Book Review -- The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right took Control of the U.S. 1981-2022: A Futuristic Novel -- By Steve Jonas
Katz Impact Books, New York, 2013
The "15% Solution" might well be subtitled, "How to boil a frog ... slowly, so he doesn't notice."
Steve Jonas, a Harvard-trained MD, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, has conjured up a book that is less fiction than contemporary politics wrapped in the form of a novel. Indeed, time after time, the "fiction" precisely parallels real-life developments. While the book was originally written in 1996, a disturbing number of events -- like systematic voter disenfranchisement -- are now the rule in places like Texas and North Carolina.
In a sense, the "fiction" is a fiction. While the book does examine a supposed 40-year period, during which conservative forces and rightwing Christians take over the United States, many of the speeches, quotes, and statistical materials are real (and meticulously footnoted at the end of each chapter). In short, the only thing made up is the overthrow of the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of four "republics" based on race, and a "new" civil war.
The title comes from a real-life strategy developed by the former Christian Coalition in the late 1980s to take over the country by locking down 15% of the vote. The idea is that many Americans never register to vote and, if they do, don't turn out on Election Day. Hence, if you can control 15% of the national vote, you can elect presidents and the congress. And in low-voter-turnout elections, like state and local races, as few as 6% or 7% can end up determining an election outcome. State legislatures, in turn, draw electoral districts, which means that a dedicated minority can end up dominating the majority.
If this sounds familiar it's because that is exactly what has happened over the past several election cycles. Mitt Romney got swamped in the general election, but Republicans hold power in the House of Representatives and in a majority of state houses. There is nothing "fictional" about the 15% solution as an electoral strategy.
The form for the novel is a chronicle of the events that lead up to the establishment of fascism in the U.S., some of which are established history, others are projections from 1996 into the future. Several of the devices Jonas uses are fictional interviews, speeches and letters from key characters in the novel. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to separate what is real and what is invented, which, one suspects, is exactly what the author wants the reader to struggle with.
While using "grim" to describe "The 15% Solution" is probably an understatement, some of the book is good fun. Like when the New American Republic allies itself with the Republic of Quebec to dismantle Canada (that'll learn 'em to be so polite up there). Some of it may appear silly, like abolishing the national forests and parks, until the author reminds the reader that in 1995 U.S. Rep. James Hansen (R-Ut) led a campaign to do exactly that.
What's the old line about truth and fiction?
The book examines race, class, gender, ethnicity, and inequality, and none of the disturbing trends concerning these issues are made up. In some ways, Jonas' book feels a little like some of the writings of the sociologist C. Northcote Parkinson, who writes fiction in a way that reads like history.
"The 15% Solution" is enjoyable and instructive; a good read, if a tad depressing on occasion. But Jonas is hardly a gloom-and-doom sort. He is an activist author, writing for Buzzflash, Truthout, and innumerable media outlets, and he is the editorial director of The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy. He has also authored, co-authored and edited more than 30 books and hundreds of articles.
In his conclusion, Jonas examines how to avoid the road to perdition and, while measured and realistic, is also upbeat. Bad things happen, but people are hardly helpless in the face of history. And if the frog knows the burner is on he can get the damn hell out of the pot.