Pay attention to and vote in state elections. The constitution gives states the power to run elections, so what happens in your state really matters for our democracy. Does your state automatically register voters? Does offer mail balloting to anyone who needs or wants it? Who draws the voting district maps in your state? Politicians or citizens? Has your state signed on to the National Popular Vote interstate compact?
As part of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Rusch.
Elizabeth Rusch is a public policy and youth activism expert, speaker, and author of the new nonpartisan book You Call THIS Democracy? How to fix our government and deliver power to the people (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), which examines in simple terms our democracy’s missteps and how we can work together to create “a more perfect union.”
You Call THIS Democracy?, an Amazon Bestseller, was featured in the New York Times Book Review, received a starred review from Kirkus, which called it “a riveting must-read,” and has been endorsed by commenters from CNN and FOX News, among others.
Rusch is also the creator of the “50 State Democracy Report Card,” a simple tool people can use to check how elections function in their state overall and on specific metrics; and a series of short, fun, informative YouTube videos on the issues covered in the book, called Flash Course on Democracy, which entertain while educating people of all ages about how our elections really work.
The author of 20 award-winning books and more than 100 magazine articles, Rusch and her work have been featured in The Discovery Channel, Fox News Now, ABC10, Politics Done Right, RodioACTive, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Denver Post, and Smithsonian, Teacher, and Parenting magazines, among many others. She has a masters’ in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley, and served as a Jacob K. Javits Fellow in the U.S. Senate.
Learn more at youcallthis.com and elizabethrusch.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a large family with five siblings. My father was in the Navy and then in business and my mother was a nurse. We moved around a bit, and I’ve lived in seven different states. My family is quite spread out now and live in rural, urban, and suburban places, on the east coast, west coast, north, south and Midwest. People in my family are wealthy, blue collar, religious, nonreligious, college graduates, high school dropouts. Born citizens and naturalized citizens. So my family encompasses a pretty broad range of American experiences and situations.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I was in my teens, I came across a magazine called World Press Review and I bought myself a subscription. I’m not sure what the online version does now but at the time the magazine reprinted articles from all around the globe on various current events. What I loved was how different the perspectives were on the same topics. It really opened my eyes to the many different ways people see things.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
When I was in 8th grade, my class took a school trip to Washington, D.C. I remember watching in awe as a law was debated on the floor of the US Senate. I bought a portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the gift shop and hung it on my wall. I used to stare at it and wonder what I could do for our country. But I like another quote of his even more: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past — let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” I have tried to take that to heart, always looking for the right, best answer rather than blindly following what one or another party thinks.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership means being open-minded and being willing to work creatively with anyone on areas of agreement so that you can make progress. I saw this while working as a fellow in the U.S. Senate. I admired how liberal Senators like Edward Kennedy could find common ground with even the most conservative Senators and work together to pass legislation. I’d like to see more of that in all of our public officials.
In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
My earliest mentor was Ron Wolk, who was the creator and editor in chief of The Chronical of Higher Education, Education Week and Teacher Magazine. From him I learned about the power of research and reporting and writing to add clarity and depth to any important issue or discussion we face. He also used to grumble and say, “Nothing in this life is easy” and I actually have taken comfort in that. When I face a challenge, I remember that life is not supposed be easy and I try not to let the challenges and difficulties stand in the way. If you are trying to accomplish something important it will not be easy and that is OK.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I would like to talk about the crisis in our democracy.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It’s clear that lies trumpeted by the former president — paired with his urgings to fight — incited the violent attack on the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the election. But the weaknesses in our democracy predate President Trump.
The sad truth is that while the marauders were dead wrong about voter fraud — it is a non-issue in this country as case after case has shown — they may have been partially acting out of a vague sense that there is something not quite right with our democracy. Consider that because of our antiquated electoral college system, citizens in FORTY-FOUR states cast votes that they know don’t really matter in the contest for the presidency. Think of the 5 million Republicans who live in the “blue” state of California who feel they have no real voice.
Half of states allow politicians to draw voting district maps that can benefit themselves, their buddies, and their party. How can we call elections based on those maps fair?
The oversized role of money in elections and lawmaking give citizens real reason to suspect that lawmakers don’t always work for them. These are just a few features of our democracy that undermine the principle of one person one vote.
