January 6th and Threats to Democracy

Reflecting on last year's January 6 attack on the US Capitol, we look back at 9 volumes that consider threats to American democracy.

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Abramowitz, Alan I. The disappearing center: engaged citizens, polarization, and American democracy. Yale, 2010. 194p ISBN 9780300141627, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2010

This cogent study challenges the conventional wisdom that the American public has remained largely centrist even as its elected officials have become increasingly polarized. Not so, argues Abramowitz (Emory Univ.), one of the nation’s leading scholars on voting behavior and public opinion. Assembling an impressive array of evidence, especially from the American National Election Studies, the gold standard for survey research, he demonstrates that strong Democratic and Republican identifiers have accompanied the national legislators by becoming, respectively, more liberal and conservative across a wide set of issues. In the process, the party bases are now less an assemblage of groups and more a collection of ideologues. Combined with a growing tendency for citizens to reside in politically homogeneous settings (e.g., more red, more blue, less purple), this polarization has sharpened interest in national elections and contributed significantly to the sharp rise in voter turnout between 1996 and 2008. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —E. T. Jones, University of Missouri–St. Louis

Brown, Wendy. In the ruins of neoliberalism: the rise of antidemocratic politics in the West. Columbia, 2019. 248p index ISBN 9780231193849, $75.00; ISBN 9780231193856 pbk, $25.00; ISBN 9780231550536 ebook, $24.99
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2020

Those who wish to understand the antidemocratic wave rising worldwide should read Brown’s brilliant In the Ruins. Brown (political theory, Univ. of California, Berkeley) answers the “How did we get here?” question with theoretical insight about the nature of neoliberalism. Right-wing populism emerged from the loss of privilege previously held by whites, males, and Christians who had little else. Neoliberal rationality mobilized and legitimized antidemocratic forces, shaping law and political culture and laying siege to democracy. The separation of markets from politics enshrined privatization over public goods, releasing authoritarian forces of racism, resentment, and fatalistic nihilism. Brown traces the history of the term neoliberalism to the 1938 Walter Lippmann Colloquium, the later Mont Pelerin Society, and the “Chicago Boys” of the 1970s. Eventually, neoliberalism sought to reduce the social state, subvert labor, deregulate markets, and elevate privatization as a moral goal. The resulting controlling narrative corroded democracy and legitimized inequality, exclusion, plutocracy, and private ownership. Brown guides readers through the moral dismantling of society via markets, the attack on popular sovereignty, the revision of traditional morality, and white-male backlash and nihilism. The neoliberal project led to tectonic shifts in the organization of space and consciousness with catastrophic political, social, and economic consequences. In the “ruins,” Brown identifies a cataclysm in Western democracy. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —A. R. Brunello, Eckerd College

Burbick, Joan. Gun show nation: gun culture and American democracy. New Press, 2006. 232p ISBN 1595580875, $24.95; ISBN 9781595580870, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2007

In this unusual combination of academic scholarship and personal journalism, Burbick (American studies and English, Washington State Univ.) provides a brief history of the gun rights movement in the US from Buffalo Bill Cody through the contemporary National Rifle Association. She points out that since the 1960s, the movement has focused on gun ownership as a way to protect decent citizens from criminal (and recently terrorist) activity; earlier, hunting and target shooting were the primary rationales for private citizens to own guns. Burbick’s journalistic segments are based on visits to dozens of gun shows nationwide during the past several years, at which she interviewed hundreds of gun owners and rabid Second Amendment supporters. She treats them fairly, noting, for example, “[W]ith religious gun owners, I often found ordinary [people] trying to make sense of a decadent and dying society.” Burdick ends, however, with a ringing critique of gun culture, concluding that “the Second Amendment has become a political weapon to stop democratic processes,” a threat to the very values that many gun owners think they are protecting. More readable and accessible than scholarly tomes like William Vizzard’s Shots in the Dark (CH, Jun’01, 38-5638). Summing Up: Highly recommended. All libraries. —A. O. Edmonds, Ball State University

Lukacs, John. Democracy and populism: fear & hatred. Yale, 2005. 248p ISBN 0300107730, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2005

Lukacs is a respected and prolific historian. His more than two dozen books encompass the history of the modern age, especially the political, ideological, intellectual, and military struggles of the 20th century. See, for example, A New Republic: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (2004)–an updated and new edition of Outgrowing Democracy (1984) and At the End of an Age (CH, Dec’02, 40-2321). Many of his earlier themes and views are repeated in this newest book. It is a lively and crisply written meditation on how American democracy has been destroyed by nationalist demagogues who evoke hatred and fear directed against both foreign foes as well as certain groups of fellow citizens viewed as weak, immoral, or insufficiently patriotic. Political conservatives will find very little comfort in this book written by a traditionalist historian. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduate through research collections. —E. C. Dreyer, University of Tulsa

Michaels, Jon D. Constitutional coup: privatization’s threat to the American republic. Harvard, 2017. 312p index ISBN 9780674737730, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2018

