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American Politics: Trying to Make Sense of It in Eight Books

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Last week, Luther Strange, a Trump-endorsed candidate, lost to Roy Moore, a radical right-winger, in the Alabama primary for its upcoming special election for Senator. Strange was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We’re dealing with a political environment that I’ve never had any experience with. The political seas, the political winds in this country right now are very hard to navigate. They’re very hard to understand.”

Mr. Strange might have Hillary Clinton’s sympathy with that sentiment. She has dedicated an entire book to understanding how she lost last fall’s general election. From right to left, Americans are struggling to understand national politics, and more importantly, the forces at work behind them. These books take a look at where we are, what got us here, and where we might go next. 

The Smear

In The Smear: How the Secret Art of Character Assassination Controls What You Think, What You Read, and How You Vote, Attkisson demonstrates how journalists, pundits and politicians take grains of truth from an issue, and spin them into a story that fits their own narrative. Attkisson herself is decidedly on the right-slash-conservative side. Once a correspondent for CBS, she criticized her former employer for its liberal bias, while others have criticized her for being agenda-driven. Fitting with Attkisson’s own narrative of right-wing politics, she utilizes more examples of character smearing from the left than the right, but understanding how media can be manipulated and agendas promoted is important no matter what your political stripe is. Attkisson reveals the strategies and calculations behind what appears in media reports and your social media feed isn’t random, and concludes with this sobering warning:

“One thing you can count on is that most every image that crosses your path has been put there for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much Is it true, but who wants me to believe it—and why?”

The Populist Explosion

From Sanders to Trump (and Brexit to Marie Le Pen), populism is having a moment in the West. No matter where you stand on the issues, understanding the current political climate requires an understanding of the rise of discontent, and what the success of populists might mean for the future. While Judis writes that “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist,” he does identify a common belief and approach: “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” From the U.S. to Europe the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots has provided fertile ground for current populist movements—the politics of protest—to grow. While Judis wrote this book prior to the November 2016 elections, wrongly predicting a Clinton win, his sharp analysis is more relevant than ever, to understand Trump’s attacks on those in his own Republican party as well as on Democrats.

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Devil's Bargain

The subtitle of Joshua Green’s book is Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, and in less than 300 pages Green traces the 2016 campaign from its roots “in the far fringes of right-wing politics and reality television” to the election of Trump in November 2016. Bannon has since been removed from the Trump administration – but don’t think for a second that he has disappeared. Bannon is now putting his energy and substantial media know-how behind Congressional campaigns, most recently the special election in Alabama to fill Jeff Session’s senatorial seat. In the September run-off to become the Republican candidate, Bannon threw his support behind for Roy Moore, a radical right firebrand, who defeated the more moderate and notably, Trump-endorsed, Luther Strange. Bannon may be out of the White House, but understanding Bannon’s vision and how his machinery is shaping the US political landscape are as important as ever.

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Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

A Democratic senator representing the state of Minnesota, Al Franken takes readers inside his campaign, then inside the Senate to learn how deals are made and legislation passed. Once a writer for Saturday Night Live, Franken takes his role as senator seriously, but is takes a light-hearted approach to his memoir, producing an engaging read that contrasts with the academic tones that other politicians have been known to produce. The book gives Franken the chance to highlight some of the bipartisan relationships that the media seems to neglect, providing an example of how to keep friendships intact even when politics are at odds. Most importantly, Franken manages to make the legislative process of the US government both straightforward and entertaining – a feat more expected from a magician than a comedian.  

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Conscience Of A Conservative

Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona takes his own party to task here. As the book’s subtitle indicates, he calls for “a rejection of destructive politics and a return to principle.” The title is borrowed from Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960, and Flake frequently quotes and praises Goldwater, widely considered a founder of modern conservatism, throughout the book. That praise is presented in juxtaposition against criticism for President Trump, whom Flake feels has strayed from the core values of the Republican party. Up for re-election in 2018, it remains to be seen which side of the Republican party Arizonans will embrace.

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What We Do Now

Edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, What We Do Now: Standing Up For Your Values in Trump's America is a collection of essays from an array of liberals ranging from politicians to the heads of national agencies such as the ACLU, NARAL, and the NAACP. This book was published in early January 2017, quickly pulled together in the aftermath of Trump’s election, and it shows. There aren’t as many specific actions recommended as one might expect from the title, and writing is somewhat even, but there are pieces whose eloquence is so uplifting they makes the entire book worthwhile.

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No Is Not Enough

This book’s subtitle, Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, implies action, but what Naomi Klein does especially well is explain some of the forces behind current world politics: superbrands and their role in politics; 'shock politics' and the exploitation of crisis to roll back democratic rights; and the complementary ‘disaster capitalism’, in which individuals and corporations profit from those crises. While Klein firmly plants herself on the left, the call to protecting democratic rights, avoiding the ills of globalization, and preventing profiteering in the time of crisis, will resonate with individuals across the political spectrum.    

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The American Spirit

The American Spirit is a collection of speeches by David McCullough, the most honored historian in the United States. A registered independent, McCullough has long been more interested in dead politicians than living ones, penning biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams, while his renowned book, 1776, focuses on founding year of the United States, including, of course, George Washington’s role in it. For his work, McCullough has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others. In these speeches, some of which were given to new graduates, others presented to the Congress, McCullough weaves together history and advice, and reminds readers of shared American principles. While The American Spirit is available as a book, the audio version is narrated by McCullough himself, and it is the best way to experience these inspiring speeches.

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Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.

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