Dumb and Dumber


Politics for Dummies, by Ann DeLaney, Foster City, Calif.: IDG Books, 368 pages, $19.99

The leading philosopher of our time–Jerry Seinfeld–says that buying books makes you humble, "because to walk into a bookstore, you have to admit there's something you don't know." Accordingly, IDG Books has named a line of reference books "…for Dummies." Most of these volumes, such as Windows 95 for Dummies, aim at readers who actually have plenty of smarts but need some guidance about a specific technical subject. A new entry in this line, Politics for Dummies, tries to do for political participation what the other books have done for computing and business. It includes 26 short-attention-span chapters on topics ranging from campaign finance to national party conventions. With a lively format featuring checklists, sidebars, and cartoons, the book presents bits of useful material in a readable manner. Especially worthwhile is an appendix that explains each state's procedures for voter registration.

Alas, author Ann DeLaney takes the title too seriously. Much of Politics for Dummies really does assume that its readers are…well, if you can't tell where this sentence is heading, stop here, because this book is for you.

For the rest of us, Politics for Dummies is a like a long day with a grade-school teacher who has little confidence in the pupils. Such a teacher doesn't trust the kids with the straight facts but instead gives them the version that is "good for them." In reading this book, I kept thinking of my seventh-grade nun, locally famous for her unique take on reality. Warning the class about physical vanity, she told of a woman who perished after dyeing her hair too many times: "And when they did the autopsy, they found that her brain had turned purple!" Even at age 12, we didn't believe these stories. Instead of improving our character, they turned us into little cynics.

DeLaney tries to get us to the polls by insisting that every vote counts and is equally important. This sentiment sounds uplifting, but it's about as credible as the parable of the purple brain. Notwithstanding the old anecdotes about close elections, a single vote is probably not going to change any outcomes in an electorate of 104 million people. In many cases, politicians have further diluted individual voting power through district lines that guarantee victory to a party or ethnic group. In California's 37th congressional district, for instance, the 6-to-1 Democratic registration edge means that any single Democratic vote is redundant and any Republican vote is irrelevant. This is the stupid-politician trick called gerrymandering, a term that even dummies have heard. Politics for Dummies fails to mention it, however, which is odd in light of the author's background as a congressional candidate in Indiana, site of some classic districting ploys.

Not content with praising the act of voting, DeLaney speaks of nonvoting the same way my nun spoke of hair-dyeing. If you don't register to vote, she says, your opinion can never show in public opinion surveys, because pollsters only speak to people on the rolls. She errs: Although some polls screen for registration, particularly at election time, many others do not. She goes on to say that, "politically, if you neither register nor intend to vote, you don't exist. You are a nonperson!" She exaggerates: Although politicians may well pay less attention to abstainers, many figures in American history have made their mark outside the electoral process. As a convicted felon, Malcolm X could not vote, but he got his point across through demonstrations and other forms of direct action.

You can just see the author standing over her readers, ruler in hand, ready to whack them on the knuckles if they don't reach for a ballot. "You must vote. If you don't vote, you have no right to complain about politics, politicians, or government" (emphasis in the original). No right? I guess I overlooked that clause the last time I read the First Amendment. (By the way, this primer on American politics neglects to include a copy of the Constitution.)

There is a compelling case for voting, one grounded in the concept of civic obligation. The book would have been far better if DeLaney had developed that line of argument; however, she never lets careful analysis interfere with a cliché.

And boy, does this book have clichés coming out of its ears! (Intentional irony, folks.):

  • "You can't avoid [politics], no matter how far you try to bury your head in the sand."
  • "Remember, though, that nothing in this life is certain but death and taxes."
  • "The name of the game is teamwork."
  • No political handler "can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Clichés can be tolerable as long as they make sense, but the book embraces some adages that are wildly misleading. Consider this one: "You can't beat somebody with nobody." Recently, a veteran party operative told me that he was tired of hearing that line: "It's silly. We've beaten lots of somebodies with nobodies." He pointed to the 1994 elections, where major political figures such as Speaker Tom Foley, Sen. Jim Sasser, and Gov. Mario Cuomo lost to worthy but obscure challengers. DeLaney makes the cliché even dumber when she rewords it: "A somebody candidate, no matter how unpopular, beats a nobody candidate every time." Former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski might want to correct her on that point. He has the time.

The 1994 elections also undercut another of the book's favorite saws: "All politics is local." For 40 years, Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives by concentrating on constituency service and local issues. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans broke that pattern by drawing sharp partisan distinctions and recasting the midterm elections as a choice between two national parties. Failing to recognize any contradiction, DeLaney herself mentions the importance of the 1994 elections as "a wave of voter reaction."

The book contains other contradictions. After her stern lectures about the absolute political impotence of nonvoters, DeLaney encourages teenagers to get involved in campaigns: "If you're willing to work hard, you can make a difference before you're old enough to cast your first ballot." In her list of "Ten Common Political Mistakes," number four is "promising not to run for reelection" while number seven is "not knowing when to retire."

At some points, the book lapses into downright incoherence. "In government, as opposed to politics, the spokesperson is the elected official or a third-party group. The recent national debate over health care provides a perfect example of this model. The Republican Party opposed President Clinton's proposal, but it was the financial interests–the insurance industry, the nursing home industry, and the hospital association–that attacked the proposal openly." Elected officials never speak for themselves during campaigns? Republicans never openly attacked the health proposal? What planet is she talking about?

Floating in the muddle are faint hints of an ideological agenda. DeLaney likes government, and she encourages people to think of how they can benefit from it. In advising her readers how to take sides on an issue, she says that they should ask two questions: "Does this issue matter to me at all?" and "Will the issue have any impact on me?" The "me" emphasis, of course, is an invitation to pork-barreling and deficit- mongering. DeLaney personifies the "good government" types who take the leviathan state for granted and seek to confine political debate to the splitting of the loot. DeLaney does show a concern for costs, but in peculiar places. A sidebar on "The Ridiculous Cost of Campaigns" cites a U.S. Senate race in California as a horror story of extravagance. But DeLaney forgets that more than 7 million people voted in that election. Communicating with so many voters is inherently expensive, especially because California television stations give candidates few opportunities for free exposure.

More to the point, however, the Citizens' Research Foundation reports that the total cost of all federal, state, and local campaigns during the last presidential election cycle amounted to $3.2 billion. In the same two-year period, the total cost of federal, state, and local governments came to $3.9 trillion. In other words, government spending was more than a thousand times greater than election spending–yet to DeLaney high-priced campaigns are the problem. If she had been at Chernobyl, she probably would have complained about the lead-based paint on the reactor core.

Politics for Dummies is a good idea for a book. Politicians have made the system more complex than it needs to be, in part because mystification allows them to escape accountability. A simple, clear-minded, shrewd guide would help people see through the mummery and start to regain control of the government. Politics for Dummies is not that book. After I put it down, I thought not only of my seventh-grade nun but also of Jack Nicholson. At the climax of A Few Good Men, he sums up this book's implicit motto: "You can't handle the truth!"

John. J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.