Q & A with Jonathan Kasparek
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: In what ways has writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin" been a personal experience? How do you feel connected to this book?
Jonathan Kasparek: For years I walked through the state capitol nearly every day between my home and the University of Wisconsin campus. I loved the artwork and marble corridors and the magnificent chambers where government activity — both extraordinary and mundane — occurs. Being able to tell the story of that government and its history in Wisconsin has been a great privilege.
WHS Press: How do you think readers will connect to your book?
JK: I hope that this book will answer many of the questions that young people often ask when encountering the idea of government for the first time. Adults take for granted that government exists in tribal, federal, state, and local forms, but children need to understand why this system works. The book attempts to respond to student's natural curiosity, and we tried to anticipate every "why" question young people might raise as we discussed functions and forms of our political system.
WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?
JK: The most challenging part of writing this book was explaining how complex institutions, like the legislature and supreme court, developed over time. Every part of Wisconsin's government is based on the experiences of other nations and states, from Medieval England to the Northwest Ordinance. Explaining how Wisconsin's founders found these precedents relevant in 1847 — and why they still work well—is a complicated story even for adults. Explaining why Wisconsin citizens elect two houses of the legislature because the constitution fuses together ancient institutions (the Roman Senate and Assemblies) with modern political theory (democracy) in a way that fourth-graders could understand was quite a challenge!
WHS Press: What would you like students to take away from "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?
JK: Far too many people view government negatively, as some alien entity that takes our tax money and makes us follow rules. I hope that students will view democratic government for what it truly should be — people working together to make our society better. I also hope that it will instill a sense of responsibility — for our democracy to last, every one must participate.
WHS Press: What was the motivation for writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?
JK: There are short works about how state and local government work, but these usually neglect the historical framework of continuity and change over time. In order to understand why our government works the way it does, we need to understand its past: why did the framers of Wisconsin's constitution create a supreme court that was elected and not appointed? Why has the judicial branch changed over the years? Government is never static: it changes over time, and understanding how government changes in response to new social conditions or new ideas reminds us that we have an obligation to ensure that government continues to function and to make changes when necessary.
WHS Press: Why is this book important for Wisconsin? For Students?
JK: Wisconsin has a long history of innovation: primary elections, industrial regulation, workers compensation, unemployment compensation. We need to remind ourselves of how often Wisconsin has led the nation toward a more democratic way of life. Wisconsin also has a reputation for taking government very seriously. Only in the past two decades has the state's reputation for "squeaky-clean" politics suffered from corruption scandals and negative campaigning. It is important for citizens of this state to refresh their appreciation for our political history and rededicate themselves to democracy.
WHS Press: What was your favorite part of writing "Voices & Votes: How Democracy Works in Wisconsin"?
JK: My favorite part of developing this book was writing about the personalities that have shaped Wisconsin politics. From James Duane Doty and Henry Dodge in territorial days to Edward O. Ryan and Ezekiel Gillespie in the nineteenth century to Robert La Follette and Olympia Brown in the Progressive Era to Gaylord Nelson and Midge Miller in the late twentieth century, interesting people have shaped our government. I remember reading about these people as a student, and I hope writing about them will make the complex ideas behind government more approachable and interesting for young students today.
WHS Press: Describe how writing for young adults differs from writing for adult audiences.
JK: You need to explain everything! When writing for adults, you can assume the average reader will know there is this thing called "congress" and a document called the "constitution." You can then proceed from there. But with a younger audience, if you say our legislature is based on the congressional model, which in turn is based on the British Parliament, you have to explain everything back to ancient Greece! Trying to balance the need to include enough background information and the need to keep the text from becoming too overwhelming was often very difficult.