My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a review copy of this from BookSirens, and it was published a little more than a month ago in December 2019. It’s a simple book, seemingly aimed at early high school. Even then, in a world where Congress is told that foreign policy would be announced on the Twit-ter, and millions applaud, that may be too high of a bar. So…simple. Simple, and short. But Mr. Roberts packs a lot into this short book. He outlines the problems and he provides solutions. Now, some of his solutions are near impossible (Constitutional amendments on term limits, changing House terms to four years, eliminating all campaign contributions except the individual one), but some are not.
Roberts packages his thoughts into short chapters on partisanship, citizenship, civic duty, economics (very high level, folks, don’t worry), healthcare, and several more topics. While I said this seems aimed at a younger audience, Roberts opens the Prologue with “I know who you are”:
You work for about sixty cents on the dollar, once federal state and local taxes are taken out of your paycheck. You pay rent or a mortgage with what you have left, buy groceries, make car payments, and get insurance on your home, car, and health. You might put some away in savings, but not enough for retirement. If you have children, you might have a college fund, but not enough for a full university education. If you have pets, you try not to think about how much their food costs or what’s in it. You hope you don’t get sick.
So…not a young audience. Roberts says that “[p]olitics in America is the same day over and over again.” My note says, true…ever since Reagan and Gingrich. Many things (abortion, gun laws, healthcare, immigration) are still unresolved. And in the world, “America is everywhere and nowhere; we are more hated than loved and more feared than adored. We are the world’s policemen and they are our bankers.” For the people who care, this is known, and for those who might care, it will be sobering. I disagreed with his follow to “Your leaders don’t have any answers for you because you are not part of the constituency they serve.”
The left governs to the bottom twenty percent of income earners and the right govern to the top twenty percent.
I think he’s way off. The not-left governs for the top 10% and higher (and the corporate “citizens”). The left doesn’t really govern in the same way save to try to forestall or undo the damages of the not-left.
In his first chapter, titled “Unity”, Roberts says that “American unity is the most formidable force the world has ever seen” and illustrates that with quick stories of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. He also says, “Despite these singular achievements, it is a fairy tale to think that the United States has always been united.” I don’t know anyone who thinks who thinks that. I questioned his word choices a few times – an American idea to “conquer” a continent buys into the myth. And about extreme positions in politics and by pundits
The pendulum swings to the left, and the bottom twenty percent of the country gets handouts. The pendulum swings to the right, and the top twenty percent of the country gets tax breaks.
From my armchair, the “handouts”. if any, come with a huge buirden of strings and those tax breaks are far, far bigger handouts. And I acknowledge good words:
Unity doesn’t mean blind lockstep, or existing in some kind of political hive mind. It doesn’t mean the unquestioned long-term rule of one political party. It means that we hold core principles. It means that we agree on foundation and are willing to build upward from there. It means that the country comes before party and ideology and profit.
This should be the epigraph. Or an epigraph.
In “The Most Important Election”, Roberts says, “Let’s stop having the conversations politicians want us to have.” Oh, such wishful thinking. I fear that is no longer a possibility. When the media give so much attention to the Twit-ted inanities of the administration of 2016 to present… When the “social” media buzzes with viral “memes” (the quotes note that they aren’t and you can see what memes really are in a Dawkins or Susan Blackmore book) and no amount of reason can convince the foil hats that a modicum of critical thinking would do them a world of good… Well, another wishful thought: “Candidates should no longer be able to count on partisan support no matter what. We need to have issue-based elections instead of party-based elections.” Yes, and… it won’t happen in my lifetime.
I really liked his “Civic Duty” chapter, though I questioned again word choice in the intro: “The time has come to look away from political leaders as role models.” I can’t think of anyone in the last 58.5 years in politics who is a role model (even President Obama), and when the interweb obsesses over royals, entertainment and sports figures, I’m not sure who does. Still, Roberts lists and describes 17 duties, which I won’t relist here, but a few are “Remember that government money is taxpayer money”, “So pay your taxes”, “Never forget that you’ve paid you taxes”, “Have a plan for continuous improvement” (that happens to be a moral imperative in my life lesson list), “Take an interest in politics”, “Don’t be partisan”
Taking a partisan view of issues isn’t a battle you can win , nor is it your fight anyway. The half of the country that disagrees with your party isn’t going to have a change of heart because you argued with them.
Preach, brother, preach! And “Facts matter”
Information is everywhere, thanks to Internet-equipped mobile phones and twenty four-hour news cycles. Keep in mind that information is not the same as truth. Fact-check the things you see and hear and remember that there is likely an agenda behind all the noise.
Ah…fact-checking…an exercise reserved to the elite, no?
An excellent discussion that should get in the craw of every human (I use that term specifically…humans are rarer than you think) is in Roberts’ chapter on “Hyphenated America”.
We use it without thinking (and don’t remark on it when no one does). The modifier of “America” that can’t help but imply that somehow the hyphenated group isn’t as fully one hundred percent American as those of us who managed to drop ours.
Please, please, please! Drop it! “Where are you from?” “I’m from Texas!” or “I’m from the South.”… My answer is usually “I grew up in Connecticut, but I’m an American.” Roberts says it’s time to drop the hyphens. I totally concur.
Word choice is always important. Roberts calls out some on his own:
Most politicians speak of results in ten-year increments – this initiative will cost so much over ten years, or this tax cut will produce this much over ten years. It is a conveniently longer time span than any elective term of office, so they tell you that all the wondrous things they have promised will just take a little longer than the time they have. But you should definitely vote for them today.
Nailed it. He ends that chapter with
This is not a four-year plan or an eight-year plan or a ten-year plan. The United States needs to learn to play the long game. It is a skill we lost when George Washington left office.
So, so right. China plays the long game (I recommend Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World). Russia play the long game (Putin’s revenge for the USSR collapse.) We play the shortest game of all and we’re not even good at that.
On healthcare, Roberts gave a personal anecdote to illustrate his point, a surgery his wife had. He told of the bill, the insurance discounted amount, his out of pocket expenses, and the loss of tax revenue associated with the lost incomes of the healthcare provider, … and one winner.
If you’re keeping score, I was out $15,400 in medical expenses (out of pocket and premiums). The hospital lost $35,000 (which was likely written off as a loss, meaning…) The US Treasury lost $13,200, and the heath insurance company made an after-tax profit of $4480.
There. The protected for-profit insurance always wins. Roberts concludes with another wishful thought: “Government can do a lot of things that impact their citizens’ daily lives. Making healthcare accessible to all is among the most important.” And the one that the corporate citizens will do anything to stop, and one party abets.
Another choice of words: “Americans no longer think of Congress as a pantheon of heroes the way we do our presidents.” Recoil…that sentence flies in the face of all things reasonable. But that’s me.
Roberts says “The United States of America, as originally designed, works.” Hear, hear. And “Talking about the country’s flaws isn’t pessimistic, or a symptom of despair. It is the first step in finding a remedy.” It’s not unpatriotic. Quite the opposite. And the discussion needs to happen now.
The people who need to read this likely won’t, and more’s the pity. Those who will read it may come away with a “there’s hope yet!” thought, or some words to use the next time the faceless troll inserts himself uninvited to an adult conversation.