Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book Review - Harry Taylor: "You Can't Get There From Here"

The political ground seemed to shake when Harry Taylor, a commercial real estate broker, got up at an April 6, 2006 town hall meeting at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. and spoke his mind to President George W. Bush. Taylor criticized Bush's warrantless wiretapping program and U.S. treatment of enemy combatants, among other actions, and he asked that Bush express some manner of shame for his actions. Taylor's confrontation made headlines in the U.S. and around the world. It seemed a rarity that such a statement and question would get through in those days, given the prevalence of such opinions being silenced at Bush town hall meetings; such dissenters being blacklisted and barred from the town hall gatherings. A video of Taylor’s question can be seen here:

In his new book, “You Can’t Get There From Here – ( How Gerrymandering and the Absence of Voter-Owned Elections and Term Limits Are Destroying Democracy )”, Taylor describes the feelings that arose in him as he walked into that town hall meeting determined to confront the President, although he’d not yet worked out exactly what to say. He basically confirms what any one of us might imagine. It felt like a David v. Goliath moment for Taylor, yet he felt so strongly about the issues he raised that he could no longer remain silent about them. He uses a favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” After the public cheered him on for his courageous confrontation with George W. Bush, showing their support by creating and contributing to a “Thank You, Harry Taylor” website, Taylor decided that he would not let the awakening moment go wasted, but instead to build upon the momentum for the sake of furthering the issues he’d cared so much about for decades as a political activist. In his words,
“I care about my country and community, and I care about the people with whom I share those. I care about what the United States can be and should be, and I realized then that, given favorable circumstances, I could be a catalyst to change the dangerous direction in which we were headed. I’d done it once. Maybe I could do it again!” (page 27)
He decided to challenge longtime incumbent Sue Myrick for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in District 9 in North Carolina. What Taylor learned in the following months was a hard-won lesson in politics, particularly regarding the state of our fragile democracy. He not only wants to share that lesson with all of us, but he also wishes to educate us on how we can best act to bring change to the way our election system currently fails to serve our best common interests and threatens the future of democracy in the United States.

Harry Taylor's first challenge to running would become apparent immediately upon inquiring how he’d begin to challenge the incumbent in his district. In a conversation he had with a party chairperson upon asking who they planned to run against Sue Myrick, Taylor was told,
“We have no plans. That district is gerrymandered, a Republican ‘safe-seat.’ It isn’t winnable. Whoever wants to run against her can run. It really doesn’t matter.” Taylor reflects, “My reaction? What the hell kind of country and democracy is this?” (page 30)
Taylor’s race for a seat in U.S. Congress would come to involve running as a Democrat after many years of being an Independent; it would involve facing a tough Primary campaign, and it would involve sometimes uncomfortable, surprising, and disappointing experiences in raising competitive campaign funds. It would involve incredibly frustrating moments of realizing that winning a race against an entrenched incumbent in a gerrymandered district is nearly impossible, not only in Taylor’s district, but all around the country. He fought hard and gave his heart for every vote he received against Sue Myrick, the incumbent horse that everyone else – media, political insiders, even Democratic establishments that stood to make or break his potential to win - seemed to be betting on! The reason they bet on the incumbent was because the odds are so firmly and deeply stacked against any challenger that few had even seriously tried in the past. Taylor says,
“Again and again I would hear that I couldn’t win because the Republican party “owned” the territory.” (page 85)
Taylor couldn’t make it clearer. Whether it’s an individual district mapped out in favor of Republicans or Democrats, the game is rigged. “Democracy” seems not to be a value to today’s political players and state legislatures, but instead “democracy” is a game to be played - with us voters as the pawns. As I read about this, I thought about how disappointing and frustrating this all must have seemed for Harry Taylor, one honest, intelligent, and caring small business owner who sincerely wished to solemnly and responsibly represent his community. This was an uphill battle, an insurmountable gate protected by those who control the elections through so many of their own legal mechanisms that it keeps citizens like you and me from getting to Washington, D.C. Being the ever-elusive change we want to see will never happen until we change the way our elections are run and funded. I believe that every American citizen should read this book. As an engaged citizen myself, I’ve seen people spin their wheels trying to make their country work for everyone, yet it seems to be working for only a few these days. I was impressed by Taylor’s statement that, because the small details on these issues can seem so boring at times, it can be difficult to get sufficient interest raised in citizens to commit to a long fight against gerrymandering and to get them to commit to supporting voter-owned elections and legislation for term limits - - yet these must have lasting citizen support or we will not be able to save the promise of democracy that is worthy of our “grand experiment.” I’ll let Harry Taylor’s own words take us to the end of my review:
“We Americans have tremendous pride in our perceived democracy. Many find it acceptable to go to war, to kill, to destroy in order to prove our commitment to this grand experiment, this democracy. But it has evolved into a democracy in name only, and “self-governing” is but a wistful dream. In truth – every day – we move closer to plutocracy or oligarchy where our country is ruled by the wealthy, where money is king, and where power comes only from wealth, governed by the few at the expense of the many. Those who want to privatize our democracy, and thus carve the citizen’s place out of the pie, are becoming stronger and bolder, more ruthless and less caring. History has shown – for thousands of years – that concentrated power becomes ever more corrupt, selfish, impatient, detached, and callous. None of those attributes were intended to be part of our democracy. It is up to us to obstruct that repressive and smothering trend - before it’s too late to turn back!” (page 144)