YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction is awarded each year, chosen from a field of 5 finalists (2021: Candace Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh). This year’s finalists covered a wide range: the space race, an international rescue, the memoir of a genocide survivor, and a biography of a complex figure in the narrative of the United States. But none is more immediate and practical than You Call THIS Democracy? by Elizabeth Rusch.
This primer on “how to fix our government and deliver power to the people” is clear and thought-provoking, delivering lessons and suggestions in accessible and meaningful ways. And in this interview, she expands on some of those lessons, reminding us that we all have a part to play in forming a more perfect union. With great thanks to Liz for this book and for her time in answering our questions!
THE HUB: Nonfiction titles such as You Call THIS Democracy? often make use of infographics and other visual features. These feel particularly effective, and I wonder how that process of design worked for you. How involved were you in the book’s design and graphic elements? How do you feel about the interplay between the text and the graphics?
ER: When I envisioned You Call THIS Democracy? I knew I wanted some powerful visuals. Sometimes readers need to see something to understand it. For instance, when I made the point that politicians draw bizarre voting district maps to manipulate the outcome of elections, I thought it was important for readers to see examples of these strange maps.
Also, so many young people are really visual learners, so I wanted to give them that way into the material. A good example is the section where I discuss how the electoral college basically renders citizens in most states mere spectators in the race for the presidency. To drive the point home, we created a map with the battleground states depicted as little stick figures fighting, and then all the spectator states have eyeballs watching the few states that battle.
Finally, I think a really good infographic can drive home a point. Rather than just saying that the United States trails other nations in voter-turnout, we displayed a long list of countries ranked by turnout, so you can see how low the United States falls in the list.
I enjoyed thinking about the graphics for the book. I planned out exactly what infographics I wanted and provided sources and ideas for my editor to share with illustrator Ellen Duda. Ellen did an amazing job pulling everything together with other fun and meaningful design elements.
THE HUB: As a former teacher and school librarian, I kept thinking of curricular uses for this text as I read. How would you feel about this book being adopted as a required text in a classroom? What would you want young readers to learn from it?
ER: That would be a dream come true! So many people told me that they learned more from the book about how our democracy really works than they did in high school. And I believe them because even though I had a master’s in public policy, I learned a ton while writing it! So, I would love to for You Call THIS Democracy? to be offered as a fresh way to deepen student understanding of our democracy. To that end, I created a bunch of discussion questions and debate topics for classroom use. It would be wonderful if teachers could take it even further, having students find out how elections are run in their state, discussing what could be improved, and even engaging with state and local representatives about these issues.
THE HUB: You write about the obstacles to public service facing so many Americans, most especially the cost of running a successful campaign. What would you say to a young person (or a middle-aged person like me!) who would love to run for office but has no money and no monied connections?
ER: Fourteen states provide some public financing for campaigns. You can find the list here. Congress will soon be taking up an exciting elections reform bill called For the People Act (S.1, H.R.1). It includes a new, groundbreaking public financing program for people who want to run for Congress. I would say if you want to run for office or you think that ordinary citizens should be able to run for office, then call your member of Congress and express your support for this law. You can find your representatives by typing in your address here.
THE HUB: Wouldn’t automatic term limits fix the problem of campaign finance and fundraising? What if you simply couldn’t run for reelection?
ER: The danger with term limits is that you deny voters the option of electing an experienced, effective legislator without really doing anything about the role of money in campaigns or the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying. The wealthy and corporations can still have undue influence by donating huge amounts of money to any campaign and can still reward lawmakers who implement their wishes with well-paid jobs after their terms are up. Also, research suggests that novice legislators actually rely more on lobbyists and special interests for information and policy suggestions than do more experienced lawmakers. So, to fix the money and influence problem we need to address money and influence directly.
THE HUB: I keep thinking about the argument for lowering the voting age to 16, which, frankly, I hadn’t previously considered. What’s keeping us from making such a change?
ER: There is nothing standing in the way Constitutionally from lowering the voting age to 16. Congress could make it happen nationally, your state could do it for statewide elections, and local governments can do it for local elections. (Some localities have already lowered their voting age to 16.) I think what is really standing in the way is the power of habit and a lack of information. We need more people to consider how age 18 is really a terrible time for people to start voting because people that age are so busy launching their adult lives. We could create a nation of committed voters by introducing 16-year-olds to voting when they are still part of learning and family communities that can model voting and more deliberately building the skills and habits of citizenship. We also need to raise awareness of research that shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are really ready, developmentally, to be responsible voters.
THE HUB: In the section on Representation in government you include the following statistic: “We have never elected a woman to be president or vice president.” How excited are you to revise this page?
ER: I am thrilled that we finally have a female vice president. I hope a woman is elected president soon and that women winning the highest offices becomes a regular and unremarkable occurrence.
THE HUB: Moving beyond the argument for representation (important though it is!), you build a compelling discussion around the importance of diversity in decision-making bodies. What do we lose when all the decision-makers look the same?
ER: Research in so many fields (law, business, government) shows that diverse groups do a better job of evaluating information and making decisions than more uniform groups. So, we lose that decision-making prowess when all the lawmakers have similar backgrounds. We also lose important insights and experiences that could affect policy. To make laws for a diverse population, we need diverse lawmakers.
THE HUB: I’ll admit that even as a politically involved and aware person, this book has given me so many helpful resources and possible avenues to pursue. If you could only tackle one of the projects in your book, which would you choose? What would you say to the young reader who wants to be a change-maker but feels overwhelmed?
ER: One of the most important lessons that I learned is how important states are to the functioning of our democracy. Some states run more inclusive, respectful, and democratic elections and others less so. But no state is perfect. So, I suggest finding out what needs attention in your state. Has your state signed passed the National Popular Vote interstate compact? Do citizens or politicians draw voting district maps? Does your state automatically register all eligible voters? Does it offer early voting, mail-in voting, and other safe voting practices that make it easier for busy citizens to vote? You can learn more about your state’s election practices at https://www.youcallthis.com/your-state.
Pick one thing in your state you want fixed and reach out to your state representatives. You can find your representative here. Tell your friends and family to do the same. This is the way we the people can form a more perfect union.