American History the Democratic Purpose

Heather Cox Richardson is an outstanding historian. I first became aware of her work on the Civil War and Reconstruction years ago. Her scholarship is rigorous, her prose clear and compelling. If you were teaching a course on American history in the latter part of the nineteenth century, you would assign her books – and students would read them. She is that good.

In the past decade plus, Richardson’s work has moved into the public sphere as she engaged with broader issues. Richardson has a daily substack newsletter with many followers, a podcast series, and is balancing her traditional scholarship with a nuanced look at contemporary affairs. She describes herself as a “Lincoln Republican.” What makes so much of her writing engaging is her rigor. Richardson finds ways to build themes from facts, not assertions, and she respects consistency and detail.

In 2023, Richardson wrote Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. It is a big-picture book, a work of American history that contrasts two themes: authoritarianism and democracy, over the centuries. Richardson moves quickly and selectively in the book, framing events in support of her larger argument. It is not a work of discovery, but rather one of explication. Democracy Awakening is history done tidy, with little time for the complexities and contradictions that render her other works so fascinating. Accordingly, I found it to be an unusual book, one that has me wondering about what history can – and cannot – and what sticks in the public’s mind.

Democracy Awakening is strongest, and most effective, in reminding readers that authoritarian tendencies are deeply woven into American political life. Moreover, these impulses have been vibrant and essential to the creation of the United States. Much of our history is one of conflict, which demands cohesion. Richardson, accordingly, is quite good at identifying the persistence of this strand. We tend to miss these, often assuming that the contingencies that have made today possible were rife with meaning. Some are and some are not.

On the other hand, America’s equally ambitious democratic impulse is a national aspiration. This matters a great deal and it is where Richardson’s values align. She notes, as we all have to when looking at facts, that the march towards democratic rights for all has not taken place in a straight line. The journey has been complicated and remains so today. What that means for history is that it is difficult to align historical figures, movements and events, into clear and consistent categories. The strength and importance of history, in other words, comes from the close analysis of how, when and why we can make supported claims for where and how we track and make sense of those changes.

Richardson does this and does it well. In Democracy Awakening, though, she gives more of her attention to the theme than perhaps in some of her other books. That left this reader wanting more complexity and contradiction. For it is in wrestling with these problems that Richardson’s skill truly shines.

David Potash

Paddling Out Past the Fear

Christine Blasey Ford doesn’t consider that her real name. At work, she’s Dr. Ford. For old friends, it’s Chrissy. In the mind of the public, however, it’s Christine Blasey Ford. That one detail – not being able to name oneself – encapsulates much of what it is like to be a media/political story. Ford’s memoir, One Way Back, is a fascinating exploration of what that all is like. The simple summary? It is awful and best avoided if at all possible.

Ford, as a reminder, is the academic research psychologist who came forward during the Senate hearings surrounding Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. He attacked her decades earlier when they were in their teens. Ford was traumatized, pushed much of the assault aside – the norm for the time period. Through therapy many years later, though, Ford realized how the assault affected her, its interplay with family dynamics, and other questions of choice and preference. When Kavanaugh was named, she thought sharing what happened to her was the right thing to do.

Morals, unfortunately, have little to do with the way that politics, political theater and the media operate.

One Way Back is about Ford’s journey, the why behind her decisions, and the terrific costs she and her family endured along the way. She’s a very intelligent, focused, and clear-thinking professional. Ford is also an avid surfer. More than a hobby to her, surfing is essential to her personal grounding, to her identity, and to her health.

I came away from the book liking her and admiring her choices. The memoir is not about policy and it is not an argument for anything. It is about her life, her values, and telling her story. Ford’s directness, which no doubt has caused her challenges over the years, is central to her identity. As a work of non-fiction, it offers credible first-hand information about how statements can be received (or not), how they are manipulated and shaped by others, and the massive distance between “history” and “media accounts.” One other important takeaway from One Way Back: be careful of snap judgments and headlines.