These problems will not go away on their own so we the people must work to fix them.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
After getting my master’s in public policy I had a fellowship to work in the Senate for a year. I was impressed with how Senators with very different views worked together on bills, but the experience left me with many questions: Why could one Senator put a hold on a bill that most people and Senators supported? Why could a few people stop a bill in its tracks by a mere threat of a filibuster? And what about all those bills that had so much public support that never made it out of committee, were never even voted on?
Then in the 2016 election, for the second time in my voting live, the candidate who won popular vote by 3 million votes lost the election.
I figured there was something I could do for my country. I could shine a light on seemly small flaws in our democracy that are causing big problems and offer a way out of the mess we are in.
In addition to examining flaws in how our elections are run, my book You Call THIS Democracy? How to Fix our Government and Deliver Power to the People suggests proven solutions and tells true stories of ordinary citizens working to make change. It even offers resources to help readers get involved. For example, You Call THIS Democracy? shows citizens how we can move past the electoral college, so every citizen’s vote in every state counts equally toward the election of our president. It covers how to end gerrymandering, so citizens rather than political parties are drawing voting district maps. If offers proven ways to ramp up voter turnout so our democracy reflects all voices. And it offers simple ways to move political power from the wealthy and corporations to ordinary citizens.
I also created “The 50 State Democracy Report Card” as a free tool anyone can use to figure out how to improve their state’s elections to better reflect the will of the people. You can find it at Youcallthis.com
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Become a Cell Phone Citizen: Each of us have five people whose job it is to represent us: Our two U.S. Senators and one U.S. Representative and our state senator and representative. These representatives want and need to hear from us. Look up their names, phone numbers and email address at https://www.commoncause.org/find-your-representative/addr/ and put them in your cell phone. Share what you think about different issues and thoughts on laws being considered.
- Read the For the People Act, H.R.1/S. 1. It is a bipartisan law being introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate which include a bunch of elements that will improve our elections. A good summary can be found at: https://sarbanes.house.gov/issues/hr-1-the-for-the-people-act If you support it, let your representatives know. (See above.) Share it with your friends and family. If you want changes to the bill, email your representatives (See above.)
- Pay attention to and vote in state elections. The constitution gives states the power to run elections, so what happens in your state really matters for our democracy. Does your state automatically register voters? Does offer mail balloting to anyone who needs or wants it? Who draws the voting district maps in your state? Politicians or citizens? Has your state signed on to the National Popular Vote interstate compact? You can find the answers to these questions at https://www.youcallthis.com/your-state. Then let your representatives know how you think elections should be run.
- Join a bipartisan group working to improve our democracy. Many citizens from all over the country and across the political spectrum are working to improve our democracy. Joining a group to work together to make change that will help us can be really healing. Find a group at: https://www.youcallthis.com/get-involved-1
- Spread the word. If you become a cell phone citizen, tell others! Show your family members how to do it. Share on facebook, twitter, insta or anywhere else you hang out. Talk about the For the People Act and ask others to support it. Talk with friends, family and neighbors about how elections can be improved in your state. Register to vote and tell everyone. Ask friends, family and neighbors if they are registered and help them get registered. https://vote.gov/ can help. Most people get passionate only during presidential elections, but our democracy needs us all year, every year. The most powerful way to encourage someone to care is to ask them!
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’ve been so inspired by the ordinary citizens who have already been so effective in making change in their state. Katie Fahey was just 26 when she started a bipartisan movement to end gerrymandering in Michigan. She and her family and friends began working and people across the state joined in and passed a ballot measure that is being implemented now. Now citizens, not politicians, will draw the new voting district maps. Another great example is the self-named Bad-ass Grandmas, a Democrat and a Republican, who led an effort to pass anticorruption legislation in North Dakota. The bipartisan group RepresentUs has tracked wins in more than 20 states! https://represent.us/our-wins/ The power of people really can beat the power of habit and the power of money and the power of partisan politics.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
As I wrote in my book: “We cannot fix the issues that matter to us until we fix the system. Whether you care about safe streets, a fair and effective justice system, immigration reform, the environment, the military, gay rights, the right to bear arms or the right to prevent gun violence; whether you worry about wages, the cost of college or our broken health care system; whether you are more concerned about clean air or clean water or the small business tax burden or all three, for our government to work effectively on any of these issues, it has to be responsive to the will of the people.” Our democracy matters to our lives. Small fixes could lead to great leaps forward for us all.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Greta Thunberg so we can discuss the state of democracy and climate in our world
How can our readers follow you online?
Also on Facebook at authorelizabethrusch and on twitter at @elizabethrusch and on Instagram @lizrusch.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!