Polarized is perhaps the best way to describe our current political landscape heading into the home stretch of the 2020 election, and I have consciously tried to select five books that both provide some immediate historical context to help readers understand how we got here. However, I also wanted to add a few historical texts to remind everyone that the political rhetoric and posturing we are experiencing today isn’t new in American history. It is distinctly different from recent American history, but even at the beginning of political life under the Constitution, things were heated, personal, contentious, and ugly. So while this run up to our next Presidential election is ugly, it’s not unique if you look back far enough. I also added one book to make readers feel absolutely fine if they decide to sit this election out, and considering the world today, staying at home on election day may make more practical sense than ever before.
A Magnificent Catastrophe – Edward J. Larsen – America is a relatively young country, but relatively young is still 244 years old. While it seems like 2020 has been the worst year imaginable with the worst Presidential campaign ever, the good news is that we have had worse years and much worse elections. In 1800, two of the Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in a contentious, ugly, and ultimately foundational election for President, as fans of Hamilton will know. Larsen is a wonderful writer, and this book is a bracing reminder that politics has always brought out the worst in everyone, even the people who brilliantly crafted the United States.
Plunkett of Tammany Hall – William L. Riordan – From the election of 1800 we jump to another helpful reminder that elections and politics haven’t always been unicorns and rainbows. Tammany Hall was the famed political club and home to the leaders of New York City’s political machine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Plunkett was a prominent member of that club, and he sat down to give an entertaining and thought-provoking defense of why people get into politics, what the day to day life of a big city political leader was like during this time, and some philosophical insight into human nature generally. As Plunkett famously said “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”
Coming Apart – Charles Murray – To get some perspective on 2020, I think it’s important to understand how President Trump won in 2016, and no book is better at explaining this than Charles Murray’s. First, Murray doesn’t mention Trump at all, because he wrote this book in 2012 with a focus on the growing divide among white Americans. He convincingly shows how working class whites have been left behind by more affluent whites geographically, educationally, economically, and spiritually. It’s a powerful reminder of how radically different the lives of rural and working class Americans are from their parents and how much more challenging their futures are unless their circumstances improve. Their support of President Trump has to be understood through the lens of Murray’s important book.
The Lost Majority – Sean Trende – I reviewed this book when it first came out, and again I think it provides a great context to our current political climate. During the run-up to 2016, a number of prominent writers argued that demographics made it inevitable that the Democratic party was heading toward a sort of permanent majority status. This became a popular talking point in intellectual circles. Trende’s book showed the flaws in that thinking as he drilled down much more deeply into the congressional and local level data. He showed the problems that ignoring rural America would create, a warning that rang very true in 2016.
Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan – In case you were unaware, there’s a book someone named Bryan Caplan wrote that is worth a read this election season. (In fact, there’s a three week long discussion on this books in our #EconlibReads Facebook Group going in right now.) Full disclosure, I have a fair amount of issues with the text, most notably Caplan’s unrelenting pessimism about the current state of democracy. As several of the books I’ve listed above show, it’s not obvious that things today are “worse” by any objective measure. But he provides a very provocative argument against the current system, and if any election deserves to be seen in the context of what’s wrong with our political leadership, decision-making process, and media, this is the one.
G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.