This may be the worst well-written book I have ever read. That is, most awful books are bad in their writing, bad in their organization, bad in their reasoning, and bad in their typesetting. No such badness is evident here—How Democracies Die hits all the points it intends to, and reads crisply and smoothly. But it is ruined by a meta-problem: its utter cluelessness and total lack of self-reference. The authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are very much like the Ken Doll in the Toy Story movies—vain, preening, and, most of all, utterly unable to realize, not that the joke is on them, but that they themselves are the joke.
This is a book that rewards patience. The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort. Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book. I think the rest escaped me. That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication. And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.
In the past year, several high-profile books have been published that purport to analyze the future of democracy. All are reactions, and not positive reactions, to the election of Donald Trump. All are written by people of the Left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either wrong or bad, although there is certainly a very strong correlation between being Left and being both wrong and bad. As part of my own analysis of a future Reaction, of which the death or massive alteration of so-called liberal democracy is a necessary part, I am slogging through these books (and also doing so in order that you may avoid doing so). How far I will get through the stack I am not sure, but I did get through this book, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends.
For some time now, I have been telling my children, none of whom have ever lived through any event that significantly harmed America, that sooner or later, history will return. The older ones roll their eyes; the younger ones have no idea what I mean. This book shows what I mean, through a fictionalized look at a 2020 nuclear attack by North Korea on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
[Admin’s Note: This is a guest post by Jared, who has a tendency to drift between British and American spellings, but who has recently been trying to standardise (ha ha) on the former.] One of the most interesting topics to me, a total neophyte in the field of law, is the comparison between civil law (i.e., law decreed by a sovereign), and common law (i.e., law constructed by judges in the Anglo-American tradition). The topic is deep and weighty, and one in which it’s hard to cleanly resolve a question along the lines of which might be “better.” Everything is subtlety and nuance, comparison of principles and implementation, and a noting of the successes and failures of each in history.
This is an excellent book, doubly excellent in that the writer, George Hawley, has written a book both even-handed and superbly accurate in detail about a difficult and controversial topic. I am personally deeply familiar with nearly all the facts covered in this book, and Hawley has not fallen into any significant error. Moreover, his analysis is generally excellent, so as a package, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding what I call the Great Fragmentation—the splintering, and reforming, of what until recently was a relatively monolithic instantiation of mainstream American conservatism. Finally, this book implicitly poses a fascinating question—should the Right adopt a new principle, in imitation of the Left, that there are no enemies on the right?
My project here is to analyze, in the detail required for all necessary understanding, the thought of Curtis Yarvin, who wrote under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug. Yarvin is the most prominent figure of what has been called the Dark Enlightenment, one thread of modern reactionary thought. My short summary is that he offers mediocre analysis with quite a few flashes of insight. Even so, his thought is mostly worthless, because his program for political change is silly, since it fails to understand both history and human nature, and is ultimately indistinguishable from the program of the Left. Overall I was very disappointed, and this write-up is shorter than I expected when beginning my project, since there is not all that much interesting to talk about. As I read and write on Reaction, I continue to divide its modern thought into three basic groups, at least as far as its American incarnation. The first is those who endorse the Enlightenment and merely think that the American experiment has gone wrong from its ideal position, either in …
I stay away from the shouters, such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Sure, they’re right in their conclusions, most of the time, but the lack of nuanced thought annoys me. There are plenty of ways to get easily worked up today, without seeking out more that don’t offer a corresponding benefit. Angelo Codevilla is not a shouter, but this is at least a half-shouter book, as shown by that Limbaugh wrote the Introduction. As is the case with most books of conservative woe, it has nothing of substance to offer about how to fix the problems it identifies. Still, it has one interesting insight, and one cautionary lesson. And I am here to offer the solution to the problem Codevilla talks about. It’s not even radical!
Most honest postmortems of Trump’s election are by Democrats focusing on what they missed. Usually, they are either narrow exercises in vote counting or more holistic attempts to understand Trump voters. In the latter group are Joan Williams’s White Working Class and Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me. The common thread in these is discovery, a dawning realization that there are people out there with legitimate, even compelling, reasons to vote for Trump. Republicans, on the other hand, haven’t engaged much in postmortems. They have engaged in recriminations, or a facile triumphalism, but few seem to have analyzed Trump’s election in a focused, professional, way. The Great Revolt fills that gap.
William Lloyd Garrison is one of those nineteenth-century American figures about whom most people know a little, realizing they are important to American history, but whom few can discuss with expertise. Into that same category I’d put men like Henry Clay, John Fremont, perhaps even Stephen Douglas, and quite a few others. Garrison is probably more neglected than those figures. But this book is an excellent corrective, not only showing the importance of Garrison for his time, but showing us how his principles apply today in a similarly fraught moral climate, and offering lessons in how society’s powerful approach, or fail to approach, moral issues, then and now.