Our selections usually have a Kenyon-affiliated author or come from a recent syllabus used in a Kenyon classroom. Keep an eye on this site during the year as new recommendations will be added.   

Featured Review

Bridging the Empathy Wall: 'Strangers in Their Own Land' and the Crisis of Democracy

CSAD student associate and political science and economics major Olive O’Riordan '25 reviews "Strangers in Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Last fall, I took a class entitled “Democracy in Crisis,” taught by Professor Camerra-Rowe. This class explored trends of democratic backsliding across the world, even within the United States. I took a lot from this class, and often find myself referencing the things I learned in day-to-day conversations with my friends, peers, and family. More than any other text or concept, "Strangers in Their Own Land" (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild has stuck with me.

Much like the author of this book, I am a somewhat crunchy liberal from the West Coast. As a Kenyon student from outside Seattle, I resonated with Hochschild’s perspective as a sociologist at UC Berkeley. Like her, I identify with a cultural bubble that regularly reads the New York Times, eats organic food, and takes public transportation. My family is not only college-educated, but some members hold masters degrees or even PhDs. I was aware not every American lives the way my family does, and I was often reminded growing up that I live a life of privilege. Yet, it is not uncommon for people close to me to dismiss drivers with Trump 2024, QAnon or Tea Party stickers as "wackos" or "idiots."

In her book, Hochschild seeks to break down this cultural divide, or what she calls "the Empathy Wall" (xiii). She is looking for what she calls "The Deep Story" or how people on the right feel about politics (xi). She travels through the Bayou areas of Louisiana, recording stories of various people who are members of, or sympathetic to, the Tea Party. Much of her book sought to answer the question, "why is it that Lousianians align with the Tea Party when they are some of the greatest victims of environmental issues in the United States?" but she discovered much more.

She constructs a central thesis that resonates with many of her interviewees. These Americans seek release from notions of "what they should feel" that they perceive to be expected from the ideological left. Ideas such as feeling happy for gay people, sympathetic towards Syrian refugees, or unresentful about paying taxes are beliefs that they feel are imposed upon them but don’t align with their convictions (15-16). These Lousianians feel as if they are waiting in line for the American Dream, but others are cutting the line. These "line cutters" are women, black people, immigrants, refugees, and even the environment. They believe that these line cutters are resentful of America and they do not understand why. They see being an American as a significant aspect of their identity and take pride in it, irrespective of whether that pride is derived from the president (9).

These Americans were indeed left behind. Since the 1950s, the income of the bottom 90% of Americans no longer increases throughout their lifetimes, and white men in the bottom 90% face more job competition from women and minorities (141). Older workers find it especially hard to reverse their odds, as they are late in their careers. Hochschild argues that Trump appeals to such voters as an "Emotions Candidate" (212). The notion of a silent majority reassures people that they are not alone in their beliefs, that others don’t want to conform to "PC" culture, and that they don’t need to feel guilty for not abiding by the liberal’s "feeling rules." They are acting in what Hochschild calls their "Emotional Self-Interest." Trump's complete rejection of PC culture allows them to feel recused of all guilt or shame associated with being white or with needing to feel sorry for the line cutters, when they do not (227-228).

Before I read this book, I thought I knew who was causing democratic backsliding in the United States: the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, 2020, and Donald Trump, who encouraged them to do it. Today, I have a different answer. People no longer listen to the stories of people with whom they disagree. It has become so easy to dismiss or ignore narratives that do not align with our personal objectives and ultimately we no longer understand each other. The people in Louisiana did not feel heard by people from communities like Hoschild’s and mine. That is why they turned to the populist movement of Donald Trump. He is a symptom of a larger problem, not a cause. Only if we read books like Hochschild’s and listen to the stories of people unlike us can we heal as a nation. 

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right." New York: New Press, 2016.

More Recent Reviews

In their first book, "How Democracies Die," Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asked how do democracies get pushed to the brink? In their new book, "Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point," Levitsky and Ziblatt ask, why, out of all the established democracies in the world, did American democracy get pushed to the brink?

"How Democracies Die" (2018) painted a picture of how democratic backsliding has occurred in the United States and worldwide. Levitsky and Ziblatt concluded in "How Democracies Die" that America would continue down a path of polarization encouraged by our political leaders.

Levitsky and Ziblatt open "Tyranny of the Minority" with a sobering and frankly terrifying statement, "the assault on American democracy was worse than anything we anticipated in 2017, when we were writing our first book." Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the problem facing American democracy is not strongman political figures, but rather, the foundational structures of American government that have allowed political minorities to win national offices. For those who care about preserving American democracy, "Tyranny of the Minority" is an eye-opening and necessary read.

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that American democracy has undergone a transformation in the past century. Our population is becoming more and more diverse. America has been on the path to achieving a mulitracial democracy, a democracy where individuals of all races and ethnicities have equal protection of democratic and civil rights under the law, for a long time, but still has not reached it. Most Americans know that our institutions are plagued by systemic racism and gender biases, and yet, America continues to become more diverse. Increasing diversity is not a purely American phenomenon, but our reaction to it is. Americans, especially in the Republican party, have had an "unusually authoritarian" reaction to increasing diversity. On top of that, unlike other countries experiencing similar problems, extremist forces in the United States have gained national power. Levitsky and Ziblatt diagnose this as the root of our problem. The Republican Party’s reaction to increasing diversity has pushed the party towards authoritarianism.

Levitsky and Ziblatt then turn to how authoritarian leaders attempt to use American political institutions to undermine democracy. They start by warning about political figures who ignore anti-democratic sentiments in their colleagues. They write about the dangers of "semi-loyal democrats." These are politicians who follow the rules and never engage in outwardly anti-democratic behavior. However, they also turn a blind eye to extremists or anti-democratic behavior. Semi-loyal democrats are problematic because they often end up protecting anti-democratic forces by making their behavior seem normal. When anti-democratic behavior is tolerated, it destroys any kind of deterrent effect, which can encourage or even radicalize anti-democratic leaders. And that is what leaves our constitution so open to being exploited.

In writing the Constitution, the founding fathers sought to protect the rights of minority coalitions. The American political system has been extremely successful at this. Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that we now face the opposite problem — electoral majorities are having an extremely difficult time winning power, and even when they win, they often cannot govern effectively. This is because anti-democratic forces are using the American constitution as a political weapon. There are several provisions in the constitution, such as the electoral college,  that were created to protect the rights of the minority. We have now found ourselves in a place where these provisions are being used by the minority faction to override the will of the majority. This is inherently anti-democratic, and more dangerously, often done under the guise of the law.

One of the many recurring themes in "Tyranny of the Minority" is that, often, the largest threats to our democracy are hiding. Anti-democratic politicians almost never openly violate the law. They want plausible deniability for their actions. This is why it is not always obvious to the average voter that American democracy is backsliding. Levitsky and Ziblatt bring awareness to the hidden dangers within our democratic system. They continually point out the dangers of not calling out anti-democratic behavior. While we as individuals do not have enough power to stop anti-democratic forces in our government, it is still on us to recognize semi-loyal democrats. "Tyranny of the Minority" shows us the importance of being not just informed, but also diligent in recognizing semi-loyal or simply anti-democratic behavior in our elected officials.

"Tyranny of the Minority" is accessible to everyone from political scientists to casual readers. Levitsky and Ziblatt use plain language and supplement their explanations with historical and global anecdotes to describe political theory. Levitsky and Ziblatt do not sugar coat the situation we are in. We need to be alarmed about the state of American democracy and they are not overly optimistic about our options. When I finished this book I was concerned, but not paralyzed. Saving American democracy will require a consistent effort to create massive constitutional reforms that will overhaul a number of our longstanding institutions. Levitsky and Ziblatt acknowledge that it is unlikely that most of their policy recommendations will be adopted, but they argue that is only one step of the process. The average American views large scale constitutional reform as impossible, and therefore dismisses it entirely (I am guilty of this myself). However, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that one of the most important things we can do is talk about democracy. Talk about constitutional reform. Politicians who are committed to preserving democracy need to work to make constitutional reform part of the national political debate, and it is our role as their constituents to tell them what is important to us.

Levitsky and Ziblatt call to our attention that the Trump presidency was not an exception. It was a warning to what the future of American democracy may look like. We are less than a year out from an election that could determine the survival of our democracy and if we act now, we could have a chance at saving it. I will leave you with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s most important point: "Our institutions will not save our democracy. We will have to save it ourselves."

Inside the White House during the chaotic summer of 2017, a clandestine dinner took place amongst President Trump and his most trusted allies, a group of top Washington Post officials, and Post owner Jeff Bezos. This meeting would be one of many interactions between Trump and the Post.

In his new book, "Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post," Martin ("Marty") Baron, a seasoned journalist with decades of experience leading notable newsrooms like The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, and most recently The Washington Post, divulges historic moments from his insider vantage point. Baron recounts instances when he witnessed journalistic standards bend, break or withstand the pressures of an ever-evolving social, political, and economic climate.

Within the first months of his time at the Post, Baron navigated the acquisition of the Post by billionaire Jeff Bezos. This historic transition of ownership from the Graham family to Bezos forced Baron to reckon with a new reality for American media. Local papers were going underwater, and figures like Bezos, with a knack for business and abundant resources, could turn the Post into a profitable asset. Bezos’ purchase of the Post raised eyebrows about his true intentions. Baron and Post staffers were worried that Bezos could impede their ability to report and hold powerful figures accountable. However, Baron assuages any skepticism surrounding Bezos’ ownership. According to Baron, Bezos' involvement in the Post was limited to business strategy and occasional check-ins. Baron himself admits his interactions with Bezos were rare. The more concerning threat to the Post was the looming presidential election. Baron describes challenges created from the outset of the 2016 election. Faced with the task of siphoning out the truth during a presidency rife with lies and misinformation, Baron was resolute: “We are not at war with the administration. We are at work.” This quote remains displayed in the offices of The Post. At each crossroad, Baron established himself as a champion of high journalistic standards. Barons’ frank tone and resolute decision-making process make his journalistic intentions crystal clear: journalism demands “truth, honesty, transparency, and accountability from powerful individuals, particularly those entrusted to govern the country” (8).

Baron recounts recent events with an air of novelty, integrating detailed anecdotes and reflections, both from his personal experiences and the experiences of his colleagues. Baron positions the members of the media, both the Post and other publications, at the intersection of colliding forces. The framing of these stories through a journalistic lens, which recounts the process of reporting on key events to the American public, reveals to the reader the social, political, and economic pressures the media face. Despite external threats and moral conflicts, Baron emphasizes that journalists must adhere to traditional principles. The right decisions, Baron writes, are the ones that defend the credibility of the media as beacons of truth. For example, Baron describes a meeting with Bob Woodard, a former Post investigative journalist, about publishing a story containing information that could expose Brett Kavanaugh, then a nominee for the Supreme Court, as duplicitous. However, to publish the story Woodard would have had to reveal Kavanaugh’s identity as a confidential source, which Baron posits would conflict with “[Woodard’s] entire career spent arguing for the sanctity of protecting confidential sources” (209). Baron asserts that journalists should not apply their principles situationally when it involves pursuing their own ideas about justice; Woodard did not publish the story. Despite harsh criticism from fans of the Post, Baron stood firmly in his decision.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading in the sense that it presents Bezos and Trump as the primary focus of the narrative. While Baron makes it clear that Bezos and Trump have played a crucial role in the development of our political and media climates, they sit more at the periphery than is let on. Baron uses these major figures as a segue to expand into the many other threats to the modern-day coverage of news. While Trump was very overt about his contempt for the media, Baron indicates that government hostility towards the media runs much further and deeper than Trump’s administration. If anything, he is representative of a larger population of politicians and global actors against accountability and the spreading of truth. When Baron discusses Bezos’ acquisition of the Post, he expands on problems arising from the modern-day evolution of the news industry — from locally owned newspapers to mass national news corporations.

