Book Review: The Democracy Index

The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing And How To Fix It, by Heather K. Gerken

There is enough reason to mistrust this author if one so chooses. For one, the closing of the book shows that the author was part of Obama’s election campaign, a fact she does not disclose until the very end, presumably because she believed she had made a persuasive enough case without putting all of her cards on the table about which side she ultimately favors. In addition, even before this disclosure, the author makes it plain that she is operating from a flawed set of premises, which is alarming as she teaches constitutional law, a subject that she is manifestly unqualified to do given her political worldview, which presupposes that America ought to be a democracy rather than a republic, and in her continual griping about federalism and localism as being bad things rather than very good things. She spends a lot of time talking about getting from here to there, but where she wants this country to go is nowhere where it ought to go.

In terms of its contents, this book is written as a wonky policy brief with a shrewd and cynical approach. The book itself is a proposal for the development of a government-funded collection of political data to rank the states and counties of the United States according to various metrics, equally weighted, as to the ease of registering, the ease of voting, and the ease of ensuring that all ballots are counted correctly. It should be noted, as the author does not note, that the book provides no proposals for the funding of this robust data collection, and wishes this to be the job of a fairly useless and fairly new government bureaucracy. The first chapter looks at the politics of political reform and the aspects of our contemporary society that make it hard to reform politics in the ways that the author and others of her ilk desire. The second chapter, and easily the best, looks at the promise of data-driven reform from the point of view, which I share, that better decisions are made through data. The third chapter looks at the politics of reform and the promise of ranking, providing a mechanism to use positive peer pressure and competition among states to spur reform efforts, a cynical but rather shrewd calculation. The fourth chapter looks at the question of whether the gains are worth the costs, which is an open question that the author does not successfully manage to answer, only arguing against ignorance. The fifth chapter looks at the question of how to get the Democracy Index passed by noting that both Hillary Clinton [1] and Barack Obama [2] endorsed the plan while they were senators competing for the Democratic nomination in 2008. This is not a rousing endorsement that it is a good idea. Quite the contrary, in fact.

In my estimation, the most important question as to the efficacy is this plan is how is it to be paid for without increasing the overall tax burden on citizens. My own thought is that those who pay for political speech, and seek to thereby influence the voters, should be footing the bill for the collection of data on the accuracy of the data and the effectiveness of political systems. If political offices or the passage of propositions is worth fighting for, then it is worth paying to make sure that the playing field is a level one, and those who play the political game should be the one to pay for making sure that it’s a fair competition. The author believes that data-driven reform is a better option than top-down control, but even in designing rankings and metrics, one has the question as to whether the ends are worth moving towards. In this case, the author makes a good case that better data is needed, but nothing else about what she says is even remotely trustworthy. Part of the reason why reform is so hard to pass is a good reason, and that is that people like the author who want reform simply cannot be trusted to point the way towards any worthwhile end.



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Democracy Index

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Rock Breaks Scissors | Edge Induced Cohesion

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