David Potash

Triumph and Freedom – Fighting the FLDS

An American religious cult based in the far west, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is a polygamist group that split from the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) more than a century ago. For decades the FLDS has attracted concern and attention from law enforcement, often because of its sexual abuse of girls and casting out young men. The FLDS believes that its leader is the one and only voice of God. Accordingly, FLDS membership, family structures, work, and nearly all aspects of life is controlled and directed. The current leader, or prophet, of the FLDS, issues edicts from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for sexual assaults and other crimes. The FLDS has been covered extensively in the media, from news stories to documentaries. More is on the way as people escape the cult and attempt to create new lives, integrating into the modern world. A nativist domestic cult that has harmed thousands, the FLDS has patriarchy and the subjection of women at its core, along with violence and white supremacy. The FLDS is an evil organization.

Two memoirs, promoted at a local library, opened a window into life in the FLDS. Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs, by Rachel Jeffs, is the story of life in the cult and the author’s escape. Carolyn Jessop’s Triumph: Life After the Cult – A Survivor’s Lessons is written from a different place, as the author left the FLDS years before and is now working to free others from its grasp. Both Jeffs and Jessop hail from FLDS leadership families. Both authors had extremely difficult childhoods, were abused, and were forced into arranged marriages. Family ties – and through FLDS practice of arranged marriages and multiple wifes, the connections are very complex – supported and constrained both women. They love their children and their family members, yet at the same time, so many of the extended family and FLDS practices were toxic. Both women are heroes, fighting for agency and independence. The journey to agency, though, is neither quick or nor linear. It is no surprise that both actively resist being labeled as victims.

It is fascinating to learn how both women, and their friends and family, have wrestled with their personal histories and gaining independence. We are, by nature, social and our understanding of ourselves and our world is shaped by those around us. Change is difficult, and for these authors, it has required time and great strength. One cheers for them as they fight for decency and agency.

For those interested in what life was like in the FLDS, Jeffs’ account is the more immediate. To better understand how the FLDS used laws and structures to maintain power, Jessop’s book is more helpful. Read in conjunction, the two memoirs offer something else – a lesson on how extreme patriarchy functions. It is toxic, antithetical to democratic values, and denies people – especially women – anything akin to real humanity. This is not abstract academic gender theory. One does not need to study the Taliban or ancient history. The FLDS offers a close to home primer on the malevolent ways that religion, sex and family structures can persist, even today, while causing great harm.

The books are harrowing, frightening, and very personal. These are memoirs. The authors write directly, from the heart. Despite the hardships portrayed, ultimately, both books affirm the power of individual growth, choice and agency.

David Potash

Liberators & The Good Fight

There is absolutely nothing as good as a well-written history book to improve one’s perspective. Thinking that we might have it tough today? Worried about leadership and the direction of the country or the world? Look no further than a study of how the United States navigated through World War II to make one grateful and appreciative. Ten years ago A.J. Baime wrote The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm America at War. It remains relevant, informative, and a gripping read.

Baime is a journalist, author, and public speaker who knows how to spin a tale. His 2009 book, Go Like Hell, was a best-seller that later became the movie Ford v. Ferrari. Baime is able to frame big-picture themes while rendering them personal, giving readers a real sense of the people involved. That skill is clearly evident in Arsenal of Democracy. It is a book about an extraordinarily important issue – how American industrial might was essential to the Allies effort to win World War II – with close attention to the dramatic story of three generations in the Ford family. While it might not be the most comprehensive or inclusive way to tell the complex history of the rise of the American armament industry in the 1940s, it is nonetheless memorable and very entertaining.

Understanding the history requires an appreciation of overlapping and intersecting lines of power and influence. Internationally, the rise of Hitler’s Germany was not understood by many at the time to be an existential threat to democratic values. Baime sketches this deftly, using Charles Lindbergh as an example of a pacifist, apologist, and political naif. US domestic policy was of even greater importance. Baime goes quickly here, using President Roosevelt as the primary lens through which to explain planning and policy. There is little in Arsenal of Democracy on the New Deal, US industrial policy, or even domestic economics. What Baime does explain well is the economics of Ford Motors and its extraordinary rise from start up to one of the globe’s most profitable and important companies, all within a few decades. Ford is where Baime anchors this history.