News providers have always had an incentive to turn a profit, however, with the decline of local news, larger news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post have funneled resources into increasing readers and improving metrics. The pressure of maintaining relevance and a high-profit margin reveals a modern dilemma. The free press is simultaneously tasked with disseminating the truth to the people, while also producing profitable content. As Baron reveals, this need to produce high volumes of content and attract readers can motivate newspapers to act unethically. Newspapers prematurely publishing stories without absolute certainty as to whether or not they’re true to beat other newspapers to the punch perfectly exemplifies this problem. 

"Collision of Power"" awakens the reader to the necessity of the free press for American democracy and why we must fiercely protect the institution from threats. While the freedom of the press is an inalienable right, Baron’s account warns that a number of these threats — issues related to modern technology, polarization, and capitalism — are difficult to protect against. Thus, strong, stalwart leaders become crucial in ensuring that the media does not lose sight of its purpose as a watchdog for the American people.

For someone concerned with the way that surveillance distorts reality, Kerry Howley picked an ideal subject — Reality Winner, the strangely-named former CIA agent who leaked a five-page document about Russian election interference. "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State" tells the true story of the events leading up to and following that leak. In addition to Reality Winner, "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs" examines the surveillance state through the perspective of seven other subjects — John Walker Lindh, John Kirikaou, Chelsea Manning, Jessyln Radack, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Joseph Biggs. Howley brings their stories together to create a portrait of what she calls the “new generation” of whistleblowers, a group of people who are young, ideological, and “morally serious.” 

The first half of the book details the circumstances that inspired these eight people to blow the whistle. It is a recounting of the history of the modern surveillance state, from 9/11 to Zoom, and an elaboration of how American intelligence agencies use technology to spy on American citizens, as well as citizens of foreign nations. This section also examines the personal lives of the whistleblowers and the individual circumstances that motivated their actions. The second half of the book largely focuses on the trial of Winner. The narrative follows her through a Kafkaesque series of prison transfers, lawyer changes, and information requests. Howley invites readers to put themselves in the shoes of the book’s subjects, and consider the way they are surveilled and the possibility that someday the legal apparatus of the state could be turned on them or someone they knew. In the end, "Bottoms Up" is also a story about the criminal justice system, and Howley covers well-trodden ground when she argues that this system may not be fair for the people caught up in it.

The title, "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs," refers to a 2014 viral video of a woman on a tirade against Monster Energy drinks, who claimed they are associated with the devil. Howley invites the audience to join in the ridicule of this woman for her objectively absurd belief, but then lays out a brief history of the drink company’s aggressively litigious copyright claims and the sexual assault allegations against its executives. The idea that Monster Energy is satanic may be absurd, but the idea that the company acts immorally is not. Howley compares the energy drink satanism claims to Q-Anon, which she says is a similar “fantasy built on solid ground.” The allegations laid out by Q are as ridiculous as the Monster Energy woman. There is no cabal of satanists. But there is a deep state — a broad network of unelected officials, in charge of monitoring the behavior of American citizens.

This network is the intelligence community, which Howley calls “shadow America.” "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs" is an investigation into the way that the intelligence community gathers and classifies information. Since 9/11, the American intelligence community has vacuumed in information with abandon, through the surveillance of American citizens. Howley draws an implicit parallel between this collection of information and the CIA’s torture of Abu Zubaydah. Intelligence agencies are allowed to breach human rights for the sake of national security, and there is no codified regulatory body to control them. Instead, regulation comes in the form of whistleblowers, a deeply flawed accountability strategy. Whistleblowers are complex, sometimes misled individuals, who may have a skewed view of what is best. Of the eight whistleblowers Howley documents, some (like Reality Winner) seem more justified in their actions than others (like Julian Assange), and yet all are essentially the same in the eyes of the state. 

The intelligence community does not act alone, though. As Howley says, “surveillance is made of us.” With that statement, she refers to the internet, and the broad-reaching social media networks we use to document our lives. Yes, intelligence agencies have intruded on all parts of Americans’ lives in pursuit of information. They have not done it alone, however, and our engagement with technology has given the government an easy way to monitor us. The epitome of this relationship is the January 6th insurrection, which was widely filmed and posted about by the people taking part in it, with some of them proudly proclaiming their involvement on Instagram. An even more striking example is when Reality, locked in a county jail, finally gets a phone call from her sister. Reality’s main job at the CIA was monitoring the phone calls of Afghani citizens, a job that drove her to leak sensitive information, landing her in jail. Even with that knowledge, she speaks to her sister not considering that their call will be recorded and later used against her, in the same way the calls she listened in on were.  

The stories in "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs" are not largely new. Although Howley has interviewed several of her subjects, such as Reality Winner’s mother, much of the information in the book was easily publically available by the time it was written. The trick is how Howley tells the story — the diligent reexamination of well known events is at the crux of her writing. By playing on the reader's assumed knowledge of events, Howley leaves them dreading what they know will come next. The beginning of the novel follows a young John Walker Lindh on his search for purpose, which he eventually finds in Afghanistan with the Taliban. This chapter concludes with a simple sentence: “It was June of 2001.” Through this style, Howley successfully foreshadows long-past events. 

Howley does more than just return to historic events through her writing. She also returns to stories she has already told. After introducing one perspective, Howley doubles back to address the same events with new information. This stylistic choice strengthens the effect of the stories. Howley does not simply tell us that John Kirikaou was wrong in his description of CIA torture as brief and effective. She first describes Kirikaou’s story, as he fears he will never see his children again after blowing the whistle. She quotes what he said on ABC News, that torture only happened once, and was immediately effective. The reader is invited to believe this story for a time, until the truth is described, in all its horrifying detail, chapters later. This doubling back, in combination with the foreshadowing, makes the events of the book feel palpable. 

These literary strategies also make "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs" read more like a novel than a scholarly work. The text itself is novel-like, with no in-text references or citations, and only a two-page bibliography at the end. Quotes are written conversationally, making them feel like dialogue. Howley is a creative nonfiction teacher, a genre of nonfiction which aims to tell true stories using literary techniques. While the compelling prose makes "Bottoms Up" a quick read, the style can make the story feel fictional, to the book's own detriment. The strangest thing about the stories in Bottoms Up is that they are true, and the style can soften this edge.

There is a certain amount of patience needed to enjoy "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs." The book jumps from story to story, and at times events are recounted for seemingly no reason. It is only when the narrative doubles back that these events become important again, and the entire story is thrown into a new light. The internet, Howley says, “collapses time,” and Bottoms Up does the same — although the narrative has spanned twenty years by the end of the book, the complicated path taken to get there makes the events of 2001 feel as recent as the events of 2020. Through these stylistic choices, Howley enacts on the audience the same kind of confusion as many of the characters are experiencing – a sense of being thrown around through an abundance of information, under a set of rules to which they are not privy. This disorientation, however, adds an immersive feeling to the story. The book is a disturbing look at the intelligence community, and an empathetic portrait of the people caught up in it. "Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs" is accessible even to non-academics, and is a dark but necessary read for anyone interested in the way that mass surveillance shapes American lives.

Kerry Howley, “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs.” Knopf, 2023. 256 pages. ISBN 9780525655497.

"Prophet Song" by Irish novelist Paul Lynch has gotten a lot of attention as of late. The novel won the 2023 Booker Prize, and the chair of the Booker judges, Esi Eduyan, proclaimed that readers “will not soon forget its warnings.” Aimee Walsh declares in her review for The Guardian that “if there ever was a crucial book for our current times, it’s Paul Lynch's 'Prophet Song.’” And even the Kenyon Collegian describes the novel as “prescient.” Clearly, the buzz around "Prophet Song" comes from its political relevance and what it says about the state of today’s politics, even above the quality of its writing and storytelling as a work of fiction. I therefore went in with the expectation that Lynch had a new perspective on our current era, on 21st century political movements, or on the strength of modern institutions. What I got instead was a well written if somewhat cliche political thriller that seems more interested in reinforcing existing fears, as opposed to expanding on them or creating fresh dialogue.

First and foremost, "Prophet Song" is a work of fiction, and Paul Lynch is a novelist. This is Lynch’s fifth novel, and not the first to receive significant recognition. Lynch brings a distinctly Irish tone to his novels, and this is present in "Prophet Song" through the mix of a dystopian setting with elements of a domestic novel. The main character, Eilish, is a mother and scientist who is just trying to live a comfortable middle class life in a suburban home. She has to deal with her teenager’s angst, a father with dementia, and the gradually more difficult task of going out to get milk for the family, a clever motif that serves as a measurement for the increasingly dire state this fictional version of Ireland falls into. By merging the dystopian with the domestic, Lynch sends the message loud and clear that politics has taken over all parts of ordinary life and that nobody can avoid the consequences.

When Lynch dips away from the everyday and into the political world, "Prophet Song’s" premise starts to fall apart. Before the start of the novel, the far right National Alliance Party wins an election and immediately starts to implement authoritarian rule in Ireland under the guise of a “national emergency.” Eilish’s husband Larry is the general secretary for the teacher’s union and is arrested early on after the union holds a protest, leaving Eilish alone with their four children and desperate to get her husband back. This provides a good setup for a dramatic plot, but not a nuanced political perspective. We know that the National Alliance Party was put into office by ordinary people, but we never find out why anyone supported them in the first place or what the pretext for the emergency is. The soldiers and secret police who often harass Eilish are mindless nobodys. Their lack of character development reminded me of the ordinary foot soldiers of Team Rocket from Pokemon, who each look identical and are just called “grunts.” Lynch describes soldiers in the supermarket as “the dark majesty of automatic weapons in the arms of youth no older than her son, chins that have no need of a blade, their faces aggressively expressionless.” Statements like these beautifully restate what the reader is thinking but provide the reader with nothing more than a generic evil, expressionless and without a motivation for their destructive means. Lynch’s writing is consistently beautiful in prose but hollow in meaning.

Part of offering a dialogue on politics is providing a perspective not only on what is wrong with society but also looking at what brought us here and what can be done. There is clearly meant to be some of that in "Prophet Song," such as the message that armed rebellion can further damage democratic prospects even if its intentions start off good. This is shown when the fighting comes right to Eilish’s formerly quiet street and the rebel fighters commit similar atrocities as the military, prompting Eilish to ask if they are actually any better than the party. But since we don’t really know what the rebels are fighting for, aside from being against the party, the message doesn’t have much impact and instead feels fatalist, reinforced by the increasingly dire and violent conditions Eilish and her family have to suffer through as the novel goes on. This makes for an incredibly sad and visual novel, but not one that made me think about it once I finished it.

