Though bad in lots of ways, 2020 had the advantage that the quarantine gave me much more time and opportunity for reading. I think I read more books this year than I have in a long time. Yet, when it came to thinking about which I enjoyed most, I returned some of my old standards rather than some of the new ones. It’s no accident that some of the contributors are on my list. I chose them as regular contributors because I thought so well of their work. These are listed in no particular order.
- Jeffrey Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency, New Edition: I’ve been teaching and reading this book for the entirety of my academic career. It is, as I tell my students, one of the best books not just on the Presidency but on American politics more generally. The new edition updates the first edition with an extended discussion of all of the presidents since the first edition including Donald Trump. Tulis’s analysis of the Presidency remains as fresh and illuminating as it was when it first came out. As canonical as it has become, I’m not sure this book has ever been appreciated for its deepest insight. It is not, as some have scholars have characterized it, an argument for a weaker presidency. Instead, the heart of the book is a separation of powers argument according to which the Presidency was stronger and the whole government functioned better when the President wasn’t rhetorical. Presidents who derived their authority from the executive formalities, processes, and powers within the Constitution fit better with a Congress responsible for the deliberation that leads to legislation. The rhetorical Presidency, by contrast, distorts the constitutional order partially because it prevents Congress from being able exercise its legislative function. It also makes possible the kinds of direct appeals to the people which have culminated in Trump’s demagoguery.
- Greg Weiner, The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy: As you probably have seen already in The Constitutionalist, Weiner is a true believer in real politics. He rejects the extremism of Trump and the apolitical administrative scientism of the progressives because neither make room for political compromise, moderation, and citizenship. In this book, Greg takes on judicial supremacy insofar as it denies a place for politics. Instead of letting the people reason, compromise, or even muddle their way through political decisions, the Supreme Court steps in and makes the decision for them. Long associated with the politics of the left, Weiner shows how judicial supremacy now also exists on the right. As a way of problematizing supremacy in my Constitutional Law course, I’ve been teaching John Agresto’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy for twenty years. I think I’m going to replace it with Weiner’s book.
- Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: This is one of those books that I’ve recommended now at least twenty times to different people. I even recommended it to sixteen-year-old son last night, a true lover of all things technological. Zuboff’s book is theoretical: she shows the dangers to both ourselves and our society that comes from the increasing ability of the big tech corporations to gather ever-increasing amount of data about us—data that we often freely provide for them. But it’s also empirical in the sense that she interviews and investigates the big tech corporations that have become so involved in this data collection. She shows that when platforms like Facebook were trying to figure out how to monetize their product, they realized that they were, among other things, massive data collection machines. As such, advertisers would pay lots of money for the targeted advertising that these platforms made possible. In this way, Zuboff’s book isn’t conspiratorial. She isn’t worried about the bad things that the government might do with all of this data. She’s not even so much worried about the bad things corporations will do with it. Instead, her concern centers around the capitalism that fueled the collection of all this data and the way in which the targeted advertising that the data makes possible turns us into a permanently consumerist society. Her dystopia that is the world of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report. On the basis of her book, I’d say we’re not that far from it. As one of the reviewers on the back cover says, this book should be required reading for all Americans
- Jeremy Bailey, The Idea of Presidential Representation: An Intellectual and Political History: This book adds to Bailey’s ever-growing number of serious histories of political thought. Unlike some of the rest of us in American Political Thought (myself included), Bailey is less interested in the relationship of these things to current politics and more interested in getting the story right. Though he is a political scientist, he has the instincts of a historian. He lets other people figure out what we can learn from these things. He’s just trying to get the thing itself right. So, one of the true virtues of this book is that, although it’s about presidential representation, Donald Trump never appears. Bailey doesn’t aim to show how and why his history ends in Trump; he just tells the history. In fact, in a podcast I recently did with him about presidential representation, Bailey stipulated in advance that we not talk about Trump. Although calling him a historian doesn’t imply that he has the vice of historian. Unlike them, he has a theoretical argument that unites the history. Challenging Tulis’s thesis about Wilson’s rhetorical turn, Bailey suggests that there has always been variance in whether the law or public is the basis of executive power.
- Don Delillo, White Noise: Very few years go by that I don’t read this book either for a course or just on its own. I read it for a course in the spring and enjoyed it more than ever. Although not related so much to the theme of this site, I could not give a top five favorites of the last year without including it. For those of you who haven’t read it, you should immediately click to Amazon and purchase it. Funny, smart, cynical, and sweet, this book is a true classic of the twentieth-century and probably should rank as one of the great classics of the west. It’s an academic novel at its best. But it’s also an exploration of the profound malaise and rootlessness in the modern world. Delillo counsels us to take stock of modernity’s unhealthiness but also to avoid reckless solutions to it. As J.A.K. Gladney, the rootless and unhappy academic who’s the “hero” of the story, wields his gun,