New graphic book helps to ‘Unrig’ our broken election system
Art from 'Unrig'.

With the 2020 presidential election just days away, people all across our country are asking a basic, fundamental question: Is our democracy broken? To many, the answer is “yes.”

They see the rich and powerful, the big corporations and business interests, influencing our society and politics in ways that seem unfair. They know that there is a growing wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. They see money playing an ever larger role in politics. They know that contact with their councilperson, state legislator, senator, or congressmember costs money.

Like me, they know, large campaign contributions equal access.

And they know it’s not right!

Fortunately, a new graphic book titled Unrig: How to Fix Our BROKEN DEMOCRACY, by Daniel G. Newman and artist George O’Connor, helps shed some much needed light on many of the problems afflicting our democracy, while highlighting some of the practical solutions already in place—or being fought for—that help address those problems.

Newman and O’Connor start from the premise: “If we want a country that works for all of us, instead of the big corporations and billionaires, we need to break the connection between wealth and political power.” I couldn’t agree more.

Sprinkled throughout Newman and O’Connor’s graphic book are real-life examples, best practices as it were, of real people fighting—and, sometimes winning—against tremendous odds.

For example, we learn about the organizing, passing, and implementation of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, a first-of-its-kind public campaign financing initiative that passed in 2015 with 63% of the vote. The program is funded through a property tax totaling $3 million per year, and Seattle residents can use their Democracy Vouchers to support candidates running for mayor, city council, or city attorney.

The Democracy Voucher not only makes it possible for working-class people to contribute—through a tax they collectively pay—to candidates of their choice, but it also increases voter participation. In fact, “53% of voucher users voted in the 2017 election, compared to only 12% of those who did not use their vouchers.”

The issue of public funding of elections becomes even more pronounced when we discuss U.S. Senate and Congressional races. As Newman and O’Connor note, “In 2018, the average winning House candidate spent $2.1 million on their campaign. That’s an average of $2,800 per day, every day—including weekends—for their two-year term. The average winning Senate candidate spent much more—$15.8 million. That’s more than $7,000 per day, for an entire six-year term.”

Of course, as they point out, “These funds don’t include the huge sums spent by ‘independent’ groups,” dark money political action committees ostensibly unrelated to the candidate’s campaign. Is it any wonder so many of our elected officials cater to the rich, big business interests, those with deep pockets who are able to write checks big enough to bankroll electoral campaigns? Is it any wonder, with this type of set-up, that our democracy is broken?

Newman and O’Connor take on lobbyists, gerrymandering, the radical right, and the Koch Brothers in Unrig. According to them, the “wealth hoarders” have “devoted billions of dollars to hundreds of organizations and thousands of political candidates” all with one goal in mind: To break our democracy. “And they are winning.”

On the chopping block are public schools, minimum wage laws, Social Security, environmental protection, social services that help the poor—basically, anything that constrains and regulates the power of the rich and powerful.

To Newman and O’Connor, this is by design. Our founders, property- (and slave-) owning white males sought to create a constitution that would limit the power of citizenship, while completely excluding people of color (enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc.) and women. The Electoral College is a by-product of this desire to limit popular, participatory democracy.

As a one-time candidate, I can commend Newman and O’Connor for shedding light on some of the many challenges candidates and constituents face when they attempt to change the system—a system designed to exclude. Further, as a community activist, I can appreciate their call to action. Many of the real-life, practical, grassroots solutions they highlight are indeed working to change our democracy from the bottom up.

For all of this, they should be commended, and Unrig should be read widely! Perhaps, it could become part of a high school civics curriculum. Additionally, the art is fun and engaging.

I have two minor qualms with Unrig. First, Newman and O’Connor lack international context in their analysis of how we got here, how our democracy got so broken. Unfortunately, they are exclusively focused on domestic politics, and they fail to address the impact of McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. A direct parallel can be drawn between the long decline of socialism in Eastern Europe and the ascent of the far-right domestically.

Second, they seem to go out of their way to not talk about capitalism as a system, nor about the “wealth hoarders” as capitalists who intentionally created a system to benefit them and their class. A better articulation of the class dynamics at work in our political system would have added to Newman and O’Connor’s overall analysis of our broken democracy.

Regardless, given the overwhelmingly positive aspects of Unrig, these are indeed minor qualms that do not subtract from the overall importance of a readable, artistically attractive political introduction.

Our democracy is indeed rigged. Newman and O’Connor have provided one more important tool in our activist toolbox if we hope to unrig it.

Unrig: How to Fix Our BROKEN DEMOCRACY

By Daniel G. Newman and art by George O’Connor

First Second, 2020, 280 pp.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.