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.
A disability afflicts nearly all conservative arguments today. Rather than being a robust picture of vigor and health, as they should given their firm ground in reality and the fantasies that underlie their opponents’ cancerous and bankrupt ideologies, conservative arguments present themselves at the door like starving beggars clad in rags. This is bad, but even worse is the source of this weakness, for it is not imposed from the outside, but voluntarily, by conservatives choosing to cut themselves off at the knees. How? By crippling their arguments through larding them with preemptive apologies.
Of late, I have repeatedly claimed that the Left’s core goal is to achieve a utopia where all people have complete equality combined with wholly unfettered liberty. This has occasioned numerous queries (especially when one book review was linked on Reddit), asking, in effect, whether this is not internally contradictory. That is, if liberty is unlimited, is it not the case that inequality, rather than equality, is the inevitable result, so that it is false that the Left simultaneously pursues both goals?
Among the many gaping holes in American historical knowledge is any grasp of the French Revolution (and that includes my own knowledge). As an abstract matter, this is unfortunate, but nothing notable, given that the historical knowledge of modern Americans is essentially one large gap. As a concrete matter, though, it is a real problem, because in our own troubled times, the French Revolution offers critical, universal lessons, which we forget to our peril. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the Terror, the rule of the twelve-man Committee of Public Safety, from 1793–94, the subject of this classic 1941 work.
Billed as a continuation, this book is really the chiral image of Michael Walsh’s earlier book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. That book was an attempt, with limited success, to outline and discuss the poisonous Frankfurt School of political philosophy, Critical Theory, through the prism of art. This book, on the other hand, aims to discuss art, with Critical Theory as the subtext. It is a largely successful attempt to outline and discuss the unparalleled genius of Western art, in its historical context and with its historical implications, and thereby to “restore Western culture to its proper place.” That restoration is necessary for our culture to cauterize the venomous bite of the Frankfurt School, whose view of art as politics, and of Western culture as worthless and evil, must be rejected if the West is to regain its path.
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
Cass Sunstein has gathered an ensemble cast of today’s intellectual Davoisie to tell us, in seventeen separate essays, whether Trump is the harbinger of American structural doom, and if so, how. It is illuminating to read this book immediately after having read Glenn Reynolds’s The Judiciary’s Class War, with its distinction between the ruling Front-Row Kids and the ruled Back-Row Kids. This is because ultimately nearly all the authors presented here believe that “it” can’t, or is extremely unlikely to, “happen here,” because they expect the Front-Row Kids to be able to stop “it.” That is, in different ways but with the same result, the authors expect that people just like them will continue to rule, Trump and the peasants be damned.
In the past few years, a variety of liberal academics have adopted a Gorillas in the Mist sensibility when trying to understand conservatives. Like Dian Fossey, they creep, wearing a ghillie suit, through thick and steamy jungles alien to them, hoping to grasp what it is that makes these creatures tick. Sometimes they become fond of these primates, and in their own clumsy way, try to improve their lives by protecting them from threats they appear too dumb to see. Like Fossey, most of them are obsessives with tunnel vision, bound in chains by premises invisible to them. Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, fits right into this model, even if Wisconsin is a long way from Rwanda, and a lot colder. She offers us a book that is half morality play, half sociology study, and all clueless.
Republican Like Me belongs to a certain phenotype, which we can call the “anti-jeremiad.” Whether on the Left or the Right, people of good will sometimes write a book after discovering what they did not earlier know about their political opponents. They make those discoveries by exposing themselves to opposing thoughts and attempting to understand the people who hold them. Thus enlightened, they attempt to find common ground, lamenting the polarization of today’s American society. Probably because the educated Right necessarily is necessarily continuously exposed to the thought of the educated Left, and not vice versa, such anti-jeremiads can mostly be found by authors from the Left. A classic of the genre is Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which largely parallels Ken Stern’s book, although Hochschild offers more focus on the personal likeability of her political opponents, and Stern’s voyage of discovery offers more focus on the plausibility of their arguments. There is always room for another, though, and this genre has rarely been as well done or as timely as in this …
Mark Lilla has been a bad, bad boy. He has dared to point out the feet of clay upon which stand King Liberal, and he, like Cassandra, will not be thanked. Still, this short book is an excellent political analysis, and it points the way, if only loosely, to a wholly new order of things, thus starting to answer my perennial question, “What is next?