Maybe the lesson here is that we should take novels like "Prophet Song" for what they are instead of trying to attach large overarching themes to them. Taking it as a political thriller solely in the realm of fiction, it is a beautifully written novel that experiments with crossing disparate genres. But once broader political messages get attached, suddenly "Prophet Song" loses its luster. Paul Lynch said that the novel is based in “radical empathy,” but empathy in part means understanding the feelings of others. I wish "Prophet Song" had a little more of that.

Paul Lynch. "Prophet Song." Oneworld Publications, 2023, ISBN 9780861546459.

No matter if you align yourself with the right or the left side of American politics, you most likely would agree that the United States feels especially polarized nowadays. In fact, I think most people could say that they’ve heard peers joke that blue states and red states should just form their own countries, because the current state of political polarization has made it feel impossible to get things done. Polarization in the United States is a grossly intimidating puzzle, but in his book, "Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein has ambitiously decided to try to give us the pieces to solve it.

Ezra Klein is a progressive journalist, political analyst, editor-at-large and co-founder of Vox, an award-winning explanatory news organization. He hosts the podcast "The Ezra Klein Show" and has been  a columnist and editor at the Washington Post and as a policy analyst at MSNBC. Klein’s Vox skills are evident in this book, which explains complex politics in a way that nonspecialists can understand.  

"Why We’re Polarized" has two parts, separated with an interlude. The first half of the book is a well-researched and formal analysis of how American systems predictably — led to our current state of polarization. The second half considers American politics in light of today’s technology and media. Klein concludes the book by giving his opinion on how we can lessen the severity of polarization. 

"Why We’re Polarized" begins: “The first thing I need to do is convince you something has changed.” This line conveys Klein’s voice as well as his objective. Klein is going to hold our hand through our fraught political system (using his explanatory Vox tools), and he is going to do so by showing us that something shifted in American politics along the way. Moreover, this shift was purposeful and we are living in the consequences of it. 

Klein weaves together academic research and historical documents to give a comprehensive and logical history of how Democrats became liberals and Republicans became conservatives. Klein keeps his promise that he is going to convince us of why American politics look the way they do. Detailing the way in which our parties have become more distinct from one another leads naturally into Klein’s analysis of people in general, which is essential to gaining a deeper understanding of constitutions and institutions. An undercurrent theme of Klein’s writing is that we have to understand everything — the geography of the United States, the development of political parties, as well as the psychology of people generally and Americans specifically. In other words, Klein is giving us all the pieces to solve the puzzle of polarization, because we need to understand how these pieces work together to form the picture that we see today.

A particular highlight of the first half of Klein’s book was mention of Kenyon’s own former president, Sean Decatur, in his discussion of political correctness, especially on college campuses. Klein pulls in Decatur to prove his point that it is a false pretense to assume that college campuses have ever been an institution protecting free speech, since many Republicans credit college campuses with the birth of political correctness. Klein references Decatur’s speech in which Decatur points out “that American colleges have always believed the regulation of civility and behavioral norms to be part of their mandate.” In fact, Decatur points out that Kenyon’s statement of student responsibilities (since the 1960s) has always advocated for behavior that does not offend other students, faculty members, or visitors. 

Lasting for about two pages, Klein uses the interlude between the two halves of his book to pivot from his in-depth historical analysis of American politics to contextualizing this history in today’s world of rapid change, technology and media. While short, the interlude positions the previously discussed factors into our current era of “profound, powerful social change.” Post-interlude, Klein aims to examine the feedback loop of polarization–with institutions appealing to a polarized public, which continues to polarize the public, which then causes politicians to appeal and further polarize, and so it goes. The second half of the book is where Klein’s experience in media and journalism shines through for much of the polarization feedback loop is fueled by media sources interested in appealing to the polarized public as well. His chapter titled, “The Media Divide beyond Left-Right” feels like a particular insider look with Klein speaking more from experience than from research (such as his reveal that Buzzfeed was founded for the primary reason of exploring how media went viral). Moreover, Klein also writes with a certain sense of humility as he is critiquing the role of media as an institution — an institution to which he belongs. 

Over the course of the second half of the book, Klein becomes less guarded in his opinions about the current state and future direction of American politics. I was most struck by Klein’s claim that America is unable to push against polarization because America isn’t actually a democracy. Klein explains that America is not a democracy, because of who ultimately has power and who makes choices for our country. With the electoral college, spare, rural areas are politically privileged over dense, urban ones. Therefore, “the voters who hold the balance of power in American politics are whiter, older, and more Christian than the country as a whole.”

After diagnosing America as undemocratic, Klein asks us to practice political mindfulness and to rediscover a politics of place. He asks with self-awareness. “Yeah, I know. Of course, the politics book by the liberal Californian vegan ends with a call to mindfulness,” Klein writes. While the ideas (at the surface) may cause an initial, “Here we go,” there is great validity and insight in Klein’s solutions to polarization.

"Why We’re Polarized" came out in January 2020 — before coronavirus, before Joe Biden’s election as president, and before the January 6 attack on the Capitol. In his afterword, written in March 2021, Klein acknowledges that American history accelerated in a way that he couldn’t have predicted. He argues, though, that the 2016 and 2020 elections highlight his main argument — that our problem isn’t polarization, but the interaction between polarization and our political institutions. Klein ends the afterword with a striking sentiment: “... the defining question of this next period in American politics is not whether we will be polarized. We already are. It is whether we will be democratized.”

Ezra Klein skillfully applies what he has learned as a policy analyst and co-founder of Vox to a complicated American political past and an even more complicated American present and future. Despite being written by a self-proclaimed liberal Californian vegan, "Why We’re Polarized" is a book both the left and right could learn and grow from. Both sides need to be careful in the way they have crafted mega-identities rooted in our political parties, and the ways in which the media and our political institutions capitalize on these mega-identities. We need to remember that we are the United States and that we pledged to be an indivisible nation, not a nation of two teams merely concerned with gaining power. 

Ezra Klein, "Why We’re Polarized." Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2020/2021. Hardcover, ISBN 9781476700328.

It is no secret that the U.S. is racially corrupt and has been for centuries, especially towards Black Americans. The U.S. itself was built on racial domination and white supremacy — these two concepts are embedded into the U.S.’s most respected document — a document that is still the foundation for the U.S. law and justice system. When you have a country that is built on racial domination and white supremacy, it is not surprising that those institutions remain in force. 

Melvin L. Rogers is a professor of political science and the associate director of philosophy, politics, and economics at Brown University. Rogers’ areas of expertise include African-American political thought; race, ethnicity and politics; political development and politics and history. Rogers wrote "The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and Ethos of Democracy," published in 2008. 

In his new book, "The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought," Rogers analyzes philosophical texts to demonstrate not only the immorality of the mistreatment and oppression of Black Americans in the U.S. but also to emphasize that the oppression of Black Americans is incompatible with U.S. democratic values. This book collects a range of philosophical texts by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart, Hosea Easton, Martin Delany, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Billie Holiday, and James Baldwin. Rogers proposes that we use these revolutionary texts to reform the meaning of democracy and let go of white supremacy. Throughout his book, he seeks to transform his audience and to call people "to a higher vision."

Many themes come across in Rogers's book. The first is that African-American political theorists help us see and face up to the tragedy of America's racially oppressive past. The second, emphasized throughout his book, is that the American people need to acknowledge the horrors of that past and the toll it has had on the souls of Black Americans to this day. Lastly, Rogers argues that the legitimacy of the United States and its claims to democracy require a national acknowledgment of racial oppression. 

Rogers examines philosophical texts from a variety of Black abolitionists, from Douglass’ calls for political freedom for Black Americans to Ida B. Well’s criticism of white people’s habituation to the suffering of Black Americans, specifically in the context of lynching, to W.E.B. DuBois' analysis of the “Souls of Black Folk.” All authors write to their white audience to suggest and emphasize ways to transform the wider culture. They intend to transform their readers’ ways of thinking by provoking shame about their previous actions and empathy for Black Americans. 

An important takeaway from this book is that this nation cannot claim to be civilized or free when it justifies the mistreatment, degradation, and degeneration of Black Americans or when it tries to forget the tragedy and horrors of the past. Rogers urges his readers to face up to the past, no matter how painful it is to acknowledge, because “tragedy must educate” and because the past bleeds into the present. Because the U.S. was built on white supremacy, we must all “bear the trace of its tragic past to remain responsive to the demands of freedom and equal regard in the present” (p. 264). 

Rogers ends his book on a hopeful note to “call people to a higher vision” and incorporates texts from James Baldwin to argue that atonement is necessary for the U.S. to become a racially just polity with democratic freedom. Meaningful atonement, Rogers says,  addresses the racial inequalities and injustices of the past. We hope for redemption by righting a wrong, but these wrongs were so barbaric that we cannot right them, we must acknowledge them and prevent the past from becoming tyrannical, to prevent the past from continuing into the future. We must acknowledge the horrors of the past so we can ensure to avoid and eliminate oppressive, degrading and horrific patterns.

"The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought" is a fascinating read for everyone, especially those interested in African-American political thought and how the racial tragedies of the past have everything to do with modern-day democracy. However, Rogers writes for all audiences, specifically white Americans for whom African American theorists provide needed insights into the past and present of democracy in America.

Imagine, if you will, an empire. Imagine a commanding, centralized state with resource-laden peripheries and appointed colonial governors. Imagine a state that gradually spreads its influence over the world, conquering both guano-coated ocean outcroppings and enough colonial subjects to outnumber the people of the central nation.

In his 2019 book, "How to Hide an Empire," Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr contends that the United States was just such an imperial power in the 19th and 20th centuries. In his introduction, Immerwahr reshapes readers’ conceptions of the United States by defining the “logo map,” the commonplace display of the lower forty-eight states, which neglects the colonial holdings of a nation born out of a desire to be free. He reminds readers that their knowledge of common facts rooted in the American mythos often lacks context, such as the nearly-forgotten attack on Manila Bay occurring on the same day as Pearl Harbor not included in the remembrance of the Day of Infamy.

Immerwahr takes his readers on exhilarating hikes to once-American-controlled places like Baguio, the “summer capital” of the Philippines designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham. With vivid language, he describes  engineering feats and architectural projects, and later recounts the horrors of imperial violence that destroyed those same projects. Wars too were an agent of American colonial expansion; concentration camps were used in the United States-controlled Philippines, decades before they were installed in Germany.

The American empire Immerwahr describes mortifies and intrigues the reader; the author bridges the gap between the depth of academic writing and the accessibility of public writing. His cogent writing allows readers to comprehend information at full strength, rather than through diluted abstracts and summaries. His writing reveals the empire hidden from Americans' view–an empire that shaped global production practices, quietly disenfranchised groups of its own citizens, and even concealed decades of scientific experimentation on the people of Puerto Rico.

