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Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice, Authors of A User’s Guide to Democracy, on the Importance of Civics Education

You’re the hosts of a popular podcast called Civics 101 (New Hampshire Public Radio), which inspired your book A User’s Guide to Democracy. What prompted you to start your podcast?

Hannah McCarthy: Shortly after the 2016 election, the station was inundated with listener questions along the lines of, “Can the President really do that?” and “What is the job description for the Secretary of Defense?” A producer at the station suggested that the country needed Schoolhouse Rock for adults. So we made it.

It was supposed to last through President Trump’s first hundred days in office. Three years later, here we are. Civics 101 has always been about providing the very basics of democracy in order to empower listeners to understand what’s happening in the news and to wield the rights and responsibilities that come with living in this democratic republic. The promises of our Constitution can only be guaranteed if we understand what they are and how to ensure they’re fulfilled. It’s our job to make this all palatable and joyful. That’s the easy part — there are few things more edifying than understanding how and why this democratic experiment works.

Nick Capodice: Fewer and fewer resources are spent to support civics education in America. If every American were asked to take the citizenship test, the vast majority would fail. We started this show to tell people that they shouldn’t be embarrassed, that they’ve been the prey of the ruthless news cycle for years and never allowed themselves the leeway to admit uncertainty when it comes to interpreting the systems of government. 

What gave you the idea to turn your podcast into a book?

N: When I started working on the show I was initially the Education Outreach Producer, and to prepare before my first day I went to my friendly neighborhood bookstore to buy some manner of ‘here’s how America works and why’ book, and came out empty-handed. I wanted a fun, engaging book that I’d keep by the bed or in the kitchen, and every day I’d learn a little more. But I couldn’t find it. And after working on the show for several years, I felt we were in a position to write it.

H: After years of crafting disparate lessons on democracy, the wish to put it all in one cohesive place (while keeping it nearly as portable as a podcast) was finally fulfilled in the opportunity to commit what we’ve learned about civics to writing. Never mind the fact that print is my first love and pursuit, and I do go on. Oh, the incomparable pleasure of the perfect footnote.

As illustrated by more than one-hundred Civics 101 episodes, the American government is an endless source of inspiration. How did you decide what to include in this guide?

H: The idea was to create the book that you keep in your backpack and pull out for reference in moments of uncertainty. Our various systems of government are often purposefully obscure — this is the decoder. We break down the system in which we live and we tell people how and why to use it, with a superfluity of bizarre historical facts. Sorry, we can’t help it.

N: No, we can’t help it, we even sprinkled in fun tidbits about each of the 44 men (so far) who have been our Commanders in Chief. But we took our winnowing fan and narrowed the byzantine world of legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and branches of government into a digestible volume.

While writing the book, what did you learn about civics (or our government) that surprised you and/or might surprise readers?

N: I came grinning to the world of Civics with a flag and a tricorn hat and a deep love of the musical 1776. And in short order I was a shivering husk in the corner, brutalized by the realities of the bill-making process, the Electoral College, and the stark fact that the majority of our foundational documents supported the institution of slavery. If there was one fact that shocked me the most, it was that the First Amendment, what I think of as the keystone in the arch of our national identity, wasn’t used to justify the striking down of unconstitutional laws until the 20th century. But the balm in Gilead is that while the man who wrote “all men are created equal,” himself enslaved 600 people, his words were later used to advocate abolition.

H: What continues to leave me gobsmacked is the profound change that can come from interpretation of the Constitution in the Supreme Court. So few cases are actually taken up by those robes heavy with importance, but those that receive an opinion can change the lived experience of millions of Americans for generations. Dred Scott v Sandford, Roe v Wade, McCulloch v Maryland, for the love of mike. For the ostensibly least active and potent branch of our government, SCOTUS has the capacity to fundamentally change this nation in the truest sense of the word.

Why did you decide to add illustrations to the book? And how did you choose New Yorker cartoonist Tom Toro as the illustrator?

H: In actual fact, the brilliant Tom Toro sought a project, and we provided the text. Tom’s illustrations are stinging and hilarious aphorisms peppered throughout the book that are the swift kick to our belabored explanation. It is a miracle to see pages of writing distilled in a single image, and Tom’s deftness in the art of the political cartoon lends both levity and weight to the ideas we’re wrestling into submission.

N: I’ll cop to reading every cartoon in The New Yorker before a single article. My understanding of politics was born out of Bloom County and Doonesbury, and I long for the days when refrigerators were bedecked in political cartoons. And I don’t want to sound heavy-handed, but the donkey and the elephant would simply not exist were it not for Thomas Nast. Political cartoons are the bedrock of our great American experiment, they have been since the beginning, and there is no better accompaniment to an inquisition of our republic.

Which topics are critical for Americans to understand during this election year?

N: First off, you have to know how voting works in your state. There are fifty elections for president in November, and no two are alike. It is also crucial that all Americans understand the Electoral College; how many votes your state gets, who the system benefits, and why the framers created this barrier to direct democracy.

H: If you know what your state and federal representatives do and how to reach them, you possess one of the essential tools for using this government to your advantage. You can call that individual up and tell them what you want out of this nation. Get others to join you, and you can actually effect change to the advantage of yourself and your community. Your vote is your most powerful tool in support of and against the people who end up making the laws that govern you. They want to be re-elected, and you’re the barrier to that. Know how you plan to make them listen, pay attention to the issues they campaign on, and you’ll vote your conscience in 2020.

Who should read this book?

H: This book is for those of us who have the privilege of presuming our rights are upheld and for those of us who know they aren’t. For those who float on the advantages of this democratic system and those who feel that peculiar itch of subtle injustice without understanding exactly why. Both are right, both are wrong. This book clears things up and gives residents of this country a sense of where they stand and what they can (and ought) to do.

N: This book is for anyone who looked at their state house and wondered, “What are they doing in there?” It’s for anyone who, like me, is ashamed at the utter lack of retention from their 8th grade Social Studies class. It’s the absolute basics of the rules of the game, and why they were written that way.

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