It’s been some time since I posted a book review, and I’ve been getting inquiries about what’s currently on my bookshelf. A few months ago, I got my hands on a juicy new Canadian release that those of you interested in the intersection between politics, critical thinking, and communication will probably love as much as I did. Here’s my review of this book which has every communication geek neuron in my head firing at once:
BOOKS WORTH READING
Written by David Moscrop
Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton NB, 2019. 254 Pages.
David on Twitter: @David_Moscrop
‘Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947
How did this happen?
That’s a line I’ve heard from many of my friends, both Canadian and American, many times over the past few years. How did this happen? How did we come to a place where we can’t have any kind of conversation about things that matter without us ripping at each other’s throats? How did we get to a positions where feelings matter more than facts, and where facts are whatever we define them as being?
Democracy today feels like an unhappy place. It feels as though our only chance to make decision rolls around every few years at election time, and that we’re usually trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to making a good decision.
Either that, or we’re convinced that we’re an island of reason in a sea of idiocy.
This is precisely why David Moscrop’s Too Dumb For Democracy: Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones is the book we need right now. As the US ramps up for yet another phase of it’s never-ending campaign season and as Canada hurtles towards it’s next federal election, this is a timely release that will help those who believe in the value of democracy make better decisions.
David Moscrop brings impressive credentials and experience to this book. A political theorist who studies democratic deliberation, political decision making, and digital media, he has the chops to make sense of quagmire that is political and democratic participation. He also brings experience writing for media organizations such as the Washington Post, Maclean’s Magazine, and other outlets into play, which helps him make this complicated topic more accessible to the average reader.
But make no mistake – Too Dumb for Democracy is not what I would call an easy read. This is a tough topic, and Moscrop rightfully challenges the readers notion of their own decision making ability. And while the title is entertaining and the contents accessible, Moscrop doesn’t dumb down the content at all. So settle in and be ready to pay attention: this book both deserves and demands it.
Too Dumb for Democracy isn’t a political book. This is a book about behavior – about how politics works and how we, as participants in politics, engage with it.
There were so many good points and fascinating sections in this book that I won’t try to cover everything.
Instead of a blow-by-blow account of all the good stuff (there’s a LOT of good stuff), I’ll stick to a couple features of this book that really jumped out at me.
First, the rhetorician and communication wonk in me was delighted at how Moscrop carefully addresses what decisions are, what reason is, and how we reason and make decisions. These aspects of human thinking are more complex that what we might give them credit for (hey, I know what makes up a good reason! I know how to be rational!). But if there’s one thing that making communication my professional obsession has taught me, is that we might be thinking creatures, but we’re not terribly smart about it. Our abilities to reason, make decisions, and then justify those decisions are seriously impacted by our environment as well as how other people interpret and present the information that’s available to us.
At no point does Moscrop blame us for making bad decisions. Instead, he homes in on issues such as trust, cognitive biases, emotion, manipulation of information, and others which make this whole process of political decision-making incredibly difficult. By starting from basic points like “What is a decision” and then expanding to “what is a good political decision,” he helps us better appreciate how we need to actively monitor our own thinking and learn to watch for habits in flawed reasoning that lead us to poor political decisions. It’s complex stuff, to be sure, and the message does occasionally get bogged down in academic lingo, but Moscrop keeps the text engaging, personal, and eerily recognizable.
Second, I was struck by Moscrop’s objectivity and focus on his goal: enabling us to make better decisions rather than telling us what those decisions should be. Again, this is not a political book; it’s a book about how we engage with politics. Instead of opining on any one moral or ideological stance, he sticks to explaining not only what is going on but why it’s going on – all politics aside.
This is no mean feat – remaining objective while discussing a generally non-objective topic like politics without falling into the trap of milquetoast please-everybody statements. Moscrop manages to avoid this by avoiding the politics itself and focusing on human behaviors and systems that lead us to faulty decision making.
The author’s objectivity is on display in the chapter “Our Institutions.” This section covers important aspects of how our democratic institutions really work – the complex and murky machines that are our political parties, legislature, the media, and other systems and structures. Instead of excessive hand-wringing on how particular actors or parties are ruining everything, Moscrop provides clear explanations on the purposes, role, and weaknesses of different institutions.
This you know how our democracies work? Think again. Moscrop shines a light on how these institutions work, challenging things we take for granted, such as elections: “…elections aren’t primarily about informing the public about every policy on offer… . Campaigns are about winning power so that the party or politicians who run for election can implement an agenda they imagine is good for their constituents.” (pg. 149-150).
A statement like this could easily lead into finger pointing about how certain politicians or institutions are more obsessed with winning than others. But Moscrop also makes it clear that it isn’t a particular bend of politician that indulges in these behaviors. His focus on behaviors rather than ideologies makes it easier for readers to set aside their own political leanings and see tactics such as issue-dodging in all political actors, regardless of country, party, or position on the liberal-conservative spectrum. Moscrop’s approach helps us recognize the institutional and human weaknesses across all political lines, from American liberal Joe Biden’s not-so-subtle avoidance of discussing policy to Canadian conservative Andrew Scheer’s vacuous pre-election vision statements. Moscrop doesn’t seek false balance in his topics, but rather digs past the ideologies of politics and into the human behaviors that affect how we all play (or avoid playing) the game.
It would be easy to descend into thinking that this whole democracy thing is futile, especially when seeing how darn difficult it is for any person – educated, uneducated, liberal, conservative, or whatever – to think straight about politics and make good democratic choices. But Moscrop pulls the reader out of doom-and-gloom thinking repeatedly with solid actions any of us can take to become more informed participants in our democratic process. The vision he paints of democratic participation isn’t rosy – he openly acknowledges the commitment of time and effort this will take, and that there are limits on the amount of resources any one of us can give over to political participation.
In the final section, How to Make Better Political Decisions, Moscrop addresses these limits and gives us ways of working within them. His recommendations range from developing better understanding of our own behaviors and hang-ups when it comes to politics to choosing one or two issues to become deeply informed about or active in, instead of trying to spread ourselves too thin across many areas. Some readers will certainly be left with a lingering feeling that this whole democratic beast might be too much to take on. But Moscrop makes no claims that making good democratic decisions is easy, or that we can tackle every aspect of political participation at once.
It’s this angle that gives Too Dumb for Democracy its unique blend of optimism and realism, which is precisely what makes it the book we need right now. There are no feel-good or quick-result solutions presented here; what we get instead is clear headed objective analysis of why we are the way we are when it comes to the democratic process, and what we can do to make ourselves better at it.
Read this book. The elections are coming.
Too Dumb for Democracy? Why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones.
Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton NB, 2019. 254 Pages.
Disclosure: The Amazon link is an affiliate link. I will receive a small reward should you use the link to purchase this book. You can also find this book at your local bookstore or preferred online book retailer.