Michaels (UCLA) views privatization in the US, interpreted extremely broadly, as a “threat to the American Republic” because it undermines the Constitution’s separation of powers as currently manifest in a viably functioning and democratic administrative state with its own tripartite division of powers. (This reviewer, a lowly economist with no pretensions of expertise in constitutional or administrative law or in politics, finds Michaels’s arguments less than compelling.) But Michaels is squarely on target in the narrower outsourcing framework. For example, contracting out military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan not only led to an expansion of state power but also violated US regulations. Decision-making authority is the sole province of government personnel, not of contractors. The critique of US government outsourcing that comprises the three chapters of part 2 is therefore highly recommended. One caveat: a bibliography would have been most helpful. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. Prager, New York University

Nace, Ted. Gangs of America: the rise of corporate power and the disabling of democracy. Berrett-Koehler, 2003. 281p ISBN 1-57675-260-7, $24.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2004

Nace has written an important and highly accessible book about the legal and political environments that shaped the modern American corporation. Ever since the Santa Clara Supreme Court decision of 1886 granting corporations a “peoplehood” status, imbuing them with the same rights as any “real” person (e.g., to have and hold property, sue and be sued, enter in contracts), corporate power has increased virtually unchecked. Corporate alliances with federal regulatory agencies and the conservative judiciary have, in Nace’s view, actually generated more rights for corporations than for “real” people, creating an inherent danger to the political culture of democracy. Issues of accountability and special privilege of the contemporary corporation are Nace’s main concerns. He interlaces his analysis of judicial decision making with relevant background on the historical and cultural context in which it occurred. Nor does he short a good story where simple political expediency and greed motivate the members of Congress or the business community. Amid the understandable legal citations and summaries of court cases are many anecdotes to illustrate the human factor at work in creating new social and economic realities. In light of recent corporate scandals set against the background of deregulation, this volume is must reading. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Public, academic, and professional library collections. —J. Kleiman, University of Wisconsin Colleges

Przeworski, Adam. Crises of democracy. Cambridge, 2019. 239p bibl index ISBN 9781108498807, $24.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2020

As the chaotic milieu of unexpected vagaries, reckless policies, and self-destructive engagements propounded by democratic regimes increasingly engulfs the world, Przeworski (politics and economics, NYU) reexamines crises faced by democracies in the past, crises that offer lessons for democracies today. Case studies focus on former crises in Chile, France, Germany, and the US. Przeworski reveals that erosion of traditional party systems, the rise of nationalist populism, and the decline of popular support for democracy itself generally triggered these crises. Failing to learn lessons from these earlier crises, democracies have attempted to evade economic and political crises and in so doing been ensnared in complex webs of paradoxical antinomies. Przeworski laments democracy’s present reliance on voters to select governments in tandem with civil society’s expectation of institutionalized rule of law to restrain excesses of popular sovereignty. Nonetheless, he contends that it is not too late to establish an equilibrium between electoral politics and democratic regulatory institutions that is capable of ameliorating challenging conflicts and thus avoiding crises. That said, he concedes that the likelihood of realizing an equilibrium is ominously diminishing, what with the rapid erosion of constitutional norms, the dismantling of regulatory institutions, and the embrace of nationalist prejudices on the part of cynical leaders and citizens. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. R. Pottenger, University of Alabama in Huntsville

Roth, Zachary. The great suppression: voting rights, corporate cash, and the conservative assault on democracy. Crown, 2016. 246p index ISBN 9781101905760, $26.00; ISBN 9781101905784 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2017

The 2016 presidential campaign has resurrected Eric Hoffer’s famous aphorism that “mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Roth (MSNBC) maintains in this short, readable book that for many conservatives, the new devil is an unusual one: democracy. “A zealous fetishizing of the Constitution with frank expressions of fear about the consequences of popular rule” has spurred a coordinated attack by conservative elites on voting rights, campaign finance regulation, and local efforts to empower ordinary citizens that places the US on the cusp of “a new era of democratic contraction.” Roth is perhaps too quick to assume that all Republicans share the priorities of a small group of conservative activists, and he romanticizes the populist promise of local governments, which are often controlled by organized policy demanders, such as teachers’ unions and developers. But his numerous examples of conservative efforts to invoke the Constitution to justify a campaign to treat democracy “as a means to an end [rather] than as a good in itself” will cause even skeptical readers to worry that American democracy is in peril. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers through professionals. —R. P. Seyb, Skidmore College

Starr, Paul. Entrenchment: wealth, power, and the constitution of democratic societies. Yale, 2019. 262p index ISBN 9780300238471, $28.50; ISBN 9780300244823 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2019

“Entrenched interests,” “entrenched bureaucracy,” and “entrenched power” might be the unholy trinity of modern American politics. It may hence surprise some that Starr’s new book on entrenchment is neither an attack on these pernicious features nor a primer on how to finesse them. It is instead a book that attends to politicians’ efforts to protect policies and institutions that redound to their interest or advance their agendas and highlights the conditions that can prompt institutional change. Starr’s analysis is anchored in historical institutionalism, but this theoretical commitment never gets in the way of his efforts to provide lucid and compelling accounts of efforts to entrench property and inheritance laws in early modern Europe and its colonies, the legal cordon protecting American slavery in the 19th century, and the neoliberal shift in tax policies in the US and Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. Starr’s final chapter, which addresses how the toxic brew of oligarchy and populism might precipitate a constitutional coup in the US, should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the modern moment and whither it is tending. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —R. P. Seyb, Skidmore College