Voices & Choices

Book Review: An Uncivil War by Greg Sargent

Book Review: An Uncivil War by Greg Sargent

In "An Uncivil War," Greg Sargent analyzes key breakdowns in the American political system while advancing the case for big picture electoral reform.

An Uncivil War. Greg Sargent. Custom House. 2018.

Greg Sargent’s latest book, "An Uncivil War," manages to avoid the very real danger to which so many analyses of American political dysfunction fall victim: soapbox lamentation. Rather than howling into the wilderness, the book explicitly lays out how each issue the author has chosen to highlight impacts American democracy, consistently answering the question: “Why does this matter?”

The book moves between intertwining themes: gerrymandering, voting rights and ballot access, and the (lack of) civility in our partisan system. Using his background in journalism, Sargent also provides a very perceptive account of the media’s evolving techniques for political coverage. Though some will argue that his analysis can seem quite partisan, Sargent effectively highlights key problems with our electoral system, building a case for reform.

Chapter Five, “Disinformation Nation,” and Chapter Seven, “Total War: The Partisan Rigging of Elections,” are good examples of the book’s main focus. Chapter Five incorporates Sargent’s perspective on political reporting, and is one of the book’s most unique features. Describing the challenges and changing norms of fact checking and holding politicians accountable in this era of “fake news,” Sargent calls out a media sector that has become a platform for divisive rhetoric in its blind pursuit of profits and ratings. His analysis is coupled with data demonstrating the way these “echo chambers” entrench partisan divisions, supporting other portions of the book exploring the eroding center of American politics. These elements of the discussion lead to Sargent’s call for reflection on the fourth estate’s role in ensuring a thriving democracy and the ways it can best serve this critical function.

Chapter Seven focuses on the problem of gerrymandering, and cites the work of FairVote Senior Fellow Dave Daley. Daley’s book Ratf*cked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy is a deep dive chronicling modern gerrymandering and its consequences for American politics. An Uncivil War provides some updated information and distills the problem into a few key points. With gerrymandering, representatives get to choose their electorate, effectively locking out their competition. Millions of Americans are left unrepresented, their votes “wasted" in safe, uncompetitive districts--a situation which is antithetical to the fundamental principle of “one person, one vote.” In his conclusion, Sargent offers some solutions to this and the other overlapping, systemic issues undermining our democracy.

The book’s final chapter sets a cautiously optimistic tone. Sargent adopts a good news-bad news structure to address causes for concern--gerrymandering, partisanship, problems with voter turnout--but also reasons to remain hopeful. While Sargent's recommendations include some familiar prescriptions, such as ending gerrymandering, he also contributes some newer ideas to the reform conversation. Linking political dysfunction to the conversations playing out in the media, Sargent calls for new conventions within the media to combat the spread of lies. He also emphasizes the need for greater critical thinking on the part of the media and its consumers.

Most importantly, "An Uncivil War" calls for “big ideas” to inspire systemic reform. Sargent advances FairVote’s Fair Representation Act (FRA) as a multipronged approach to creating a flourishing democracy. He asserts that the FRA could help ensure no vote is wasted, strip the incentives for hyper partisanship and gerrymandering, and build a more representative Congress. Overall, Sargent’s analysis is a well-written commentary on the challenges facing our democracy and a convincing call for systemic change.

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