Henry Ford, of course, is the dramatic focus. Brilliant, driven, and more than a little anti-Semitic and eccentric, Ford was one of the most significant and divisive figures of the early 1900s. Baime is a generous biographer, at times giving the elder Ford the benefit of the doubt. He characterizes Ford’s son, Edsel, in tragic terms, while Henry Ford II is not fully examined as a figure. The back and forth of these three men over the years is at the heart of The Arsenal of Democracy.

Garnering less attention in the book are the technical aspects of what Ford and other companies did during the war. The production of the Liberator, a heavy bomber, was very important. So, too, was the rise of the shipbuilding industry, the creation of weapons, and much more. Curious readers will have to look elsewhere to gain a broader comprehension of the many different ways that the American economy responded to the challenges of World War II. The period experienced extremely complicated labor history, massive racial strife, gender issues, and much more – all while the very existence of the democratic west was under immediate and dire threat. This history is one thread in a larger and vitally important history.

There is so very much to recommend in Arsenal of Democracy. Baime has made complicated history intelligible, has highlight the right issues, and reminded us all of the great debt we owe those that fought to preserve democracy in World War II. While far from the final word, it is nevertheless a much appreciated history that invites further investigation. What more could one want from history?

David Potash

Democracy Reconsidered Decades On

More important, more needed, and very much contested, democratic values and structures are increasingly under the microscope. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in its many forms is a vitally important issue for the United States and, in many ways, the entire world. How do we govern, govern ourselves, and make good faith efforts to live fair and just lives in unfair and unjust times? There are no easy answers.

My knowledge and questions about democracy have been substantially aided of late through reading an important book, one that I missed for decades. First published in 1998 (with a big thanks to my daughter for the recommendation), Carol C. Gould’s Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economy and Society is a rigorously argued work of political philosophy. Gould makes bold claims, offers tightly structured arguments, and systematically advances and critiques other’s work in the field. Rethinking Democracy challenges established thinking (at least at the time it was written), and for someone new to book, clearly has made an outsize impact on the field. Be warned, though: this is not a book to skim. It requires close reading and attention. Gould is a very well-respected scholar whose work spans disciplines and centuries.

At a high-level, Gould’s agenda is this volume has multiple aims. She looks to establish democratic decision-making and processes as foundational to social and economic life, not just politics. Democracy, in other words, cannot only be found at the ballot box. It matters in the workplace and in our lives. To achieve this claim, Gould carefully builds an understanding of freedom, liberty and rights that affirm both the individualist perspective and the demands of social equality and cooperation. That is an important shift. Many think of freedom as an individual’s right to do what they want, and that this kind of freedom is essential to a democracy. Others consider freedom that can only be established through a cooperation and structured equality. Think of socialism in this example.

Gould’s argument is multi-layered. Along like lines, Gould acknowledges the power of negative and positive freedom as a construct (“no one can constrain me” and “I can do what I want”). She demonstrates the ineffectiveness of relying on the framework to construct a foundation for democracy. This takes a lot of work, for Gould does not simply propose. Instead, she summarizes thinking, considers the benefits and shortcomings of other thinkers, and constructs her arguments deliberately and with purpose. The very definitions of freedom and equality are sought. Although Gould claims the book to be constructive, not critical, it is only through her systematic work that construction takes place.

Freedom, Gould persuasively argues, is a condition for individual self-development, which is essential our purpose and lives as humans. Self-development is not atomistic and isolated. Instead, it is only possible in conditions of cooperation and participation. Democracy in a healthy state, accordingly, offers individual self-development and social cooperation. It has an ethical and ontological foundation.

Multiple books and articles have emerged in the decades since Rethinking Democracy was published, as well as fields within philosophy. Social ontology stands as a good example. One not be a philosophy student or philosopher to appreciate the potential consequences and questions that emerge from Gould’s ideas. Rethinking Democracy is a powerful work.

I plan on more reading and research, based on this book and subsequent scholarship. Learning more about how to advance democratic values strikes me as a most relevant area of inquiry. And if current affairs has one thinking, it is clear that there is much to learn and consider.

David Potash

Elderly Democracies: Hospice or New Life?

