From time to time, I receive free advance copies of math books. I feel comfortable boasting about this, knowing that 99.9% of humans will feel no envy.
Still, I was caught off-guard when HarperCollins mailed me this particular title:
Now, I have nothing against lapdog-sized unicorns. I also enjoy “recipes,” “literature,” and especially “lore” (though I’m lukewarm on “projects”). That said, I wondered what in my oeuvre distinguished me as the right guy to help promote The Unicorn Handbook.
Turns out it was mistake in the warehouse. The next day, I received the book that HarperCollins had meant to send:
Ah, there we are! A math book.
I’m not joking. Democracy is inevitably mathematical. It’s a process that channels the wills and wishes of more than 300 million people down into yes-or-no policy decisions. How could you attempt this, if not with some kind of math?
Of course, democracy is also personal, emotional, local – in a word, human. Citizens can get discouraged. Citizens can get confused. Citizens can have bulldogs named Mabel prowling their yards, ensuring no voter registration volunteer comes close.
And this is a book that understands both.
David has been a speechwriter for President Obama. He has been my friend (and one of the best, funniest writers I know) since before Obama got to him. He has even, while trying to register new voters, been chased by a bulldog named Mabel. And now he has written a book that is sensitive to both sides of democracy.
Math and emotion.
Disenfranchisement and disillusionment.
Structure and culture.
In the book’s first section, David divides the country into two halves: the electorate (who vote) and the unelectorate (who don’t). This gets mathematical fast. Which group is bigger? (The unelectorate.) How much bigger? (Depends on the election.) Is the electorate representative of the unelectorate? (Not even close.) By what mechanisms are voters excluded from the electorate? (Many, from the legal to the logistical to the psychological.)
The book’s second section, on congressional representation, is even more mathematical. This is where, I’m proud to say, David brought me in to draw a few cartoons. I’m humbled to have my stick figures flanking such important words.
And the final section, on the gears of government in Washington (from the legislature to the courts to the omnipresent lobbyists) is mathematical in its way, too. It reminds me a bit of the old image depicting “teachers,” “students,” and “parents” as three gears in the machine of a school. They’re supposed to work together. But in the design shown, the gears shown would be hopelessly gridlocked, unable to turn.
(A discouraging image of the three branches of government? Maybe so. Although mathematical problems, I like to believe, have mathematical solutions.)
The book also works as a travelogue. David ran with voter registration outlaws in Texas, staked out Mitch McConnell’s old frat house in Kentucky, and took a commiserating stroll with Shelly Simonds (who lost a Virginia legislature race on a coin flip.) These adventures provide the necessary complement to mathematics: a glimpse of the face-to-face, human side of democracy.
It may feel like a strange moment to meditate on the gerrymander and the filibuster. I mean, it’s 2020: the TV show of our lives has a terribly overstuffed plot, and keeps flitting from genre to genre. Who’s got time to meditate on the structure of our democracy?
We do, I think. We have to.
Jorge Luis Borges, in a moment of cynicism, described democracy as “an abuse of statistics.” But that’s not quite fair. Yes, there’s democracy as practiced today, tragically full of abuses. But then there’s democracy as a process, the messy and glorious process by which a society lurches toward something more perfect.
Anyway, the book comes out today. I admire what David has done as a writer: to the questions that frame our society, he brings a light touch, a deep acumen, and a hopeful heart. Here in 2020, that’s a gift as rare and precious as a lap-sized unicorn.