Framing histories through the lens of empire is no novel technique. Pekka Hamalainen’s "The Comanche Empire" (2008) was met with great acclaim and the Bancroft Prize; Pieter Judson’s "The Habsburg Empire: A New History" (2016) framed Austria-Hungary, historically one of Europe’s most fragmented states, as a cohesive empire. Immerwahr’s book is functionally similar to these books, but it blazes a new trail through its concision across an enormous geographic space and an equally broad time span. Immerwahr covers centuries of American history but maintains a clear narrative frame despite the chronological and geographic jumps.

As a student of politics and history, I found this a fascinating read. Redefining histories as empires and breaking past American exceptionalism are not new approaches, but Immerwahr gracefully captured the best aspects of each subject and insightfully wrote about that empire that should have been obvious before. I was appalled by stories of United States officials writing to their colleagues about their stated commitment to killing medical test subjects in the territories, and I was shocked by the sheer number of people under United States governance who lived outside the boundaries of Immerwahr’s logo map. (Considering the number of times I reread pages to make sure I had read a fact correctly, I may have already read the book twice.) Immerwahr uses diverse sources and interpretations of events, while exuding the confidence of a well-prepared lecturer. His clarity of style explains answers as if they were being offered in a one-on-one meeting.

From preaching on the standardization of fastener sizes to exposing the horrid past of a once-renowned American cancer researcher, Immerwahr offers readers an accessible, eye-opening look into how imperialist systems supported the growth of industrial capitalism in the United States of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Importantly, the book did not impose itself upon the reader, instead providing clear examples and allowing conclusions to be drawn independently. Though written several years ago, this book calls attention to America’s former and current place in the world, and to the significant effect of  American leaders' decisions upon the people and economies in their peripheral holdings.

Daniel Immerwahr. "How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States." Picador, 2019. Paperback, ISBN: 9780374172145.

Democracy is an Olympic flame — kindled long ago in ancient Greece, kept up by collective desire yet carried by dedicated individuals. The question is what to do when we lose our grip on the flame and America’s longest held ideal begins to fall away. Lawrence Jacobs, in his aptly named "Democracy under Fire," analyzes American political history in his quest to find the answer.

During this dreaded election year, it's hard to escape the magazine covers and coffeehouse conversations all infected with apocalyptic predictions and painful recollections of the Trump presidency. But if you are looking for a refreshingly intellectual approach to the doom and gloom, a new book by Lawrence Jacobs, a scholar of American political history at the University of Minnesota, is the place to turn. 

Jacobs essentially rewrites the classic children’s tale of Little Red Riding Hood: the wolf of authoritarianism is disguised as a beloved and democratic tradition. In his previous books (1), Jacobs wrote about issues caused by the Electoral College. "Democracy under Fire" examines the problems caused by today’s primary system. In Jacobs’ view, America’s extremist disease is enabled by institutions that pre-date the Trump era. Certain political structures, intended to reduce political inequality and government overreach, have become procedures that exacerbate both.

The ordinary American, perhaps even the aspiring political scientist like myself, reads the U.S. Constitution as a liberating, democratic document. Jacobs, on the other hand, provocatively defines the Constitution as a political device used to reinstate the elite. While this may seem shocking, Levitsky and Ziblatt reach a similar conclusion in their 2023 book, "Tyranny of the Minority."(2) The primary goals of the Constitution, for Jacobs, were to create a supreme national government, initiate indirect elections through the creation of the electoral college and prevent collective political action. Have your arms ever throbbed from holding a scraggly protest sign? Have you ever signed an online petition while on your lunch break? Jacobs bursts our democratic bubble by implying that the Constitution intentionally limits these key aspects of American pride. 

Intent on democratizing the Founders' institutions, those who created the direct presidential primary framed it as an opportunity for citizens to finally achieve unobstructed, equal representation in the presidential elections. But like dreams of sugar plum fairies and a perfect democracy, the direct presidential primary system was never destined to succeed. 

At the core of "Democracy Under Fire" is the argument that primary elections exacerbate existing political advantages, as Sarah Anderson and her colleagues argued in the well-regarded 2020 book "Rejecting Compromise: Legislators Fears of Primary Voters." (3) Primary elections tend to bring out the most partisan voters; in order to garner those voters’ support, candidates pledge more extreme policy views. The system Jacobs describes encourages ambitious politicians to appeal to single-issue interest groups and exchange policy loyalty for financial support. Leaders of both political parties support extreme positions to raise funds from radical voters, thus no longer representing the views of the moderate voters. The politicians' obligation to cater to extreme factions in order to secure party nominations facilitates the undoing of American democracy. 

"Democracy Under Fire" gives the reader a long explanation of American political history and  bemoans a hopeless system, before reaching the meat of the book — the solutions. Unlike many other scholars, Jacobs does not endorse rank choice voting (which he views as ineffective) or the abolition of the Electoral College (which he argues is too much, too soon). Instead, Jacobs proposes a somewhat counterintuitive solution. 

Party nominations for a presidential election are decided by a majority vote from the party’s convention delegates. The majority of these delegates are pledged, which is to say that their votes are informed by the candidate's popularity among the people. When primary voters choose a radical candidate, party delegates must confirm that choice. Superdelegates, on the other hand, make up a small portion of convention delegates who are unpledged — they are permitted to vote against the majority. 

For the problem of direct presidential primaries, which many political scientists have identified, Jacobs proposes his distinctive solution — an increase in superdelegates to override the primary voters’ lean toward extremism: “If American democracy is going to fend off the next Donald Trump, attention must be focused on restraining governing and political elites within the confines of representative rules and procedures.” The idea is that unpledged superdelegates would act as the adults in the room. When the primary system produces an antidemocratic candidate who wins the majority, the superdelegates would vote against the radical candidate, adding moderation to the nomination process. Their presence would encourage less extreme candidates to remain in the race and consequently sideline personalities akin to Trump. Presently, only 15 percent of the Democratic Party’s delegates are superdelegates and about half of the Republican delegates are similarly unpledged, percentages still not large enough to make a difference.

An impatient reader may be put off by Jacob’s detailed presentation of American politics going back to the Jeffersonians, Jacksonians and Madisonians. Nonetheless, his detailed approach to the ails of American democracy gives a new perspective to a heavily explored subject. And, by presenting an innovative solution to the country’s extremist political tendencies, he contributes to the conversation about how to resuscitate American democracy — a discussion we will continue when Larry Jacobs speaks in Gambier on February 19, 2024.  

Lawrence Jacobs. "Democracy under Fire: Donald Trump and the Breaking of American History." Oxford University Press, 2022. Hardcover, ISBN: 9780190877248. 


(3) Anderson, Sarah E. "Rejecting Compromise: Legislators' Fear of Primary Voters." Cambridge University Press, 2020. ​ 

(1) Druckman, James N. and Lawrence R. Jacobs. "Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation." University of Chicago Press, 2015. 

Ikenberry, G. John. “Capsule Review: Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 2024.

Jacobs, Lawrence R. and Robert Y. Shapiro. "Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness." University of Chicago Press, 2000.

(2) Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. "Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached The Breaking Point." Penguin Random House, 2023. 

Murphy, Mary Jo. “Why is American democracy on the brink? Blame the Constitution,” Washington Post, Oct. 11 2023. 

Weyland, Kurt. “A Review of Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point,” Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Nov. 20, 2023.

The American Dream is dead, or so say cynical observers of our troubled political culture. Republicans and Democrats, people of different races and religions and Americans across the board seem to be losing their faith in the direction of the country. America, it is believed, no longer lives up to its “dream” of social mobility and a better life for all its people. How did we lose our way? 

In his new book "Ours Was the Shining Future," New York Times columnist David Leonhardt cuts through the cynicism to deliver compelling analysis and rare hope. He tells a gripping narrative of the rise and fall of the American Dream, exploring influential ideas and personalities of American history and suggesting a path for how the country might recover its spirit of optimism.

Leonhardt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior writer at the New York Times and the author of its newsletter, “The Morning.” He is experienced with writing on economic and policy issues for the Times, thanks to his role as managing editor of “The Upshot” section and as a former economics columnist. "Ours Was the Shining Future" demonstrates his command of economics and draws frequently upon social science scholarship. 

The book weaves together biographical details of prominent and lesser-known historical characters, such as Floyd Olson and Carl Skoglund (early twentieth century Minnesota leaders for labor rights) and Grace Hopper (computer programming pioneer), with the research of economists and sociologists, including Raj Chetty, Jonathan Haidt and Ann Swidler. Leonhardt carefully grounds his arguments in evidence, embraces nuance and considers counterarguments. 

There was a time when almost every American could expect to live a materially more comfortable life than their parents. Leonhardt attributes that prosperity to three factors: working class power, a responsible business culture, and government investment. He builds a case that New Deal reforms, which increased the power of unions, facilitated a golden age of growing wages and political victories for the working class. At the same time, the business community became increasingly open to the idea that they too could benefit financially from the success of their workers. Add to this the enormous investments in infrastructure, research and development, especially during the Eisenhower administration, and a recipe emerged for broad prosperity that enriched workers of all races. Leonhardt calls this recipe “democratic capitalism.”

In the 1960s, however, the New Deal coalition that held the Democratic Party together deteriorated. The New Left, inspired by young middle-class intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, Betty Friedan, and Ralph Nader, lacked interest in cooperation with the institutions of the working class, many of which had become parochial. This division, the disorder of the 1960s, and the inflation crisis of the 70s allowed scholars at the University of Chicago to promote what Leonhardt calls “rough-and-tumble capitalism,” based on their skepticism of the government’s role in the economy. (Social scientists might call this “neoliberal” capitalism.) 

Elected leaders made decisions that weakened unions,  loosened regulations that had protected the working class, and encouraged free trade agreements. Reagan’s presidency marked their decisive victory. “For most families,” Leonhardt argues, “…the Reagan revolution failed to deliver on its promise,” instead delivering slower wage growth, runaway inequality, and reduced life expectancy. This trend has only continued in the past decades. Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic platform to embrace the neoliberal economic paradigm, and both parties have come to promote market based solutions, while taking as a given the low tax rates and lack of government involvement characteristic of the Reagan era.

Despite today’s disillusioning circumstances, Leonhardt’s message is optimistic. “Democracy created a broadly prosperous economy in the middle of the twentieth century,” he writes, “and democracy dismantled that economy in the late twentieth century. The story does not need to end there.” America is undergoing a political realignment and already, fiscal and trade policies have been advanced in response to the Covid and climate crises to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy. If a political movement emerges that supports the interests of the working class while taking seriously some of their positions on social issues, Leonhardt believes it may be possible to unite our fractured nation in pursuit of prosperity for all. 

"Ours Was the Shining Future" is a fascinating read for anyone interested in political history or in America’s current crisis and how we got here. It grounds itself in empirical evidence without sacrificing its conversational tone and readability, and it tells its story through a cast of engaging characters. It is a rare contribution to “America in Crisis” literature, which offers both a realistic take on our current situation and a glimmer of hope for the future. 

David Leonhardt. "Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream." Penguin Random House, 2023, ISBN 9780812993202.

