at the pass the lobbyists, campaign machines, bought-and-sold legislators and other ne’er-do-wells who fail to grasp that our democratic republic is actually worth treating with respect.
My sense, so far, from the stories through Chapter 8, is that we have an almost perfect trifecta of circumstances to give us hope: 1) experience with an administration that has neither the intent nor the capacity to govern; 2) a pandemic that threatens to turn reality on its head and our economy on its ass; and 3) a cadre of caring, competent, recently experienced, mostly young Americans who can make better things happen. Reminds me of the can-do desperation during World War II that enabled the US and our allies to turn back the forces of destruction. Battling Back is an apt part of David’s book. Chapter 9 admits us to the trenches.
Chapter 10: Punching Up Down-Ballot
We tend to think from top down. Who’s the leader? What is the top brass saying and doing? What’s the point in having leaders if we don’t follow them?
The only problem with this picture is that it is increasingly upside down. Some really sharp (mostly) young people figured out that the way to rebuild our democratic republic is from the foundation up. Many observers have long bemoaned declining participation in clubs, organizations, city and district offices, and similar opportunities that have historically bred candidates for higher office.
Mr. Daley tells how this came about, offers some arresting examples and, in the process, leads my mind down a rabbit hole to a scene something like this.
I’m sitting in a football stadium. It’s a practice game, but with actual opposing teams. The Dems’ team is larger, but the Repubs are still fielding all the positions. Somehow, there seem to be a lot of coaches on the field, far more on the Dem side than the Repub side. Despite this being a practice game, the stands are full of Dem party members on one side and Repub partiers on the opposite side.
The game starts and it soon becomes obvious that the Dems are rolling all over the Repubs. This must be because there are so many Dem coaches still on the field. Does the rule book allow this? It is all lost, however, on the party members in the stands. Instead of the cheering and shouting, as you would expect, they sit forlornly with their eyes sort of glazed over; witnessing, but not seeing or feeling. Almost as if they were watching a game of high-speed chess.
I ask a game official who those coaches are. Why, they are young turks who are rounding up and training players to overcome being cut out of so many games in the past. This is retribution time. And they are winning games in places they couldn’t even get tickets for, let alone play in, before.
Says me, So why is this so lopsided?
The official says, Well, it seems the Repubs spent a lot of time designing the rules so their players could run the ball unopposed. Both parties played that game, but the Repubs were much better at it.
Is that what the game is about?
Not at all, but the point wasn’t just to beat the opponents, it was to make sure their chance at winning was impossible. Who cares why? Now, those coaches are changing the ball game whether the rules change or not.
Then I snap back to the page and try to digest what a powerful sea-change is going on. This is big, on its way to becoming huge. Brought about by ultra-competent and highly energized Americans who actually believe in the Great American Experiment.
Chapter 11: Maine’s Ranked Choice
I do not know a lot about ranked choice voting. What I do know is that one of the most powerful tools we have in the U.S. is the fifty states and the experimenting they can offer in doing governance better—or at least trying. What the Maine story conveys is how entrenched power structures can sometimes do anything and everything to flaunt the will of the people they allegedly serve. It also presents evidence of how a bizarre character from out of a leadership nightmare can serve as a spark plug to ignite cumulative gases of rotting incompetence through every fault of his own. Novelists would be hard pressed to invent such a character.
The experience in Maine is powerful testimony to the resilience and persistence of highly motivated citizens in the face of immoral, cowardly and self-serving behavior by elected officials who feel their power is threatened. As it clearly deserves to be.
The Maine voting system, now finally in place, will teach us all some important things about their approach. As always, that system needs to be evaluated not only in terms of its declared intent, but also in comparison to other experiments and practices in other states.
What I think of as the Phantom Question is always appropriate, even (or, especially) when it is never consciously articulated: Compared to what? There is always a “what.”
It is also evident that it is the voters whose opinion counts. The parties and other interests certainly have a legitimate (sometimes) stake in it, but the system belongs to the voters. Let me say it again: the system belongs to the voters. Not the parties. Not the pundits. Not the naysayers. Not the lobbyists. Not the news junkies or the armchair analysts. The voters.
One could even say, the people.
Chapter 12: Youth Saves the Day
Ah, youth. I remember it well, even though it’s quite a stretch with 86 years on the odometer.
David shares with us the dynamics of an almost ubiquitous target of voter suppression: college students. They congregate, as one might imagine, on college campuses and live there or nearby most of the year for however long they are enrolled. They also have feet at home, often miles or states away.