David Runciman, a professor of politics of Cambridge University, is a prolific scholar whose work resonates in the public sphere. He podcasts, appears regularly on television and other media, and has an impact on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. An academic with a scholarly legacy, Runciman has the rare ability to make complicated subjects accessible while remaining appreciative of their complexity. These and other skills are in full display in How Democracy Ends, Runciman’s 2018 publication. Clearly written and organized, the book makes the claim that democracy, in particular American democracy, “is going through a mid-life crisis.” It is a refreshing and provocative lens through which to understand the passivity, anger, and impulsive behavior found in much contemporary politics.

At pains to recognize the lessons of history while stressing that the path is no guide to the future, Runciman’s book draws on the scholarship of political scientists as well as a comparativist perspective. It is structured around three broad themes or ways of imagining democracy’s demise: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. Runciman’s overall perspective is somewhat gloomy but not deterministic. He believes that therapy for the middle aged, be it individual or system of government, can shake things up and lead to new and healthier behavior.

The section on coup looks at the many ways that conspiracies can end democratic rule. Trump’s presidency figures prominently, even though the book was written well before the 2020 election. Runciman notes that in healthy democracy, the analogy of a civil war without violence is apt. Consensus is illusory. Instead, one finds continuous and vigorous debate. That process can be subverted when a small group is able to seize control of the system through a coup. The 1967 coup in Greece is examined and contrasted with more recent upheavals due to debt. The issues, dynamics and threat to democracy simply did not play out the same way in Greece in 2015. The 1961 attempted coup in France failed, as did the 2016 attempt in Turkey, yet the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe was successful. Runciman argues that a successful and coordinated conspiracy is essential, yet not determinative, of a successful coup.

The section on catastrophe looks at three possibilities for democracy’s end: through war, through poisoning the environment, or through evil. For the latter, think of the Nazi’s or other forms of state sponsored killing. The challenge that Runciman stresses is the disconnect between the bread and butter issues of everyday politics and the more abstract and long-term ways that these threats might materialize. Through this and other chapters, Runciman weaves into the narrative the works of scholars and examples from history and around the world. In the last section, he focuses on the possibility of technology bringing about democracy’s end. The section also looks at the flow of information through various media and the elusiveness of “truth” in shaping decision-making.

Runciman concludes the book with a reflection on what might be better, what could help democracy. He is to be congratulated for his candor in admitting that he does not have ideal solutions. Admitting the appeal of promised solutions to many voters that may reduce individual agency and choice, Runciman posits the dignity inherent in a healthier democracy. He sees some hope in technology offering greater freedoms. To get to this point, though, Runciman warns that we have much learning to do.

If there was one way to improve the work, it would be to give greater consideration to economic factors as well as to the tremendous dislocations affecting more than a hundred of million of displaced peoples. These issues, I contend, will and do have great impact on local, national, and international politics.

How Democracy Ends is a thoughtful and provocative work. It raises more questions than providing answers, and that is fine. Runciman does not pretend to know the future. His work does make, though, for significantly more informed prognostication.

David Potash

Biotech Billions: Money Driving Innovation

For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug is a 2023 non-fiction book that will make your head spin. Told like a thriller, the work covers the development of a some new drugs, tracing their movement from academic laboratories to Wall Street. It shines a light on the intersection of biotech and finance in wild world of healthcare. The book is chock full of larger-than-life characters, innovative science, creativity and simply oodles upon oodles of money. Along the way, too, peoples’ lives are saved. Unless you are familiar with the intricacies of drug development in modern global health care (and I am not), this is an eye opening book and a terrific read.

Nathan Vardi, an investigative journalist, wrote For Blood and Money. Formerly with Forbes and now with Market Watch, Vardi has a reporter’s instinct for following the money. He knows, too, the power of character and conflict in crafting an engaging narrative. The foundation of the book are Vardi’s first-person interviews with many of the players.

The chronology is complicated, yet not all that unusual when it comes to drug development. Access to lots of money, unsurprisingly, is often more important in terms of decision-making and timing than the science..