Reviews Archive

After the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was released last summer, young people and activists flocked to social media and the streets to voice outrage at the decision. The landmark case overruled Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey by arguing that abortion is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. On social media, people posted infographics with information about where people seeking an abortion could receive one. People were so moved that many even publicly offered their homes to anyone who was traveling to get an abortion. According to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, 63% of women said that their rights were under attack in America. Moreover, a Vox Poll reported that 85% percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. Given these recent events, Mary Ziegler’s book, "Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present," is essential reading for understanding how the abortion debate has been shaped into what it has become today. 

Ziegler is a leading legal historian on the topic of politics of reproduction, health care, and conservatism since 1945. She is a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and is a Daniel P.S. Paul Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. Ziegler is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, PBS Newshour, CNN, the Washington Post and the Atlantic. Currently, she is working on a book for Yale University Press about the fixation with Roe v. Wade.  

"Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present" comprehensively discusses abortion from the procedure’s nonpartisan past (as abortion, surprisingly, used to cross party lines) to its polarized end. The book is full of explanatory detail, but does not tell history in a narrative format. Ziegler organizes the book by cases rather than historical periods. Those who are unfamiliar with the history of abortion might find themselves a little confused while reading. However, the book is compelling if you can get accustomed to its structure. As she walks the reader through landmark cases, such as Roe and Casey, Ziegler explains the development of the respective arguments for and against abortion rights. As a result, readers can discover how what used to be a nonpartisan issue became a mainstay of polarized American politics. For example, abortion was a popular procedure in the 1840s-1850s until the American Medical Association claimed that the procedure was infanticide and risked depleting the number of white Americans in the next generation.  Through these case studies, Ziegler showed a clear shift in where the debate on abortion took place: from a purely medical debate to the currently charged political issue. 

From there, Ziegler turns immediately to Roe to explain how and why constitutional claims became central to the abortion debate. As a legal history, Ziegler’s work specifically focuses on the cases that are relevant to abortion rights. However, the book also sheds light on the figures who were instrumental in shaping modern abortion debates, such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — who supported a decision on Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that famously conflicted with the trimester requirement in Roe v. Wade — and James Bopp Jr., a conservative anti-abortion lawyer. To better understand their views, Ziegler interweaves the human factors of the prominent legal figures she analyzes: their upbringing, education, and religion. These details are refreshing breaks from the case studies, as they remind the reader how someone’s views on abortion can be shaped by deep moral convictions, whether these morals are derived from religion, the law, or elsewhere. Ziegler does not exclusively discuss legal figures, but also incorporates the perspectives of medical professionals, activists and religious figures and institutions, all of whom have defined legal debate about abortion. Despite being titled a legal history, Ziegler’s account is undoubtedly holistic. 

I most appreciated the care Ziegler takes to discuss the role of people of color, specifically Black and Latino communities, in the abortion debate. She discusses the perspectives within these communities of both proponents and opponents to abortion. Ziegler explains that, despite abortion rates being disproportionately high among women of color, both the pro-life and pro-choice movement have been predominantly white. The pro-life movement’s Republican alignment alienated people of color, while the pro-choice movement often marginalized them by failing to address their specific concerns. Still, communities of color have become an important part of the pro-abortion/pro-choice community. Black women began interest groups, such as SisterSong, specifically for women of color. These organizations aim to address the concerns of women of color and tailor their communication strategies to these concerns. For example, some women of color opposed centering pro-abortion rhetoric around a woman’s “choice,” as low-income women of color do not want an abortion, but rather need one. As a result, women of color are beginning to place their issues on the table, which will impact the legal future of abortion.

Writing in 2020, Ziegler foresaw the likely end of Roe, but she did not speculate about what would follow. It is clear that Ziegler thinks the readers should be aware that the effects would be significant, especially for those living in Republican states. Nevertheless, the book is perfect for those who wish to understand more about the legal debate surrounding abortion and how Roe came to be an integral part of it all. 

For Americans, much of our conception of government centers around our rights and freedoms. We believe that our government does not simply defend us from foreign and domestic threats, but also from itself. According to the rule of law, all persons, including state actors, ought to face legal accountability for their actions. Yet we often see egregious acts of state violence, such as police shootings, go unpunished. How could this be the case? University of Chicago Professor of Law Aziz Huq answers this question in his 2021 book, "The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies," arguing that federal courts have failed to respond to citizens when the state violates their rights. Instead of providing a remedy, such as a payout to the victim and punishment of the perpetrator, these courts have shielded perpetrators and abandoned victims. 

Huq is a scholar of comparative and U.S. constitutional law. He is a prolific, award-winning author of three books and numerous journal articles. Before teaching at the University of Chicago, he attended Columbia Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Huq uses the motif of collapse to organize the book into its six sections: Blueprint, Building, Remedies, Collapse, Remains, and a short coda at the end. Fitting the picture of a destroyed home on the cover, Huq tells the story of the design and creation of the federal court system and how its handling of remedies temporarily succeeded but later collapsed. He traces this collapse back to the American founders’ flawed blueprints for the courts — particularly their flawed presuppositions of judicial independence, such as Alexander Hamilton’s belief that the exclusivity of legal education at the time would ensure only a few virtuous men would be qualified to serve on federal courts. The founders also assumed the legislature and executive branches would be full of ambitious men who would try to encroach on the other branches. This inter-branch competition would place them in natural conflict with each other, contributing to our system of checks and balances. The founders believed that this conflict would lead each branch to reject any unfit judicial candidates, so they politicized the process of appointing judges.  

These assumptions quickly proved wrong. The professionalization and expansion of legal education quashed Hamilton’s theory that legal talent would remain scarce. The rise of parties also proved disastrous for the courts, which were dissolved and shuffled around at the whims of Congress after the bitter election of 1800. Though we no longer see courts created and dissolved, control of the courts remains a major partisan issue, as recently shown by Senate Republicans blocking Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in 2016. In short, political parties destroyed the supposedly natural tension between branches of government and corrupted judicial independence. 

Though the Court under Justice Earl Warren briefly issued remedies from the 1950s to 1970s, such as Brown v. Board of Education, the conservative ascendancy  under Presidents Nixon and Reagan ultimately caused the collapse we see today. Presidents Nixon and Reagan appointed judges who would defend perpetrators of state violence over their victims. Qualified immunity, for example, became a judicially-devised means of protecting law enforcement overreach. Qualified immunity means that law enforcement officers are immune from punishment if they did not know what they were doing was unconstitutional. But what is accepted as constitutional ignorance is often stretched. In an exemplary 2002 case, an Alabama prisoner was handcuffed to an outdoor “hitching post” for hours at a time without bathroom breaks. When the Supreme Court assessed the constitutionality of this act, they were divided because there was no precedent regarding hitching posts. As Huq writes, “It seems absurd to say that a gross and obvious kind of violence won’t trigger liability simply because no one has tried it before — and yet that is what the doctrine suggests.” As a result, he argues that public faith in the government and law enforcement has fallen. He notes that democracy is also at the core of this issue, as elected officials are in charge of appointing and confirming federal judges. Voters can choose those who pick perpetrators over victims, or wield their power to hold bad actors accountable.

Huq’s writing is witty and engaging but does not compromise the book’s serious tone. Though legal jargon is kept to a minimum, this book may not capture the interest of those who are not interested in the makeup and history of federal courts. It is more akin to a well-written academic work than a book intended for the masses. Huq explicitly does not tackle questions about the Supreme Court’s role in interpreting the Constitution, but does “the blue collar labor of vindicating rights precisely at the seam at which state violence sparks brightly against human flesh.” In this task, however, Huq is more than capable. 

Aziz Z. Huq. "The Collapse of Constitutional Remedies." Oxford University Press, 2021. ISBN: 9780197556818. 192 pages.

Although I have lived in Ohio my entire life, "Remember the Alamo" is a phrase I knew before I could find San Antonio — let alone the state of Texas — on a map. I can still picture my younger brother running around the yard in his cowboy hat with a toy pistol, shouting those words as he defended my imaginary attacks on his "land," which was really just an old wooden fort built by our home’s previous owners. The Texas Revolution is taught to American students as an inspiring point in our nation’s history when colonists braving the frontier took a stand for democracy against Mexican dictatorship. What started as an exploration of tribal lands turned into a fight for the traditional American values of autonomy and freedom. As the Texan authors of "Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth" reveal, however, the Battle of the Alamo was little more than yet another flash in the U.S.'s efforts to maintain the institution of slavery. 

Co-authors Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford revive the story of the Alamo by turning the folklore legend into a sobering recount of what happened on that battlefield in 1836 — and how the promulgation of what the authors label as the "Heroic Anglo Narrative" supported a continuous fight over the Alamo that has lasted over the course of American history. "Forget the Alamo" relates the story of two battles that took place at the Spanish compound; one between the Mexican army led by Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Alamo Defenders (comprised of Texans of Anglo-American and Tejano descent alike) and another between cultures, educators and Lone Star residents over the public portrayal of what the Texas Revolution was really about.

Readers explore characters who have shaped the history of the Alamo: the "heroic" legends, Davy Crockett, James Bowie and William B. Travis; the fiery women of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas fighting over site preservation; big Hollywood names like John Wayne and D.W. Griffith (the director of "The Birth of a Nation"); and even English star Phil Collins' contributions to the museum in Alamo Plaza. Burrough, Tomlinson and Stanford extend the timeline of the Battle of the Alamo beyond that 13-day siege in 1836 into today’s polarized politics, writing with liveliness and a particular, yet successful, style of dry humor that is often lacking in historical works. 

The first section of the book analyzes the details of the Battle of the Alamo itself and the days leading up to it — only without the popular rhetoric framing the story as a traditional American fight for freedom and democracy. Instead, the authors argue that the Texas Revolution broke out because Anglo-American colonists living on Mexican territory rebelled against the laws of the Mexican government prohibiting the institution of slavery (which was what the colony’s economy relied upon). The "Holy Trinity" of San Antonio (Travis, Bowie, and Crockett) was composed of men who perhaps did not fight as valiantly as our history books suggest. What the authors deem an avoidable "single hourlong mismatch" quickly turned into "the great creation myth of Texas" that has only recently begun to get unraveled by other voices with a different understanding of the battle.

The authors dedicate the remainder of their book to the ensuing fight over the preservation of the site and representation of the men who died there. Through glorifying accounts of the battle, ranging from Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett television series to T.R. Fehrenbach’s beloved Lone Star history book (which the authors dub "the Torah of the Heroic Anglo Narrative"), the legend of the Alamo continues to demonize Mexicans for the death of white Americans. Historical preservationists, politicians and school teachers reinforce this "traditionalist" narrative in Texan society — with complete disregard for the Latino community making up a majority of the San Antonio population, many of whom can recall being shamefully discredited as true Americans upon their first elementary school lesson on the battle. Figures of authority distort the definition of who is the unjust invader of foreign lands by ignoring the fact that Americans living in San Antonio in 1836 were living under the legal jurisdiction of the Mexican government. Revisionist scholarship has only gained visibility in recent decades and continues to face formidable backlash from proponents of the "Heroic Anglo Narrative," who deem white Americans as the true victors of the Alamo. 