That isn’t the real problem for control freaks who want to cut certain voters out of the pattern, though. College campuses foment thinking that often doesn’t sit well with power structures. These are young people who are figuring out who they are and what they believe. It is a time of life intentionally intense—and unpredictable. Even worse, impervious to control beyond certain practical limits. And sometimes even those boundaries are vulnerable.
We meet young people who take on the system, are lied to by duplicitous legislators, become the targets of mostly Republican kingmakers (they wish), overcome ridiculous odds, and end up not only changing voting laws, but actually getting elected!
I am reminded that several of our revolutionary leaders in 1776 were in their early 20s and some even younger. Key ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, was 19 when he commanded his first American troops.
It’s in our genes; we just forget sometimes.
I was not prepared for the conclusion.
In a just a few pages, Mr. Daley makes clear the degree to which the Republican party operates with blatant disrespect for huge swaths of Americans. I can only conclude that its leaders do not believe in the idea of America at all. The Democratic party, on the other hand, has mostly checked out of the fray, leaving citizen patriots to represent our best interests. Thus, we are confronted by the dual specters of extortion and incompetence, respectively, by our dominant political organizations, reinforced by apathy, inattention, and outright ignorance by too many of us. Only after Mr. Daley’s documented parade of extraordinary civic heroes is it possible to digest the dismal truth about the state of the union; only with those examples is it possible to envision rescuing the Great American Experiment from its darker side.
It is no wonder that some 45 percent of registered American voters are unaffiliated with the parties. The wonder is that the number isn’t 65 percent or more.
What this intrepid author has exposed by living with real Americans in action as they took on the alleged “windmills” and mostly prevailed, is that we common, everyday, regular Americans actually do have solid values that respect fairness and concern for our fellow Americans. We just need to hear the right voices more often. Which includes those who are drowned out by the noise of cynicism or silenced by partisan subterfuge. This is why the stories we just read matter so much. This is the why; they are the how—just as promised by the book’s title.
I cannot leave this page empty of the supreme irony of these times and these (mostly) younger people who are, battle by battle, saving us from ourselves. After playing a leading role in rescuing the world from the Axis onslaught decades ago and treating our devastated enemies with unprecedented decency, we have gone on to leave our children and grandchildren with a mountain of financial debt, incomprehensible environmental desecration, mindless institutional destruction, and a social fabric fraught with painful injustice and inequity. The foundation remains, but the edifice is suffering badly. Repair has never been easy, nor will it ever be.
We are reminded once again that democracy is not a spectator sport.
These spirited Americans are taking up the challenges that threaten us despite the seriously decimated inheritance we pass on to them. If we are fortunate, they will treat us in memory more generously than we deserve. In any case, they are busy forging a future that “bends the arc towards justice.” As David reminds us, that requires the loving grasp of hands that care.
I am humbled by their inherent wisdom and their demonstrated patriotism, energy, dedication, and vision. It is true we are all in this, but certainly not together. That will never be achieved. We can, however, get much closer to that ideal than we are today with leadership of Americans like these to count on and be inspired by.
I am grateful to David Daley for devoting a slice out of his life to capturing the experiences and sharing them with such gripping detail and clearly respectful insight. His contribution to the cause is certainly a gift that will keep on giving—as long as we keep on paying attention.
If ever we needed evidence that the people chronicled in this book are showing up at the right time, read two articles in the June issue of The Atlantic magazine, one about QAnon and the other about Russia’s IRA, the Internet Research Agency. They both seek to destroy America, using the freedoms we enjoy against us. While the first is internal and the second an arm of a foreign adversary, they share a similar belief about America: it deserves to be brought to its knees through the process of death by a thousand slices. The first is practicing treason, the second, subversion.”
If we combine just these two forces with successive waves of virus invasions, the decimation of our economy, the glaring evidence of our dependence upon each other in ways we have denied for decades, and the intentional cynicism of way too many of our elected leaders, as evidenced by their dedication to hijacking our votes, we do have a challenge of epic proportions.
Many Americans complain a lot and still hope for the best. Others hope for the better and step into the fray to bring that about. Unrigged is vehement applause for the latter.
Thank you, Mr. Daley. Exceptionally well done! Compelling. Pivotal—if we listen and act.
Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona. Al served on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the 2020 presidential primaries open to independents across the country.
Politics for the People Zoom Call
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