Every week I highlight some of the most interesting books relevant for the study of democracy. I’ve selected five books that stand out for scholars, activists, and students. A few of the books involve American politics such as Profit and Punishment and I, Citizen. But I have also included perspectives from other parts of the world like China, Ukraine, and Israel. Along with a brief description of each selection, I include a podcast with an interview of the author or the topic of the book. In the meantime, don’t miss the latest Democracy Paradox podcast from this week on Democratic Backsliding featuring Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman.
Profit and Punishment
It’s difficult to disentangle questions of justice from democracy. Political equality assumes a level of dignity and humanity. So, Tony Messenger’s new book Profit and Punishment may not touch on issues of democracy directly. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to describe America’s progress toward democracy as complete so long as clear examples of injustice and inequality exist. Profit and Punishment reminds me of other important works on poverty and injustice such as Evicted and The New Jim Crow.
Messenger is a reporter by trade so expect well written prose that focuses on the human element. It’s not necessarily an academic work, but this does not mean it’s not well-researched. Messenger won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for his political commentary. It looks like a fascinating read for serious students or busy activists.
Tony Messenger, Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice
Nathan Law is a former elected official and activist from Hong Kong. He was an active participant in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Today he is a political dissident living in exile. More than an account of his trials and tribulations in Hong Kong, Law offers a manifesto to explain why he has sacrificed so much.
Freedom introduces concepts like civil resistance, democracy, and the rule of law through the lens of real world experience. A lot of scholars write about authoritarianism in China. Law offers the perspective of somebody who has actually lived through it. This looks like a great read for anybody looking for inspiration.
Nathan Law with Evan Fowler, Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back
Tony Woodlief blends scholarship with activism in his new book I, Citizen. It comes across as an old-school progressive demand to seize the reins of government back from political elites. I hesitate to write progressive, because it has a partisan ring these days. Rather Woodlief appears reminiscent of the early-twentieth century progressives who championed nonpartisan reforms. He challenges the pernicious polarization that has become synonymous with American society. Instead, he believes common sense solutions exist which can transcend the partisan divide.
Tony Woodlief, I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Governance
Democracy, Populism and Neoliberalism in Ukraine
Ukraine remains a hot topic in current events as Russian troops approach its border. Moreover, Ukrainian politics has challenged many expectations from the West and the East. It does not fit perfectly into either the Russian or the European sphere of influence. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky confounded many observers. It is almost too postmodern for an actor who played the President of Ukraine in a sitcom to become the actual President of Ukraine. Olga Baysha offers a deep dive into Ukraine’s recent politics, but also touches on larger idea like populism and neoliberalism. Routledge, the publisher, is known for its academic publications so expect a serious scholarly study that dives into the details.
Olga Baysha, Democracy, Populism and Neoliberalism in Ukraine: On the Fringes of the Virtual and the Real
David Ben-Gurion and the Foundation of Israeli Democracy
Anyone focused on democracy realizes the importance of Israel. For nearly a century, it has demonstrated democracy can work in the Middle East despite numerous challenges. Nonetheless, it’s become fashionable to take Israel’s democracy for granted. Nir Kedar offers a glimpse into its earliest years through the life of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Many of Israel’s virtues and vices formed during this period. So, a close examination into the life of Ben-Gurion is relevant not just for Israeli scholars but also for students of democracy.
Nir Kedar, David Ben-Gurion and the Foundation of Israeli Democracy