- Prohibition, The Constitution, and States’ Rights by Sean Beienburg
(University of Chicago Press, 2019)
This book is a captivating political history of Prohibition – that dark moment in our nation’s history – and its undoing. It is also a reflection on the dynamics of American politics, with a focus on questions of federalism and states’ rights. Beienburg shows us that whatever else it accomplished (like getting my grandfather suspended from college), Prohibition massively extended federal authority in this country. While it is no longer the law of the land, the legal legacy of Prohibition is still with us.
One of the lessons that has stuck with me from this book, beyond those major themes, is that debate over constitutional amendment can serve the cause of civic education – if only by reminding Americans that the ultimate law of the land lies not is not the purview of the Supreme Court, but of the people.
2. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude (Crown, 2020)
What do we do in a nation that has betrayed its better angels? Where our fellow citizens have betrayed us? Where we seem to have betrayed ourselves? Glaude, in a book so moving that it more than once brought me to tears, looks to the example of James Baldwin – and his struggle with America after the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – for guidance in our own era of political disappointment and racial assault. Part of what Glaude, like Baldwin, does exceptionally well is to remind us that democracy has an inner life, and that tending our inner lives is tending the nation. Statecraft requires soulcraft.
(While you can read Glaude’s book without having read James Baldwin, you need to read James Baldwin. Good starter books are his Collected Essays and Giovanni’s Room, though my heart has long been captured by the unwieldy loveliness of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.)
3. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate a Small American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (PublicAffairs, 2020)
In 2004, a group of libertarians took over Grafton, New Hampshire. The idea was to be a new kind of City on the Hill: a town that by its virtuous example of (anti-)governance, would inspire Americans to see the practical genius of libertarianism. Hilarity and disaster ensued, as did bears. The story that Hongoltz-Hetling tells about the Free Town Project, based on lots of interviews with those who lived it, offers lots of insight into certain corners of contemporary American politics and has the added bonus of being deeply entertaining.
What gives this book even more lasting power, though, is its historical inquiry into anti-tax, anti-government sentiment in American life – in a corner of the country that most of us mis-regard as “blue.” (“In a country known for fussy states with streaks of independence,” writes Hongoltz-Hetling, “New Hampshire is among the fussiest and the streakiest.”)
4. The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler (Chicago, 2011)
Now that Democrats – many of them, including the President-Elect, veterans of the Obama Administration – are back in the White House, we all should re-read Mettler’s brilliant critique of the contemporary liberal approach to policymaking. Mettler shows how well-intentioned (though often self-enchanted) government officials have come to do much of their policymaking invisibly, often through subsidization of private actors. This allows them to get the job done in the short term, but it obscures the role of government in the longer term.
For liberals, this “submerged state” is especially devastating because it contributes to a disconnect between government and citizens, makes people discount the role of government in their lives, and allows “small government” rhetoric to flourish. Mettler’s observations, focused on the social welfare state in the Obama era, should be the great guide to rethinking policymaking in the Biden era – though more realistically, it will probably be the great guide to what liberal policymakers continue to get wrong in the Biden era.
5. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshanna Zuboff (Public Affairs, 2019)
Yes: It is worth it to read all 702 pages of this book.
Throughout The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff brings conceptual clarity to present-day politics. Whether it’s her description of a surveillance state that goes far beyond the Internet, her distinction between classic totalitarianism and contemporary “instrumentarianism,” or her insistence that we need to recognize new rights to sanctuary and the future tense in the face of new threats to our humanity, Zuboff consistently provokes us to think about the changing face of power in a digitized state.
I am confident that anyone who reads this book will find in it new ways to think about the nature and limits of constitutional democracy in the modern world.