"Forget the Alamo" is a critical work in understanding how the most recognizable moments in American history directly contributed to generations of prejudice and misinformation. Burrough, Tomlinson and Stanford continue to lift a veil that has hindered our nation’s ability to reconcile with a past built on the notion that white America is entitled to freely take land from others and decimate other communities and cultures in the process. This book calls readers to critically examine the consequences of continuing to let Americans, especially youth, remember the Alamo as it is conveyed in textbooks or on television. The authors’ use of a gripping, animated literary style (while maintaining a certain frankness breaking down the great mystique surrounding the Alamo narrative) makes for an intimate and appealing read. In the midst of our nation’s debate over what should be taught in public schools, and how those subjects should be taught, Burrough, Tomlinson and Stanford’s "Forget the Alamo" is a necessary read for those interested in revisiting American myths that have too easily turned into false realities. 

Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. "Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of An American Myth." Penguin Books, 2021. ISBN 9781984880116. 416 pages.

"The World: A Brief Introduction" first struck me as an oxymoronic title. With a globe full of unique histories, varying politics, and contrasting values squeezed into 300 pages, would I find an extraordinarily dense word soup or a book that has to inadequately skim over the modern world to address its broad scope? Or, could Richard Haass, advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, successfully condense global politics in fewer pages than a Harry Potter book? The answer is somewhere in between, with a clear and intelligent analysis of world issues. Still, by its nature, the book has to breeze through topics.

"The World," as Haass explains, has one key goal: helping the reader become globally literate. The book is not written specifically for scholars, but for bright readers whose specialties lay elsewhere and want to speak more knowledgeably about world politics. In order to avoid writing a book thicker than it is wide, Haass keeps history to a minimum, devoting the first section to just the indispensable events. Here, he traces the roots of today’s modern world order back to the institutional upheaval at the end of World War I. After concluding the abridged military and geopolitical evolution of the world, Haass continues with chapters on distinct global issues, from nuclear proliferation to the internet to trade. Each chapter has subsections discussing the relationship between the issue and a specific world region. These pages are not designed to fully encompass every detail, but are jumping-off points covering a topic’s fundamentals. For example, in the chapter on development, he discusses the definition, differences between the developed and developing world, the main strategies for fostering it, and the side-effects of state development in rapid time (such as growing illiberalism in China). He concludes by recommending further readings for those compelled to dig deeper into specifics. Most chapters end with a future outlook, drawing comparisons between topics and analyzing potential developments or challenges. The book is far from dry; while being less like an encyclopedia reduces the amount of information that one chapter can cover, Haass’ fluid writing style makes for a more engaging reading experience.

Although "The World" generally sticks to apolitical explanations rather than analyzing policy, Haass does make an exception by regularly arguing for the benefits of greater global cooperation. Most chapters end up making this point and stressing the importance of international partnership, particularly when it comes to properly functioning global institutions and laws. In such discussions, he does an excellent job pairing data visualizations with the content. Haass covers all the basics of international relations in practice, with introductions to the most vital agreements and treaties. Despite common themes throughout, each chapter is written to stand alone, which is useful for refreshing a single issue or region without having to read the entire book. "The World" stays grounded in its approach, focusing mostly on current global realities rather than analyzing through the lens of political philosophy.

The readability of the book does not prevent it from delivering a diversity of information. Certain sections do go into more detail, but a reader should expect bird’s eye views as opposed to theory and textbook-level analysis of issues. This, however, might be a selling point to someone new to geopolitics or international relations. “Brief” is in the title for a reason, so readers should not expect it to be more than advertised. For anyone looking to solidify their understanding of the globe, "The World" is an excellent place to start. Its value emerges from guiding the reader into further research, not from replacing it.

Richard Haass. "The World: A Brief Introduction." Penguin Books, 2021. ISBN 9780399562419 (ppk). Also available for Kindle.

They are “still grabbing me at the fucking throat,” Tiffany Thomas-Lopez told Amos Guiora while recounting her experience as a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of Larry Nassar. But it was not Nassar who Thomas-Lopez was describing in this conversation. It was another actor essential to the ability of predators like Nassar to continue abusing: the enabler. In "Armies of Enablers," Guiora argues that to provide justice to victims of sexual assault, enabling must be recognized as a criminal act. 

Guiora’s research is deeply rooted in his personal history as the child of Holocaust survivors. His career began with the question, “How did they let this happen?” in the context of bystanders of the Holocaust and later transitioned to contemporary bystanders. "Armies of Enablers," published in 2020, is the latest addition to his study of bystanders and enablers of sexual assault.

I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Guiora when he visited Kenyon, his alma mater. In our conversation (and throughout the book), he often stopped to highlight a specific survivor’s story. Guiora took the time to work one-on-one with survivors, gaining their trust. In "Armies of Enablers," he does not censor survivors’ anger and raw emotions. Guiora says that sharing exactly what survivors say — profanity and all — is essential to truly listening to them. In our conversation, he said that we must “let survivors speak in their own language,” and above all, believe them. The anger and pain of survivors is what motivates him, and it certainly moved me as I read his book. The voices of survivors were just as clear and powerful as Guiora’s voice, which seems fitting given that many survivors have been ignored, manipulated or silenced by enablers of their abuse.

In the first half of the book, Guiora outlines the different guilty actors involved in sexual assault: the predator, the bystander, and the enabler. The predator commits the assault. Bystanders and enablers both facilitate the harm caused by the predator. The bystander witnesses the assault and chooses to do nothing. Oftentimes, the bystander and the victim do not have a previous relationship. The enabler, on the other hand, is an individual who chooses to protect the predator instead of protecting the victim, often allowing the predator to continue to do more harm. 

Guiora explains that to survivors, the enabler’s betrayal can be incredibly hurtful and frustrating. In the context of athletics, a coach is supposed to listen, provide support, and protect their athletes. This can make the betrayal of a coach who backs a predator extremely painful for survivors. Guiora highlights the case of Tiffany Thomas-Lopez, a survivor of Larry Nassar (former physician at Michigan State University). Thomas-Lopez told her trainer, Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, that Nassar had been sexually assaulting her. Instead of protecting Thomas-Lopez, Technor-Hauk protected Nassar and the institution, casting doubt on the report and trying to convince her that the abuse was simply part of the treatment. Thomas-Lopez told Guiora how vulnerable and isolated being ignored made her feel: “Nassar had a fucking army and I had nothing but my talent.” After being ignored by her trainers, Thomas-Lopez continued to be abused by Nassar, and ended up quitting the sport she loved. Teachnor-Hauk’s dismissive, manipulative enabling of Nassar is not an isolated case. Guiora argues that she is part of an “army” of enablers in a variety of contexts, from college athletics to the Catholic Church. These enablers allow countless predators to continue to abuse, producing more and more victims.  

In the second half of the book, Guiora provides a solution, or at least a starting point, to address the wrongdoings of enablers of sexual assault. He outlines existing bystander Duty to Act legislation, arguing that it is a logical precursor to enabler Duty to Act legislation. Guiora tackles the complicated relationship between the law and morality. He sees the law as a codification of society’s morals. In other words, the law and morality are not in conflict but in fact complement each other. 

Guiora believes that we should criminalize the enabler of sexual assault. Doing so would send a clear message: that our society values protecting victims and ending sexual abuse. He outlines certain characteristics of such legislation. Guiora argues that liability should apply to all individuals, not just those in specific societal positions, such as teachers or social workers, who the law designates as “mandatory reporters.” In terms of who should be protected by the law, he believes all victims of sexual assault or abuse should be protected, not just the “most vulnerable” like children, the elderly, or the mentally disabled. He also recommends requiring immediate reporting to stop the abuse as quickly as possible, and limiting exemptions in the law. Guiora seeks to deter enabling by using civil liabilities, fines, and imprisonment to punish people who fail to report. He argues that criminalizing the enabler would punish that person’s negligence, while also deterring future enablers. Guiora’s focus on the enabler in cases of sexual assault reframed the way I see the path towards justice for survivors. Predators would not be able to continue to abuse for years and years were it not for the protection provided by enablers. 

Guiora repeatedly returns to individual survivors like Tiffany Thomas-Lopez and their stories. Through the examination of cases at Michigan State, The Ohio State, USA Gymnastics and the Catholic Church, Guiora’s survivor-centered approach is compelling and deeply moving. Armies of Enablers is an essential read for those looking to educate themselves on sexual assault and legal solutions. Through vivid survivor stories, Guiora illustrates the consequences of inaction, ultimately leaving readers with a clear message: enough is enough. 

Amos Guiora. "Armies of Enablers: Survivor Stories of Complicity and Betrayal in Sexual Assaults." ABA Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 9781641057349. 258 pages.

Although "The Last Days of El Comandante" is not told from the perspective of Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, and none of the protagonists actually come face-to-face with him, by the end of the novel the reader feels that they know him very well. Author Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a professor of literature who also wrote the premiere biography on Chávez, does a masterful job of showing how in authoritarian states like Venezuela, the all-powerful dictator is omnipresent in the lives of every citizen. Like a good mystery novel, the book switches back and forth between the perspectives of characters who have seemingly nothing in common: Miguel, a retired oncologist; Andreína, an apartment-owner; Freddy, a journalist; María, a little girl; and Madeleine, an American journalist. But slowly and with great suspense, Barrera Tyszka reveals that the common thread in their lives is Chávez, who is increasingly absent from public life as he succumbs to cancer. The English version of this novel, translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer, was released in 2020.

There are a few reasons why I found this to be a particularly fascinating read as an American. The first is that one of the novel’s biggest themes is charisma. There is much discussion of Chávez’s magnetism; his ability to completely capture the attention of every audience that he speaks to. Living in a time when American politics is dominated by larger-than-life personas with their own accompanying cults of personality, it is useful to read this novel as a case study for how those cults form and operate. The second way that I found this novel useful was to better my understanding of politics in authoritarian states. As someone who has spent my entire life living in a liberal democracy, something I could never wrap my head around was how people could genuinely support strongmen like Chávez — who rig elections and silence dissidents. Barrera Tyszka uses his characters to show how Chávez’s charisma and brand of populism made the previously-downtrodden feel heard, and this allowed them to look past the corruption and malfeasance of his regime.

"The Last Days of El Comandante" also offers a glimpse into a deeply polarized society, where each citizen’s opinions about the ailing dictator form an important pillar of their identity. You are either a Chávista or a squalid (an insulting name that Chávez gave to his detractors, which they in turn proudly adopted). As one of the few Venezuelans in the middle who does not proclaim allegiance to either side, Miguel finds himself torn between his squalid wife and Chávista brother. The novel also shows how instability at the top of the regime can bleed down and affect even the most basic functions of the state. The senseless murder of María’s mother shows how the state is no longer able to guarantee the safety of its citizens, and Andreína’s story, of having to squat to regain control of her apartment, shows how the state can no longer protect the private property of its citizens. While the novel’s characters are fictional, the problems that they encounter are very real and continue to afflict people in Venezuela and other authoritarian states. The novel exposes one of the greatest weaknesses of these regimes: that they often collapse like a house of cards as soon as the dictator dies.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka, "The Last Days of El Comandante," translated by Rosalind Harvey and Jessie Mendez Sayer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. ISBN: 9781477316573 (print) and 9781477321041 (ebook). 248 pages.

