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What You Should Know About Politics ... But Don't.




If this month's presidential election is anything like elections over the last half-century, about half of those who can vote actually do. Since 1960, the average voter turnout for presidential elections has been 55.1%. That figure is deceptive though as turnout was around 60% during the 1960s. Ever since it has hovered around the 50-50 mark. Turnout for midterm elections is even worse, with an average of 40.5%. These figures were felt most keenly in 2000, when a mere 937 people turned the tide of the outcome in Florida, costing AI Gore the election, even though he led the nationwide popular vote by some 600,000 ballots.

As it turns out, the 2000 election with its hanging chads, butterfly ballots and Supreme Court drama, was not unique. There were a few elections in the 1800s that were just as tumultuous, and there is no reason why future elections cannot be as well. This is why Jessamyn Conrad's elegant and well-written primer on American politics, What You Should Know About Politics ... But Don't, is such a relevant book. Conrad sports a political pedigree, since her father, Kent Conrad, is the senior Democratic senator of North Dakota, and her uncle, Edward Schafer, is the Republican U.S. secretary of agriculture and former governor of North Dakota. Conrad herself lives in New York City while pursuing a doctorate in art history, and studied Islamic art, Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Harvard and Cambridge. In her introduction, Conrad explains that she wrote this book to "fill a void" left by increasingly partisan talking heads who have done so much to polarize just about every possible element of political discourse today.

What You Should Know About Politics ... But Don't attempts to explain in very simple and nonpartisan terms what the current political landscape of the United States looks like. What are the issues, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities ... and what are the risks? The book is written with the simplicity of a high school textbook, yet with a decidedly adult perspective that does not dumb things down or dull the sharp edges on so many of the issues that currently dominate the presidential campaign. There are 13 chapters, each covering a key political topic: elections, the economy, foreign policy, the military, health care, energy, the environment, civil liberties, culture wars, socioeconomic policies, homeland security, education and trade. While each of these topics are deserving of their own chapters, it would have been nice to see one on the structure of the U.S. government itself. After all, the book is clearly trying to educate those smart enough to understand the nuances of current politics but have either failed to engage thus far, or have let themselves fall far behind the current episode of the drama, as it were.

Paging through each chapter, one suspects that Conrad, for all of her efforts to apply an even hand to her subject, comes off as more friendly toward Democratic arguments than Republican. However, things are a little more complex than they might at first appear. Much of the chronicling of current hot topics stem from the cavalcade of crises, disasters, scandals and debates that have erupted since the beginning of the Bush administration. Conrad does a good job of not pointing fingers, but to anybody even a little bit aware of what has been in the headlines over the last eight years, it is impossible to not connect many of the grim tidings Conrad mentions with things the Bush administration has either done or failed to do. Supporters of Bush might suspect this is merely a subtle kind of hatchet job that pretends to be even-handed while it hews away. But as any risk manager can see, there has been more than enough wreckage of different kinds to go around in the last eight years, and one simply cannot discuss politics without discussing things like 9/11, the accounting scandals that led to Sarbanes-Oxley, Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Scooter Libby, No Child Left Behind, oil prices, climate change, the subprime crisis and plenty else. For those who argue that Conrad is trying to hide behind a veneer of objectivity while she throws stones, let us remind ourselves that a president doesn't get a 70% disapproval rating by accident.

To be fair, Conrad does describe herself as a "disappointed Democrat with Libertarian principles." She also says that in another era, she might have been a "Rockefeller Republican." Regardless, her book is hardly the kind of Michael Moore or Ann Coulter diatribe that she is trying to counter, and for that, she deserves special credit. Any kind of effort to describe the wasp's nest that is modern U.S. politics without succumbing to the subject is rare indeed. If nothing else, hopefully this book will find its way into the hands of those not yet registered to vote--or better yet, into the hands of those who are registered yet never make it to the ballot box. All too often we hear of people who choose not to vote because they feel their voice is too compartmentalized to matter, or that the issues at hand are too difficult to understand. What You Should Know About Politics ... But Don't is an excellent and easy way to school oneself in the issues sufficiently to find something to base a vote on. As for whether or not one vote counts, there are 937 Floridians who can share their opinions on that.
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Title Annotation:Shelf Life
Author:Coffin, Bill
Publication:Risk Management
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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