Robert W. Duggan, an investor, venture capitalist, and businessman is the first major source of funds. Duggan made his initial money in consumer goods, then bakeries, followed by tech. Following the death of his adult son from an aggressive cancer, Duggan, a Scientologist, looked to biotech for investment and direction. He bought into a small company called Pharmacyclics, whose stock prices was low and whose inventory of new drugs was small. Even though Duggan had no scientific training, he was a hard-driving and brilliant manager, and he took over the company. The interest was spurred by Pharmacyclics’s work on tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) inhibitors showed the possibility of helping with arthritis treatment through strengthening B cells without causing auto-immune problems. Another company, Celera, had developed molecules for synthetic BTK inhibitors and sold it to Pharmacyclics. The team at the company, after much work, decided that the drug could be effective in treating adult leukemia (CLI). Duggan invested his own money and leaned hard on two new hires, Ahmed Hamdy, the new CEO, and later Raquel Izumi, to clear the hurdles and bring the drug to market. A doctor, Olympic level athlete with a PhD in experimental pathology, Hamdy played a critical role in getting the drug developed and to trials. Izumi, who left academia for biotech, has a PhD in microbiology and knows how to get things done. Vardi tracks the trials, the ups and downs, and above all the conflicts as the company tried to develop the drug. Early efforts were promising and additional financial support came through and experienced Wall Street investor and trader, Wayne Rothbaum. None of it, though, was at all guaranteed.

As the drug showed more and more promise, within the company there were ongoing struggles over what kinds of trials, what sort of processes, and how best to situate the drug in the market. Duggan fired Hamdy and Izumi, found a new players, and sought greater funding. The drug was eventually named ibrutinib. Rothbaum cashed out too early to gain real benefits from the eventual deal Duggan made with AbbiVie, a major pharmaceutical company. Ibrunitib has been very profitable and successful. Pharmacyclics grew into a billion-dollar company and Duggan, for his efforts and investments, earned upwards of $3.5 billion dollars. The early scientific talent, Hamdy and Izumi, pocketed next to nothing. The drug’s expensive cost, approximately $130,000 per year per patient in 2015, has been an extraordinary money-maker.

The story, though, is far from over, for Hamdy and Izumi remained in touch. They found a different company, a different drug – based on similar biochemical research – and tapped into financial support from Rothbaum. They partnered with some Dutch biotech innovators, were able to secure intellectual property at low rates, and began focusing on bringing a different BTK inhibitor to market. The finances and deals were complex and shifting. Would this be a better partner? What does the financing truly cost? Vardi’s steady hand, happily, gives it all a sense of clarity. The ongoing challenges are having enough resources for the massive investment in drug trials, the networks within the health care and research systems to find candidates, work the system, and above all the team of lawyers and financial experts to keep it all in play. There is great risk in drug development. Many never make it to market. The drugs in For Blood and Money made it in great part because of their effectiveness in treating an incurable cancer and the various ways that companies could profit.

The former Pharmacyclics team’s new company, Acerta, found great success in trials for its new drug. Internal stresses and conflicts remained. Rothbaum pushed Hamdy hard and then demoted him, giving a new CEO a shot at running the company. Manufacturing problems complicated development, as did financial challenges. Acerta eventually found a partner in AstraZenica, a much larger pharmaceutical, after tense and complicated negotiations. That sale, broken up into two parts, was again for billions of dollars. The leukemia drug was branded as Calquence and is now a major treatment worldwide. More lawsuits, of course, followed. Early workers in the firm, like Hamdy and Izumi, profited in the tens of millions of dollars. There was great internal conflict, however, for Rothbaum pocketed more than $3 billion.

One way to make sense of the amazing developments in biotechnology is to focus on the science. For Blood and Money makes crystal clear that it is but one part of the story. Equal, if not greater attention, must be given to the astronomical amounts of money that drug development can generate. Biotech and finance are linked at the hip. While this book does not explore any ethical questions, they hover around the story. So many questions remain to be asked. Nathan Vardi’s book is an outstanding introduction to the reality of current drug development.

David Potash

Tune-up or Rebuild the Machinery of Government

A few years into the Trump presidency, two Harvard University professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die. The book was a best-seller, calling out the decline in tolerance and respect across political party divides. The pair followed that effort in 2023 with Tyranny of the Minority. Equally popular, this volume highlights historical crises to make arguments for deep structural reform in the American machinery of government.