Not being a history buff, I thought that ‘83 Kenyon alum Michael Green’s book, "By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783," posed a monumental challenge. When the hefty book arrived in my hands, it pulled me down towards the ground. Your first thought about this book might be that on a bookshelf, it would be an impressive centerpiece; like an encyclopedia, it would make itself known, make its own home, and settle in. 


First thoughts can be deceptive. This award-winning book will not settle on your bookshelf, because it is hard to put down. Green’s argument is compelling: the United States’ foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region was not divined; it was the result of careful leaders and policy choices tracing back to 1783. Green identifies five central tensions that the United States has continually faced in this region and that help explain some of the pendulum swings in foreign policy decisions over the past two centuries. 

One of these tensions, for example, is that the United States tends to prioritize the European theater over the Asia-Pacific theater for its foreign policy strategy. During an interview with me, Green mentioned that he personally dealt with that tension. His early interests centered around the NATO alliance and Western Europe. After graduating from Kenyon, he hoped to study the bagpipes with a Watson Fellowship, but when that fell through, he heard of an opportunity through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program and headed to Japan. Through this program, Green found himself drawn towards Japan and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, which turned his attention away from Western Europe. 


The other four tensions involve difficult choices for U.S. policy makers: 1) whether to focus policy on continental versus maritime issues; 2) where to draw America’s “Forward Defense Line” (that is, the line the U.S. would defend); 3) whether to focus on self-determinism of sovereign states versus universalistic democratic norms, and 4) whether to promote protectionism or free trade. Nowadays, we see some of these tensions playing out, such as the shift to protectionist policies towards China under the Trump administration and continuity of that policy under the Biden administration. These shifts in strategy have real consequences for the United States’ position abroad. 


Green views international relations through a realist lens, which focuses on the balance of power between states and the future security in relation to other countries. Although his analysis begins over 200 years ago, his argument is relatively easy to follow, thanks to the book’s chronological structure. Like the policy makers at the time, readers are able to see how past realist-oriented leaders made decisions that had ramifications for later decision makers. 


In the first part of the book, “The Rise of the United States,” readers learn how the “seeds of strategy” were planted early in U.S. history and cultivated by later actors, blossoming into the first “grand strategy” under President Theodore Roosevelt. Not only did Roosevelt set the United States up as the judge of the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific in the 1905 peace agreement between Russia and Japan, but Roosevelt understood that the United States needed to be militarily prepared in the Pacific. 


Roosevelt’s successor, President Taft, abandoned Roosevelt’s carefully crafted grand strategy towards the region to pursue a “Dollar Diplomacy” approach towards China and also “needlessly antagon[ized] Japan.” This departure angered Roosevelt so much that he privately rebuked Taft in letters. It would take until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt to return to an era of American “grand strategy” in the Asia-Pacific region.


Green’s book fascinates the reader with compact biographies of all the major players and thinkers involved in the foreign policies. The biographies are all very digestible. They are not bite-sized, leaving you wanting more. They are not grand courses, leaving you stuffed before you are finished. 


Take Humphrey Marshall for example. From the middle of landlocked Kentucky, Marshall became an important thinker and naval leader for the United States’ vision for the Asia-Pacific region. During the 1850s, Marshall became the U.S. commissioner (diplomat) to the Qing dynasty in China. Marshall employed an activist approach, arguing that in order to keep the balance of power, the United States needed to take an active role in keeping order in China. This stance departed from the existing, less-active strategy favored by influential American merchants. As a result, it made him unpopular: “at odds with the American merchants, the State Department, and even the Qing…” Accounts like this stand out, stick in the reader’s memory, and connect historical figures to Green’s argument about ongoing tensions in policy-making.

This book has a wide appeal to different audiences. For anyone with an interest in foreign policy, it is an essential read. For me, having studied Japanese at Kenyon for three years, "By More than Providence" was enlightening, as my prior knowledge of the United States involvement in the Pacific was limited to Perry’s “Black Ships” forcibly opening Japan. Green’s book showed the buildup to that event, as well as the foreign policy strategy that followed, putting an event in its historical context. Even if foreign policy is not your interest, I would recommend this book. You do not need a background in realist concepts to understand and enjoy it. Like the biographies scattered throughout the text, these scholarly concepts are readily digested. 


In addition to conveying his passion for the region and his incredibly personable demeanor, Green conveyed in our interview an important message that he hoped readers would take away. Referencing Humphrey Marshall, the naval officer from landlocked Kentucky, Green emphasized that anyone can have an impact on the world stage. This message shines through dozens of biographies and stories in the book. Pick up a copy of "By More Than Providence" and let yourself be enveloped in Green’s writing.


Michael J. Green is professor and chair of Contemporary Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy and Director of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. "By More than Providence" earned the 2018 Silver Medal for the Council of Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award. 

Michael J. Green, "By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783." New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.  760 pages. ISBN 9780231180436 (ppk) $30. Also available in cloth or ebook formats. 

My blind optimism has rarely served me well in political science classes, yet I like to think that the pinnacle of American democracy is that U.S. citizens have the right to vote in every local, state and national election. Where authoritarian regimes forbid their people from choosing who sits in government and makes policy, American citizens are encouraged to rush to the polls for every election. Ideally, voters make well-informed, uncoerced decisions to produce a government that genuinely reflects the nation’s interests. 

In "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government," political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels upended my notion of the responsible voter and prompted me to re-evaluate how I approach my vote. Over the course of nearly 16 years, Achen, professor of social sciences and politics at Princeton University, worked on this book with his former student Bartels (now chair of public policy and social science at Vanderbilt), exploring the difference between democracy as a theory and democracy in its application.

Each semester, my political science classes return to this question: Is democracy truly the best form of government? To address that question, "Democracy For Realists" shifts the focus from our institutions to the basis of democracy itself: the average American voter. As the title suggests, Achen and Bartels encourage readers to face the reality of human behavior. Democratic elections have little to do with issues, and everything to do with party attachments, social identity and the strength of group influence. As more Americans begin to question the legitimacy of our voting system (a concern that came to a head on January 6, 2021) and the importance of going to the polls, "Democracy for Realists" is an essential contribution to our society’s understanding of how our leaders discern which populations will support particular platforms, and whether or not serious campaign efforts are needed to win the trust of those voters.   

Achen and Bartels reexamine the “folk theory” of democracy embraced by political scientists for the latter half of the 20th century, which asserts that elections reflect the will of the majority accurately, thus implying that the issue positions of our representatives are ours to begin with. Most of their book recounts how voters actually behaved over the past 100 years and takes readers through key electoral events ranging from a pro-life to pro-choice shift in the Democratic Party, to FDR’s landslide victory at one of the lowest points in U.S. history, to — a personal highlight — a spike in shark attacks along the New Jersey coast that cost Woodrow Wilson nearly 10 percentage points in the 1916 presidential election in surrounding beach counties. 

With these historical examples, Achen and Bartels explore how instant gratification and risk aversion motivate voters’ decisions, regardless of which policies are on the table. Election results are essentially toss-ups, dependent on the health of the economy, policy platforms of the competing parties, and external events outside of the candidates’ control. For example, in chapter 8, they review psychology research demonstrating how group norms influence humans, including racial and ethnic prejudices that often infiltrate political behavior.  

The discrepancy between our perceived realities (instilled from early childhood as our families and immediate communities defined our social identities) and our genuine knowledge of a candidate’s performance and policy positions holds serious consequences for our representative democracy. Completely contradicting my prior idea of how elected leaders operate, Achen and Bartels write that “there is little or no electoral incentive for presidents to promote myopic voters’ well-being during much of their time in office” (170). This is because voters tend to focus on immediate concerns (e.g., the economy’s current condition), so incumbents seeking reelection are seldom held accountable for what they did early in their terms of office.

After the 2016 election, the authors added an afterword that reflects on voting procedures from the primaries to the general election, the cultivation of demagoguery in the United States, and the stark reality that perhaps Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was exactly the result we should have expected if we understood the political power of a shared identity. Trump’s strength predominantly came from non-college-educated, working-class, White Americans, while Hillary Clinton attracted the highly-educated demographic and various minority groups.  Both candidates had bases of support willing to overlook their candidates’ ethical issues in order to vote identities that the political parties strongly reaffirmed. A favorable vote distribution in the Electoral College and a unified, loyal Republican Party ultimately determined  Trump’s victory, but only by “minuscule margins, ... that could have easily gone the other way” (339).

I will admit that reading Achen and Bartels’ research, and immediately understanding their point, was a difficult task. Perhaps this is because the many factors that actually determine America’s voting patterns are not at all what I thought they were, and because this is a work of scholarship for a sophisticated reader.  Nevertheless, this is an essential read for those (like me) who are struggling to grasp the intensity of an American divide that seems to invade almost every aspect of our social and political lives. 

As our generation fights to increase voter turnout and accessibility, and learns how (and how not) to build campaigns of our own, I strongly urge you to pick up Achen and Bartels’ "Democracy for Realists" as a tool to gain perspective on our democratic system at-work and on the deeper psychology of voting. Anyone old enough to vote in this country would greatly benefit — and consequently think deeper about their responsibilities at the polls — from reading Achen and Bartels’ account of real democracy at work and why our country is struggling to maintain the legitimacy of our electoral system.

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, "Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 408 pages. ISBN: 9780691178240 (ppk), $18.95. Ebook available.

In March 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to one of the most catastrophic economic disruptions in world history. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down, and with these shutdowns, hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Among its many lessons, the pandemic showed us the fragility of the global economy and the economic insecurity faced by workers.

COVID-19 did not, however, suddenly make workers and their families insecure. Instead, economic insecurity has been increasing for decades due to a gradual shift of financial risk from employers and the government to employees. In the 2019 revised edition of his 2006 book "The Great Risk Shift," Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker terms this gradual shift of economic risk “the great risk shift.” He makes the case — through a seamless combination of moving anecdotes from ordinary working people and hard-hitting arguments — that workers have become more insecure in employment, family, retirement, and health care due to structural change in the economy and deliberate policy changes. This book is especially relevant today in light of recent unionization efforts at Amazon, inflationary pressures on working-class budgets, and a potential recession on the horizon.

Before writing this book, Hacker was best known for his scholarship on health policy, particularly his development of the public option in the Affordable Care Act. He wrote books on a variety of topics related to social policy, including his New York Times bestseller written with political scientist Paul Pierson, "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class." Therefore, "The Great Risk Shift," although ambitious in scope, is right up Hacker's alley in terms of his previous work.

