Part historical analysis, part plan of action, Michael Tomasky’s latest page turner, “If We Can Keep It,” advances the case for modern electoral reform by taking readers through America’s past.
Economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote, “[p]ractical men... are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Even logical, pragmatic people are blind to the constraints which limit their thinking. They forget that - instead of harkening back to some bygone era - those long-dead economists and political theorists who have so profoundly shaped their understanding changed the rules of the game entirely.
Today, most Americans are unhappy with our flawed politics. One common suggestion for fixing our democracy is to recreate the country our visionary founding fathers established. But while the founding fathers reshaped their political institutions to design something new and uniquely American - as Michael Tomasky points out in his new book - their ideas were the imperfect products of men living in a very specific context. Approaching reform with the sole goal of turning back the clock is just another means of being trapped by ideas devised in the distant past. “If We Can Keep It” supports the idea that knowledge of our history can be liberating. We can choose to transcend rather than simply repeat it.
In the book’s first six chapters, Tomasky catalogues key events from U.S. history to contextualize our current political dysfunction. He uses a conversational style to describe four discrete eras, each with its own social, economic, political traits; when one of these traits undergoes a major shift, the others follow suit, and a new era emerges. Tomasky makes the convincing claim that political discord is the historical “default setting” for our country. What sets our current era apart is how entrenched the two leading parties have become in their polarization and representation of specific geographical regions. The rewards for moderation are few, partisans seldom break ranks and entire swaths of the country are reliably deep blue or red. Tomasky dedicates the final chapter of the book to a well-reasoned, tailored plan for reform.
Tomasky advances 14 reforms in total. One distinctive feature of this plan is Tomaksy’s call for cultural change and exchange. Tomasky puts great emphasis on fostering “small-r” republican values across the U.S. Among the ideas he advocates are programs expanding civics education, establishing the fourth year of college as a service year and creating internal study “abroads” to encourage Americans from different backgrounds to learn from one another. Tomasky’s core suite of proposals, however, focuses on systemic electoral reform.
As part of his guide for improving our political system, Tomasky mentions the Fair Representation Act (FRA), a policy which was developed in part by FairVote, introduced as a bill by Representative Don Beyer in 2017, and is expected to be reintroduced in spring 2019. The FRA would create multi-winner congressional districts, ending the winner-take-all motivation to skew elections with gerrymandering. The bill would also establish ranked choice voting for federal elections, giving voters more choice and removing the incentives for candidates to engage in divisive tactics. Substantive debates and constructive compromises could resume their places at the center of the American political system.
Rather than seeking a return to yesteryear, we should create a robust democracy by following the spirit of the founding fathers and implementing the kind of ambitious, systemic change Tomasky advocates. This conception underscores the book’s title, inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s statement that those statebuilders so long ago gave Americans “a republic… if you can keep it.” We need to make a political system that works in the modern day. We need to remodel our republic so that we can keep it.
Illustration by Mikhaila Markham