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Book Review: Delusional Democracy – Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government by Joel S. Hirschhorn

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There’s a shelf of books in my home that have been categorized as “Imagine” books. They have a number of characteristics in common. First, they succinctly point out myriad problems with America and American democracy. Second, they are written to achieve a visceral response from the reader, raising indignation rather than consciousness. Lastly, they present unworkable solutions to the complex difficulties America faces. Joel Hirschhorn’s Delusional Democracy, which tries to sell the dream of a competitive third political party in America, is now among the titles on that shelf.

Hirschhorn correctly theorizes about the corruption of the two-party system in America. Few could doubt that corruption has allowed corporate elites to be the puppet masters pulling the strings of elected officials. In this sense, Delusional Democracy is an extraordinary book. But where Hirschhorn goes astray is in his belief that a competitive third party in the US would bring purity into the political spectrum, its leaders somehow immune from the powerful influence of big money campaign contributors.

Further, Hirschhorn doesn’t address the idea that the politically influential would go to great lengths to quell such a movement should it ever find an appeal among the electorate and offers no strategies as to how a start-up third party would withstand a battle against those profiting from the political status quo.

The third party Hirschhorn envisions is a merging of Greens, Libertarians, and Constitutionalists. Their candidacies would be funded strictly through a “clean money/clean elections” law that would be enacted by Congress with enough pressure from a dissenting citizenry tired of the current system. There are several problems with each of these ideas. I could be wrong, but there’d likely be a lot of disagreements among Greens and Libertarians, including issues of taxes and government welfare – so many in fact that compromise would be very difficult to achieve.

And the Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equates money with speech, makes it impossible to do away with privately financed campaigns. There is a Bill languishing in the US House right now, (HB 3099), which institutes a clean elections system to fund candidates for national office. Needless to say, it has been stuck in committee for a couple of years. Gee, I wonder why?

Generally, I support a clean money/clean elections approach to campaign funding. However, the American program of graft is extremely well ingrained in politics, and too many people would have too much to lose if that program changes. I’d like to see a legislature more resembling European parliaments, where representatives from myriad parties work together to forge policy. But I cannot say that such a blueprint would operate less corruptly than our own national legislature. People willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder will do so regardless of political philosophy, because that choice has more to do with the seller’s moral compass and the culture surrounding them. So while Hirschhorn’s idea of a competitive third political party sounds pretty good, the reality is this design would have to leap some huge hurdles before making significant progress.

Still, Delusional Democracy is worth reading. Hirschhorn’s recognition of the problems American democracy faces are well researched, and illuminating to those who may be reading this kind of book for the first time. Hirschhorn’s writing manages to move the reader along at a good pace, and doesn’t get bogged down with a dense, academic approach to his subject. Hirschhorn is deadly serious about his subject matter, but he conveys his message with a light touch and an often wicked sense of humor.

Perhaps someday the prescription Hirschhorn recommends in Delusional Democracy will have a positive effect on our dysfunctional government. But I wouldn’t wait for the physiological and psychological changes America would have to go through in order to make it work in my lifetime. And neither should you.

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  • Buckley v. Valeo allows public funding as long as it is a voluntary system, like Arizona and Maine.
    If you want publicly funded elections there is something you can do right now. Visit the site set up by Common Cause, Public Citizen, Public Campaign Action Fund. It asks candidates for Congress to pledge to establish publicly funded elections. Go to VotersFirstPledge (.org). See if your candidates have signed the Pledge. If they haven’t ask them “Why not?”