Hacker makes a compelling case that the “great risk shift” is real and that the government should take on greater responsibility to address the problem. The structure of the economy has changed significantly since the 1970s. Gone are the days of good-paying manufacturing jobs that employed workers their entire working lives and offered a stable, middle-class income with a secure retirement income and health benefits. Today, with the rise of the service and gig economy (e.g., Uber drivers), employment is more sporadic and of less duration, and as a result, health and retirement benefits tied to specific employers are much less dependable. In addition, in an effort to lower labor costs to increase their competitiveness in a globalized economy, employers have cut benefits and transferred more of the financial burden of benefits onto employees. Finally, middle-class wage stagnation combined with the rising cost of essentials like health care and education over the past few decades has made two-income households increasingly essential for maintaining family income, leading more women into the workforce. Yet even though a two-income household reduces the risk of family income dropping to zero, it increases the likelihood and frequency of family income shocks.

Although impersonal economic forces certainly played a role in the great risk shift, the main villains of Hacker’s story are those he terms “personal responsibility crusaders,” conservatives who for decades pushed for less government involvement in health care, retirement, and family policy in the name of promoting a national ethic of “personal responsibility” for economic well being. In his characteristically punchy prose, Hacker writes:

"The Personal Responsibility Crusade is all about putting more 'skin in the game' — making people more responsible for the management and finance of the major economic risks they face. More skin means we reap the rewards when the game goes well. More skin also means we bear the losses when the game goes badly" (27).

Examples of the personal responsibility crusade include the push for the partial privatization of social security during the Bush administration and the fierce resistance to the Affordable Care Act, although the movement emerged far earlier, during the Reagan years. 

Unlike personal responsibility crusaders, Hacker convincingly advocates for a role for government in areas like health care, for the sake of greater risk pooling and coverage of pre-existing conditions. However, I think Hacker too quickly dismisses conservatives’ concern about big government. One does not have to be a personal responsibility crusader to believe that government largesse crowding out the private sector could be harmful, not only to the economy but to the welfare state that relies on a robust economy to provide its benefits. Policymakers should consider public-private solutions that pool risk broadly but do not rely so heavily on the government. For example, I do not think Hacker’s idea of a Medicare part E (Medicare for everyone), where Medicare gradually phases out private insurance companies, is politically feasible, given the power health insurance companies have in the political system. In my mind, a more realistic solution would be something like Germany’s system of highly regulated non-profit insurance companies that compete with each other for customers. 

In addition, I think there are policies addressing the great risk shift that could achieve bipartisan support in the future. As the composition of the Republican Party changes with greater numbers of rural, working-class voters, there could be an opportunity to pursue bipartisan predistributive policies (as opposed to redistributive policies) that increase worker power without increasing taxes or spending. Such policies include laws making it easier to form unions and bargain on wages across entire sectors of the economy, a higher minimum wage, and requirements for labor representation on corporate boards.

In a conversation with our "Politics of the Welfare State" seminar sponsored by the Kenyon Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) this spring, Hacker discussed such a possibility:

"We have to think about policies that I call predistribution, these are policies that often don’t involve taxes or spending but involve changes in market power, and I think there is actually sincere Republican support for policies that curtail power at the top," he said.

"In this kind of narrow division, it's very hard to see pressure for that kind of cross-partisan and cross-class coalition forming, but I would say if I were working on the Republican side to say, ‘how can we get Republicans to sign up for a true economic populism?’ I would focus on predistribution. I would tie in antitrust–stuff to revive rural America and worker power of some sort."

Solving the problem of the great risk shift will be difficult, both because of the scope of the policy areas involved and the political compromises that solutions may require. However, regardless of one's ideology, Jacob Hacker’s "The Great Risk Shift" is worth a read for its acute examination of one of the defining economic trends of our era. 

Jacob S. Hacker. "The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream," 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 264 pages, ppk or ebook. ISBN: 9780190844141, $17.95.  

The United States Senate is unique for many reasons. Speaking about the Senate’s function, George Washington thought of it as the “saucer” that cools legislation from the House of Representatives. Under the modern process of filibuster, we might instead call the Senate a freezer, because any senators can use the filibuster, the right to keep debate going, to delay (and block) the Senate’s business. Recently, Senate Democrats failed in their attempt to remove the filibuster for voting rights legislation, leaving their party’s priority legislation frozen in place. How do political scientists explain the persistence of a legislative rule that stymies the majority will?

For the minority party, the filibuster preserves their rights, but for the majority party, the filibuster is a threat to advancing their agenda. James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, and an expert on the theory and practice of democracy, takes a close look at the filibuster in his 2017 book, "On Parliamentary War." Wallner gives us an overview of some of the historical developments of the filibuster, in addition to a new perspective on the battle between the two major parties to curb the filibuster.             

Wallner opens the book with an overview of filibuster reforms. The earliest successful reform in 1975 lowered the number of senators required to “break” a filibuster, from 67 to 60, while allowing for a minority of senators to put a stop to legislation or nominations without actually conducting the filibuster. The (failed) 2005 reform and the (successful) 2013 reform, initiated by different parties attempted to eliminate the filibuster for non-Supreme Court nominees, while the 2017 reform extended that to Supreme Court nominees. Although these reforms were of different scales and had various purposes, they had a point in common — the legislative filibuster remains intact. Since the goal of the majority party is to pass legislation to advance its agenda, this begs the question: why would the majority circumvent itself when it can do otherwise?

Previous studies offered two possible explanations. One suggests that the minority party yields to some of the majority party’s requests so that the filibuster would be kept intact. The other argues that the majority party fears retaliation from the minority party, mainly because the majority party knows that they cannot be in the majority forever. 

Wallner offers a third reason that is based on predictive behavior, known as the “bargaining model.” In this model, the willingness of the majority party to abolish the filibuster depends on how big of a threat the minority party can pose. If the threat is small, the cost of removing the filibuster is low, so the majority party might proceed to do it, and vice versa. Thus, the “bargaining model” could be seen as a combination of the previous two explanations, and it is more of a “predictive” model rather than a “deterministic” model.

Wallner demonstrates the strength of the bargaining model by applying it to the 2005 and 2013 filibuster reforms. First, in the case of the 2005 reform, Democrats were in the minority, and they had used the filibuster to block many of President Bush’s judicial nominees. The Republican majority wanted to stop this, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had signaled that he might force the Senate to lower its threshold for a cloture vote (a vote to end a filibuster), if necessary. In essence, Frist was calling for the so-called “nuclear option.” However, the threat that the Democratic minority posed in 2005 was rather high: if the Senate GOP pursued this path, Senate Democrats would retaliate by forcing a vote on the minimum wage bill and the Social Security bill. This was a serious threat, since it would force everyone “on the record in opposition to the policies,” while “divert[ing] public attention from the battle over judicial nomination.” Since the GOP would have to be careful in defending their majority in 2007, in the end, they had to back down from the nuclear option, since the consequences of an “up-or-down” vote might be bad for them.

Meanwhile, when Democrats were in the majority in 2013, they faced GOP filibusters on President Obama’s nominees. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had also warned the Senate that he was willing to use the nuclear option. In turn, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated, as early as 2011, that he might proceed to repeal Obamacare as soon as the GOP returned to the majority. This was not a serious threat, however, because Reid “only proposed using the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster for motions to proceed to legislation, not for the legislation itself,” so Obamacare would still have been protected in that situation. Furthermore, McConnell’s threat was undermined by the fact that if the GOP were to be in the majority in the future, he also would want to utilize the nuclear option. Thus, in this case, the GOP minority “fail[ed] to threaten any adverse or concrete retaliation to increase the costs of going nuclear,” and since Democrats had the vote, they successfully changed the filibuster rule in 2013.

Wallner’s model offers a new look at the filibuster in the Senate. This is useful for those who want to understand how the Senate conducts its business. By knowing the “players” and their possible “actions,” serious readers will deepen their understanding of the strategic considerations involved in the political parties’ Senate floor fights, past, present or future.

James I. Wallner, 2017. "On Parliamentary War: Partisan Conflict and Procedural Change in the U.S. Senate." Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 264 pages. ISBN 978-0-472-12324-7 (Ebook), $59.95. Also available in cloth. 

Children stand on metal toilets to speak to each other through vents. The psyches of men corrode as they spend twenty-three hours a day in complete isolation, their food shoved through metal grates. These conditions violate the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisons created in honor of Nelson Mandela. They are happening in the United States’ "corrections" system. 

Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Christine Montross challenges the efficiency and morality of this system in her book "Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration" where she gives a first hand account of performing competency-to-stand-trial evaluations. She tells the reader of the teenage boys who spoke into their cell vents in a desperate attempt to connect with another, even if that communication was in the form of an echo. Her recount of people’s stories demands that readers reflect on their views about punishment, cruelty, and individual freedom, as they are confronted with the underlying truth behind their prejudices towards criminals. As Montross says, "it is easier to live a free life while others live in cages if we see those who are caged as utterly distinct from ourselves" (79). 

"Waiting for an Echo" is broken into three parts, challenging each part of the current correctional system and one’s perspective of it. The first part makes the reader reevaluate their perception of who a criminal is, and why people end up in the system. Underscoring her point, Montross gives examples of individuals who exhibit very similar abnormal behavior, but are met with different outcomes based on whether they were taken to jail or a mental hospital. In my interview with her, she explained that her work in psychiatric hospitals made her aware of how often her patients came in contact with police and "when I would talk with my patients it was so frequently not due to any kind of criminal intent, but rather due to untreated symptomatology." This realization catalyzed her interest in corrections as she saw "that there was not a bright line between the people that were my patients and the people in the jails or prisons." She humanizes the people that we characterize as evil. 

The second part draws attention to the conditions of modern prisons and jails. Making the reader question their definition of "cruel and unusual punishment," especially regarding solitary confinement. Montross asks why the resounding opinion on punishment in the U.S. considers the state taking a person’s time and hope as more ethical than inflicting physical pain. "How is it, exactly, that we came to believe that ravaging one’s life is less cruel than ravaging one's body?" (193). Montross’ background in psychiatry gives invaluable insight into what is occurring in the human mind when faced with solitary confinement. She focuses especially on the juvenile mind and the long-term effects on the brain when subjected to extended time in penitentiary. And yes, solitary confinement is a punishment used on children.

In the final part of the book, Montross presents the reader with alternative forms of incarceration used in much of Scandinavia. She describes the outcomes and facts of their effectiveness in contrast to the American system. But what does it mean for a prison to be effective? Montross argues that much of the current system was born out of fear with the goal of punishment, not rehabilitation. Concern for morality vanishes from the conversation as soon as the public is afraid. To make their constituents happy, elected representatives make "tough on crime" or "war on drugs" their campaign slogans and impose laws on  people they know nothing about. 

Are drug addicts criminals? Or hospital patients? Should the man screaming in the streets about conspiracy theories be jailed for disorderly conduct, and then sequestered to solitary confinement for his continual violent outbursts? Or should he be placed in a mental health facility? The answer changes drastically depending on whether people view the man as a threat or as sick. Ironically, the level of risk the man poses after he is released back into society also depends on whether he remained untreated while being further traumatized, or was properly rehabilitated and medicated. Waiting for an Echo is an essential read for the study of American democracy as it confronts these major questions about human rights and individual liberty.

Christine Montross, "Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration." New York: Penguin Books, 2021.  ISBN: 9780143110668. $18/ppk. Also available in other formats. 352 pages.