The authors frame current political conditions through a particular lens. They believe that as the US has been moving to a multiracial democracy, whites have led a retreat from democracy and embraced an authoritarian alternative. They stress that the US’s embrace of extremism stands apart from other countries and that America’s backsliding from democracy is unique. The US Constitution, the book argues, is a key reason. Institutions do not save democracy, the authors stress. Instead, they claim that it is people and action.

Tyranny of the Minority draws on historical examples from countries other than the US. Levitsky is a comparative political scientist and Ziblatt has studied conservative parties in Europe. They note that in healthy democracies, the peaceful transfer of power in paramount. Looking at American history, they stress the difficulties the Federalists faced in 1800. They believe that the peaceful transfer of power is easier when the losing party believes that it stands a chance of winning in the future and that losing will not lead to catastrophe. These are not rules but instead observations drawn from historical examples at the national level.

The authors also draw comparative examples from France in 1934. At the time, a period of significant economic hardship across many countries, there were widespread politically motivated riots and little accountability afterwards. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify semi-loyal democrats, leaders whose commitment to democracy wavers in the face of opportunity, as one of the greatest threats in times of conflict. Weak democrats (small “d”) provide the environment for authoritarianism to grow. Authoritarianism, they believe, is “banal” and tolerated to a dangerous degree.

From that point, the authors pivot to ways that authoritarians and weak democrats can erode democracy: exploit gaps in rules, excessive use of the law, selective use of law enforcement, and “lawfare,” the creation of laws that go after political opponents. They draw on US history to demonstrate that this has happened in America, in the failures of Reconstruction and especially through the riots/coup in Wilmington, NC, in the 1890s.

The book then jumps to contemporary American politics, noting that the current Republican party has changed dramatically. The authors believe that the source of the shift stems from America’s growth of a multiracial democracy. Issues of class do not figure in the argument. Rather, white fear, exacerbated by the Obama presidency, is identified as the culprit. Radicalization of the GOP took place through primaries, moving the party farther and farther to the right with each campaign. Trump accelerated the process. As a consequence, the authors affirm, the Republican party today is not in alignment with key democratic principles: accept the results of fair elections, reject the use of violence to gain power, and have no ties with antidemocratic extremists.

And what of majorities? Tyranny of the Minority highlights the many ways in America that majority impulses are constrained by the courts, the constitution, as well as laws and practice. The authors admit that majorities do need limits in healthy democracies, especially when it comes to civil liberties and in the rules of democracy itself. For example, a law that facilitates someone staying in power indefinitely is not acceptable. Going deeper into the scholarship, the book references Melissa Schwartzberg, who has studies how supermajority rules can advance the rights of specific minorities. As an example, think about white slaveholders in the 1800s or wealthy farmers securing water rights.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the book underscores the many provisions in the constitution that limit the power of majorities. Known to everyone who has studied basic government in high school, they include the formation of states, the bicameral US Congress and Senate, the Electoral College and much more. With the oldest form of government on the planet, America has not addressed these deep anti-majority provisions, the authors argue. What remains, or has remained in the United States, is minority rule. Two examples put forward include abortion/reproductive rights and gun control, issues where the majority of Americans have opinions that are in conflict with law and policy. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt are not concerned about this tension. Instead, they worry that the minority will subvert laws to become permanently entrenched.

Other countries have navigated these changes. The US has not and the stumbling block, the authors assert, is the difficulty of amending the Constitution. Their call, accordingly, is to change and become a multiracial democracy or not be a democracy at all. The authors push for expanding and insuring the right to vote, making sure that majorities who win elections do get to rule, and a number of other changes, from ending the Senate filibuster to judicial terms limits.

Tyranny of the Minority is written clearly in a matter-of-fact tone. Its description of America’s current problems is well-reasoned and the book’s call for attention and reform of the nation’s machinery of government is timely. Moreover, the author’s contextualization of the US within global and historical examples is commendable. Far too often implicit American exceptionalism clouds analysis.

On the other side of the ledger, I have concerns with the book’s use of historical examples and the authors’ diagnosis of America’s current political landscape. The term “democracy” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. That was not accidental. Understanding and appreciation of democratic norms have varied tremendously over the years. Implicit in the book is an assumption of wide understanding and appreciation of democracy, perhaps as hoped for during the Obama presidency. Instead, history illustrates, again and again, that democratic processes and assumptions are always being tested. Whether it is voting rights for people of color or women, or when and how certain decisions are made (referendum, judicial decision, initiative), democratic concepts are more fluid than the authors acknowledge.

