Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

ON TOCQUEVILLE

DEMOCRACY AND AMERICA

Tocqueville’s prescient analysis of American democracy, concisely and cogently explained.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), accompanied by a traveling companion, came to America charged by the French government to study the country’s penal system. During their tour, besides visiting prisons, they observed the social life and culture of the young nation. Five years later, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, two volumes that were acclaimed in his own time and remain relevant today. Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; On Politics, 2012, etc.) offers a clear, incisive introduction to Tocqueville, followed by selections from Democracy in America. Tocqueville came with an overriding question that concerned his own countrymen: How did democracy thrive? “A stable political order that was both democratic and liberal required distinctive social, moral, and economic attachments,” Tocqueville believed; “their analysis was an urgent task.” The French Revolution, after all, had resulted in “mob rule, the Terror, and mass murder, and thence to a conservative republic.” What made America different? Influenced by Rousseau, Montesquieu and Francois Guizot, Tocqueville identified individualism as a key factor in democratic success. To him, individualism meant “a strong sense of ourselves as moral beings with duties to perform and rights to protect.” Furthermore, he believed that America offered its citizens—except for Native Americans and blacks—the opportunity for equality. “Equality of condition,” according to him, “was not equality of income, education, or anything in particular; it consisted in the absence of social obstacles to whatever ambitions an American entertained.” Although he argued that America was not at risk of relapsing into tyranny or anarchy, he worried about the possible “tyranny of the majority” and of an insidious consequence of individualism: “a retreat from engagement” with the outside world.

Ryan’s excellent introduction makes Tocqueville’s observations and anxieties vitally relevant for 21st-century readers.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-87140-704-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE

Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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