As Michael Svoboda explains in a provocative new essay, to understand the politics of climate change, one must first understand how profoundly American politics have changed since World War II. Any proposals to address climate change via the United States government are unlikely to succeed without a clear understanding of this enormous political shift. Descriptions here are drawn from copy provided by the publishers.
The historical, economic, and demographic contexts
Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II, by Mark R. Wilson (University of Pennsylvania Press 2016, 379 pages, $45.00)
During World War II, the United States helped vanquish the Axis powers by converting its enormous economic capacities into military might, producing nearly two-thirds of all the munitions used by Allied forces. Based on new [archival] research, Destructive Creation shows that this mobilization effort relied not only on the capacities of private companies but also on massive public investment and robust government regulation. Many business leaders, still engaged in political battles against the New Deal, regarded the wartime government as an overreaching regulator and a threatening rival. In response, they mounted an aggressive campaign that touted the achievements of for-profit firms while dismissing the value of public-sector contributions. Offering a groundbreaking account of the inner workings of the “arsenal of democracy,” Destructive Creation also suggests how the struggle to define its heroes and villains has continued to shape economic and political development to the present day.
Editor’s Note: Bill McKibben highlighted this book in his recent essay, “A World at War.”
The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, by Robert J. Gordon (Princeton University Press 2016, 762 pages, $39.95)
In the century after the Civil War, an economic revolution improved the American standard of living in ways previously unimaginable. Weaving together a vivid narrative and economic analysis, The Rise and Fall of American Growth provides an in-depth account of this momentous era. But has that era of unprecedented growth come to an end? Historian Robert J. Gordon [argues] that the life-altering scale of innovations between 1870 and 1970 can’t be repeated. The nation’s productivity growth, he contends, will be held back by the vexing headwinds of rising inequality, stagnating education, an aging population, and the rising debt of college students and the federal government. The younger generation may be the first in American history that fails to exceed their parents’ standard of living. Rather than depend on the great advances of the past, he contends, we must find new solutions to overcome the challenges facing us. His book is at once a tribute to a century of radical change and a harbinger of tougher times to come.
The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones (Simon & Schuster 2016, 309 pages, $28.00)
For most of our nation’s history, White Christian America (WCA) – the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians – set the tone for our national policy and shaped American ideals. But especially since the 1990s, WCA has steadily lost influence. Today, America is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white Christian nation. Drawing on more than four decades of polling data, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), argues that the visceral nature of today’s most heated issues – the vociferous arguments around same-sex marriage and religious liberty, the rise of the Tea Party following the election of our first black president, and stark disagreements between black and white Americans over the fairness of the criminal justice system – can only be understood against the backdrop of white Christians’ anxieties as America’s racial and religious topography shifts around them.
The decline of trust and the increase in polarization
American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Simon & Schuster 2016, 455 pages, $28.00)
In American Amnesia, political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson trace the economic and political history of the United States over the last century and show how a viable mixed economy has long been the dominant engine of America’s prosperity. Government and business were as much partners as rivals. Public investments in education, science, transportation, and technology laid the foundation for broadly based prosperity. The mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the twentieth century. And yet, extraordinarily, it is anathema to many current economic and political elites. As anti-government free market fundamentalists gained power, they [became] hell-bent on scrapping the instrument of nearly a century of unprecedented economic and social progress. In American Amnesia, Hacker and Pierson explain how – and why they must be stopped.
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin (Perseus Books 2016, 272 pages, $27.50)
Americans today are frustrated and anxious. Our economy is sluggish and leaves workers insecure. Income inequality, cultural divisions, and political polarization increasingly pull us apart. No wonder, then, that Americans – and the politicians who represent them – are overwhelmingly nostalgic for a better time. The Left looks back to the middle of the twentieth century; the Right looks back to the Reagan Era. In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin argues that this politics of nostalgia is failing twenty-first-century Americans. Both parties are blind to how America has changed over the past half century. Both our strengths and our weaknesses are consequences of these changes. Levin calls for a modernizing politics that avoids both radical individualism and centralizing statism and instead revives the middle layers of society – families and communities, schools and churches, charities and associations, local governments and markets. Through them, we can find multiple answers fitted to the daunting challenges we face.
Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis, by Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudoph (University of Chicago Press 2015, 264 pages paperback)
In Why Washington Won’t Work, Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph argue that a contemporary crisis of trust – people whose party is out of power have almost no trust in a government run by the other side – has deadlocked Congress. Without trust, consensus fails to develop and compromise does not occur. But political trust, the authors show, is far from a stable characteristic. Political trust increases, for example, when the public is concerned with foreign policy – as in times of war – and it decreases in periods of weak economic performance. Hetherington and Rudolph do offer some suggestions about steps politicians and the public might take to increase political trust. Ultimately, however, they conclude that it is unlikely levels of political trust will significantly increase unless foreign concerns come to dominate and the economy is consistently strong.
The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress, by Sean Theriault (Oxford University Press 2013, 254 pages, $29.95 paperback)
The Senate of the mid-twentieth century – which was venerated by journalists, historians, and senators alike – is today but a distant memory. In this book, noted political scientist Sean Theriault explains the Senate’s demise over the last 30 years by showing how one group, the “Gingrich Senators,” has been at the forefront of this transformation. Theriault first documents the ideological distinctiveness of the Gingrich Senators and examines possible explanations for it. He then shows how the Gingrich Senators behave as partisan warriors, which has radically transformed the way the Senate operates as an institution, by using cutthroat tactics, obstructionism, and legislative games. He concludes the book by examining the fate of the Gingrich Senators and the future of the U.S. Senate.
Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley (Liveright 2016, 257 pages, $26.95)
With Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008, pundits proclaimed the Republicans as dead as the Whigs of yesteryear. Yet even as Democrats swooned, a small cadre of Republican operatives, including Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and Chris Jankowski began plotting their comeback with a simple yet ingenious plan. These men devised a way to take a tradition of dirty tricks – known to political insiders as “ratf**king” – to a whole new, unprecedented level. Flooding state races with a gold rush of dark money made possible by Citizens United, the Republicans reshaped state legislatures, where the power to redistrict is held. Reconstructing this never-told-before story, David Daley examines the far-reaching effects of this so-called REDMAP program, which has radically altered America’s electoral map and created a firewall in the House, insulating the party and its wealthy donors from popular democracy.
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks Was: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (Basic Books 2016, 247 pages, $16.99 paperback)
In It’s Even Worse than It Looks (2012), Congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein presented a grim picture of how party polarization and tribal politics have led Congress – and the United States – to the brink of institutional failure. In this revised edition, the authors bring their seminal book up-to-date in a political environment that is more divided than ever. The underlying dynamics of the situation – extremist Republicans holding government hostage to their own ideological, anti-government beliefs – have only gotten worse, further bolstering their argument that Republicans are not merely ideologically different from Democrats, but engaged in a unique form of politics that undermines the system itself. Without a fundamental change in the character and course of the Republican Party, we may have a long way to go before we hit rock bottom.
Personal political stories and social solutions
Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press 2016, 351 pages, $27.95)
In Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild journeys from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California, deep into Louisiana bayou country. As she gets to know people who strongly oppose many of her ideals, Hochschild nevertheless finds common ground: the desire for community, the embrace of family, and hope for our children. Strangers in Their Own Land goes beyond the commonplace liberal idea that many on the political right have been duped into voting against their interests. In the right-wing world she explores, Hochschild discovers powerful forces – fear of cultural eclipse, economic decline, perceived government betrayal – that help explain the emotional appeal of a candidate like Donald Trump. Along the way she finds answers to one of the crucial questions of American politics: why do the people who would seem to benefit most from “liberal” government intervention abhor the very idea?
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance (Harper 2016, 272 pages, $27.99)
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but it has never before been written so searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance describes what social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. His family story begins hopefully in postwar America. But as the saga plays out, we learn that Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. A deeply moving memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is an urgent meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, by Jay Newton-Small (Time Inc Books 2016, 240 pages, 27.95)
Never before have women been represented in such great numbers in the Supreme Court, both chambers of Congress, and in the West Wing. In Broad Influence, Jay Newton-Small, one of the nation’s most deeply respected and sourced journalists, takes readers through the corridors of Washington D.C., the offices and hallways of Capitol Hill and everywhere else conversations and deals are happening to demonstrate how women are reaching across the aisles, coalescing, and effecting lasting change. [Through her] deep reporting and exclusive interviews – including conversations with Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Mikulski, Kirsten Gillibrand, Valerie Jarrett, Sarah Palin, Kelly Ayotte, Cathy McMorris Rogers and dozens of other former and current senators, representatives, senior White House staffers, governors and cabinet members – [Newton-Small offers] an insightful look at how women are transforming government, politics, and the workforce, and how they are using that power shift to effect change throughout America.