Further complicating the book’s argument is the absence of appreciation of republican conceptions of government. The Constitution guarantees a “republican” form of government. Tyranny of the Minority would have been significantly stronger if the authors has given attention to an analysis of representative democracy as exercised through a republic. Likewise missing from the book’s big-picture argument are economics and financial concerns. The authors regularly write of multiracial democracy. They do not write about an inclusive democracy that affords rights to the poor. Many scholars believe that economic inequality is of equal if not greater importance to diagnosing America’s current political conflict.

Tyranny of the Minority rightly raises vital historical, political and policy issues that are central to keeping America’s democratic traditions alive and vibrant. Levitsky and Ziblatt deserve praise for making these issues accessible for public debate. However, the book is far from the definitive or last word on the issue.

David Potash

Tall Fences, Happy Neighbors and Unhappy Communities

Richard H. Kahlenberg is an idea machine, a writer on public policy who offers new and challenging takes on difficult problems. He has written on higher education, schools, affirmative action, teachers unions and more through books, journals and articles. A graduate of Harvard, college and law, his curiosity and desire for a fairer, more just America, drives his work. Kahlenberg’s latest effort, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimybism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See is provocative examination of one of the country’s most intractable issues: fair housing. Overflowing with observations, ranging from history to policy to economics to anecdote, the book makes a compelling argument that the problems surrounding housing are much deeper, and influential, than most realize. It had me thinking about housing in America in different ways.

How might one think about and explain housing in the US? Focus on a city, a neighborhood, or region? Some scholars do comparison analyses while others look to explore policy, framing high-level issues and contrasting that with what happens locally, in a particular city or neighborhood. Complicating the question, there are many different housing policies and practices, as well as local histories of housing, throughout the country. The topic is so large that definitions and boundaries inherently complicate the work and potential understanding. In Excluded, Kahlenberg’s focus is on exclusionary zoning and its impact. He argues that exclusionary zoning is discriminatory and causes great harm, possibly even more than sexism and racism. Zoning determines who lives where. That has tremendous consequences, shaping opportunities, jobs, education, health care, quality of life and even length of life. We all know that poverty, a seemingly intractable problem, is concentrated in geographic areas. Kahlenberg stresses in this book that those concentrations are the result of political policy choices, often expressed through zoning policy.

Excluded, though, is not just a policy study. It shares the stories of people, families, and the effects of housing on their lives. It may sound basic, yet it is vital to underscore this point. Where one lives dictates so much, shaping and framing the boundaries of a life.

The book is not only interested in those that are excluded. On the flip side, those that have been able to secure housing have seen tremendous economic benefit, particularly in the past fifty years. The book underscores how zoning, tax policy and other imposed limitations on housing have driven up prices and will continue to do so. Kahlenberg reminds up that it was not always so in the United States. Decades ago affordable housing facilitated internal migration and greater opportunities. Current policy framed through exclusionary zoning works in the other direction. Its negative impact is mostly felt by those of color and without wealth.

Exclusionary zoning can take many forms. Excluded would have been stronger with a more systematic exploration of it. These include banning multiple family dwellings to increased lot size to landlords refusing to rent to those with housing assistance, and many other policy decisions. “Economic zoning is perfectly legal,” Kahlenberg repeatedly emphasizes. The book’s chapters do not make distinct arguments so much as reinforce each other. Class bias, the smugness and self-interest of those that have (be their on the left or the right), and the unwillingness of political leaders to address these core vehicles of inequality are likewise recurring themes. Moreover, most attempts at zoning reform fail.

The history is not all dire. Excluded does a fine job highlighting innovative efforts in Minneapolis and Portland. Kahlenberg stresses, though, that change at the federal level is essential. The latter part of the book is an overview and plea for the Economic Fair Housing Act, proposed legislation that never became law during the early years of the Biden administration. In fact, a shorter rewritten version of Excluded would serve as a powerful argument for the act.

Excluded is very interesting. It is informative, without being particularly systematic nor wonkish. More than anything else, it will raise your awareness and make you ask questions about housing policies, be they local or larger. How we think about the question of who lives where needs new life. Towards that end, Richard Kahlenberg has done important service.

David Potash

Cabot and TR: Friendship For the Ages (and History Books)

One is hard-pressed to think of a more durable and historically important friendship between politicians than that between long-time Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt. For more than forty years the two helped each other personally and professionally, and socialized, individually and with their friends and families. Of great value to the historian, they also wrote to each other all the time. The pair had an outsize impact on American politics and policy. Yet until Laurence Jurdem’s The Rough Rider and the Professor, there has never been a systematic study of their relationship. This work of popular history is a welcome and valuable contribution.

Jurdem is an adjunct professor of history at two institutions and a writer of articles and books. He knows his way around the scholarship and how to craft accessible and rigorous prose. While much has been written about Roosevelt and Lodge, the heart of The Rough Rider and the Professor is a close study of the Lodge-Roosevelt correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society. An indefatigable correspondent, Roosevelt’s letters crackle with energy and are well known to many scholars. He did not edit his correspondence after the fact. Lodge, trained as an historian and a professor at Harvard, was cut from a different cloth. He scrupulously edited and when he published a two volume set of his correspondence with Roosevelt, judicious trimming to present their relationship in a particular light. Accordingly, not many scholars have spent the time in Boston studying Lodge’s unedited correspondence. Happily, Jurdem put in the effort. The book highlights the deep personal connection between the two men.

Lodge, born in 1850 to a patrician New England family, was one of the first Americans to receive a PhD in history (after his law degree). Well known as a historian with many published works, Lodge surprised his family and friends by pursuing a career in electoral politics. He was in Congress for six years and represented Massachusetts in the US Senate for 31 years. Early in Lodge’s career he led an unsuccessful effort to improve voting rights for Black Americans in the south. Later in his career he led the resistance to keeping the United States out of the League of Nations. Lodge first met Roosevelt in 1884 as both men were involved in Republican politics and the potential nomination of James Blaine as presidential candidate. The hit it off immediately.

Roosevelt also came from a family known for public service. Born in 1858, Roosevelt’s biography is well-known, from his pursuit of the strenuous life after fighting childhood asthma, to the tragic death of his first wife and mother, to his time in the Dakotas and service in the US Army. He truly was a larger than life figure. Roosevelt attended Harvard years after Lodge and while they were both active in politics and public life, their paths did not cross until Lodge wrote to TR. Once they met in person, they bonded through interest in party reform, US history and politics, and a shared sense of commitment to service. Immensely talented and driven men, they forged a connection that lasted throughout the years, through agreement and disagreement, triumph and tragedy.

Jurem’s book is strongest on the early years of the friendship and the powerful ways in which party loyalty and structure shaped the arc of careers. Lodge’s age and influence were of great value to Roosevelt, whose early political aspirations were often thwarted. He was, after all, far too much of a force of nature to fit neatly into organizational strictures. Lodge knew how to play the game, how to work friendships and barter. Roosevelt was much more direct and his greatest source of agency came from the amazing ways in which he connected with people of all stripes and backgrounds. For both, and really all politically ambitious Americans at the time, knowing how best to navigate the ways and mores of party were essential. The GOP, as a big tent major party, frequently struggled with factionalism, regionalism and the pressure of this or that internal group. Being able to disagree, drive change, and yet still come together and act collectively is a skill that party membership demanded and developed.

As Lodge became more secure in the Senate and Roosevelt ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Present McKinley, their friendship remained but it was marked by understandable professional distance. Here, Jurem’s book is on less secure ground, especially as the swirl of national politics forced frequent realignments re-realignments. What stands out, however, is that the men and their families consistently found time to connect with each other.

The Rough Rider and the Professor is a well-researched and well-written joint biography of a very important friendship. Perhaps best read and appreciated by those with an interest in some background in late 1800s and early 1900s American politics, the book offers a valuable contribution to understanding American political history. It is also interesting in and of itself on the subject of friendship – what was possible then, and for the curious, what might be possible today.

David Potash