"Isms" have always been a shortcut for sounding smart. For instance, in graduate school I used to hear statements like this one all the time:
The hegemony of bilateral consumerism, so evident in today's cultural discourse, is clearly echoed in Flaubert's renunciation of Marxism's anti-materialist development of personhood.
First of all, YAWN. But more importantly, such statements are promiscuous with politically loaded terms like hegemony and Marxism — words that communicate volumes of biases to the listener, regardless of whether or not that listener knows their original definitions or the historical contexts in which they were coined. For a lot of people "Marxism" is synonymous with "Communism" which is synonymous with "Socialism" which is synonymous with "Democratic Socialism"…and you see where I'm going here.
Socialism is the easiest "ism" to pick on because everyone likes to bandy it around, but there's an equal amount of confusion about what it means to be conservative, liberal, or libertarian in America. Part of this is a natural consequence of political candidates needing to distinguish themselves from one another, meaning we get Ted Cruz the Tea Party Conservative whose positions on fundamental issues like health care, market-based economics, and the environment are almost identical to those of Marco Rubio, who presents himself as mainstream conservative; and the same is true for the Democrats. But I suspect that much of the confusion stems from a deliberate misuse of "isms" on both sides of the aisle. Because accurate definitions of terms like conservatism or socialism are both boring and confusing, it's much easier for politicians and voters alike to attach emotional definitions to them. And emotions are easy to manipulate, which is how we end up with head-scratching contradictions like self-described conservative Medicaid recipients who loathe big government.
Contrary to what we hear from media outlets, which advocate a homogenous body politic, the pluralistic nature of American politics is important. Americans' needs are diverse and our democracy requires a working vocabulary that incorporates conservative, liberal, libertarian, and socialist ideas. What democracy also requires, however, is a precise understanding of where those ideas derive and what their proponents' end goals are. Because maybe with a richer understanding of the "isms," we'll be able to do more than sound smart — we'll discover that our differences are less than the sum of our common purpose.
Social Democratic America
by Lane Kenworthy
Kenworthy's Social Democratic America
provides a solid, very readable overview of the public policy changes, like universal health care and paid parental leave, that Social Democrats advocate to counter rising inequality. What elevates this book from a good public policy title to a truly useful resource is the author's willingness to skewer and incorporate liberal and conservative ideas alike. For instance, Kenworthy rejects strengthening business regulations and the notion of a labor union renaissance, while at the same time arguing for the aggressive expansion of social welfare programs. The result is a surprisingly nuanced argument that sounds a lot more like a compromise than a radical ideology.
Ill Fares the Land
by Tony Judt
Ill Fares the Land
is undoubtedly the most eloquent book on this list, and one of my favorites. In it Judt argues that it's possible for the government to play an expanded role in citizens' lives without endangering their liberties. The problem, he notes, is not that we don't know how to improve our society — in fact, most social welfare proposals are just logical extensions of preexisting and longstanding public programs — but that we've lost our ability to speak cogently about it, and to ask hard questions about what is right and wrong for society as a whole. More a history than a policy book, Judt nevertheless backs up his claims with data and writes so beautifully and thoughtfully about where we are — and how we got here — that readers of all political persuasions will find themselves nodding along.
Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism
by Richard Wolff
Focused primarily on resolving labor problems, Wolff posits the idea of Worker Self-Directed Enterprises (WSDE), businesses owned and operated by the employees, as the replacement for and solution to the exploitative top-down employer model common in the U.S. It sounds crazy at first, but Wolff provides solid examples of successful cooperatives and a detailed examination of the ways American workers are being harmed by current capitalist methodology. The most satisfying aspect of this book is Wolff's hands-on approach — instead of just discussing the pros and cons of capitalism and social democracy, he provides definitive guidelines on how to make WSDE a reality.
The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
Skocpol and Williamson's fascinating The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism
combines analyses of conservative media outlets and free-market advocacy groups with ethnographical studies of individual Tea Party members. Interested in the unlikely collaboration of grassroots activists with wealthy special interest groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, Skocpol and Williamson ventured into the field to interview party members. The result is an absorbing history of the Tea Party as a grassroots response to certain social and demographic changes, whose energy has been paradoxically coopted by elite advocacy groups to protect the 1 percent. Despite the provocative nature of the material, The Tea Party
provides a balanced and scholarly look at one of America's newest and most powerful political factions.
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
by Yuval Levin
Yuval Levin explores the original rift between conservatives and progressives, tracing America's partisan political system to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine's arguments about the French Revolution in particular and, more broadly, the role of individual liberty and revolution in government. Levin's a well-known conservative intellectual, so it's not surprising that the book is biased in Burke's favor. That said, I was taken aback by how different Burke's conservatism appears from current Republican Party rhetoric, which doesn't share his skepticism of individuality or basic belief in elitism. While Levin fails to address this discrepancy between conservatism's origin (as he sees it) and its modern-day incarnation, The Great Debate
is nonetheless a very thought-provoking history of the two main branches of American political thought.
The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
by Russell Kirk
The Conservative Mind
belongs in the "oldie but goodie" category of books on conservatism. It was Kirk who first applied the term "conservative" to anti-progressive ideologies dating back to Edmund Burke, and every resource I examined in preparation for this post listed The Conservative Mind
as a foundational text for understanding modern conservatism. Interestingly, I found that Kirk's views suffer from the same anachronisms as Burke's. For example, today's conservatives are far more stringent when it comes to environmental and social policies, and I suspect they'd dislike Kirk's evident Anglophilia with its inherent classism. Kirk's Conservative Mind
definitely belongs on a must-read list of books on conservatism, but ultimately it's as interesting for what it reveals about recent changes within the Republican Party as for its historical analysis of the conservative movement.
Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics
by Charles Krauthammer
For a lighter but no less valuable look into conservatism today, try Charles Krauthammer's collection of previously published columns and essays, Things That Matter
. Krauthammer is an ardent admirer of political philosophy, and the essays in Things That Matter
"[skip] over much of the partisan contention that characterizes the daily life of a democracy" to deal instead with constitutional principles. Krauthammer's political pieces explain moderate conservative policies and beliefs in accessible, sometimes humorous language, while his personal essays articulate why he finds conservative values attractive.
The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom
by David Boaz
An updated edition of Boaz's authoritative Libertarianism: A Primer
, The Libertarian Mind
provides a clear working definition of Libertarianism, especially in relation to recent national policy and events like the 2008 financial crisis and the NSA surveillance program. Both thorough and accessible, The Libertarian Mind
is a great introductory text to libertarian philosophy.
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
by Larry Siedentop
Siedentop argues that the medieval Church, with its focus on individuality, representative government, and moral and economic equality, gave rise to the first recognizably liberal ideology. His claim runs counter to the prevailing theory that liberalism developed in opposition to religion, and provides much food for thought in regards to the modern, contentious relationship of church and state. Inventing the Individual
is a challenging book of extraordinary breadth and depth for readers interested in the evolution of the individual from antiquity onward.
Believer: My Forty Years in Politics
by David Axelrod
The main subject of Axelrod's memoir is his decades-long relationship with President Obama, first as his campaign strategist and later as a presidential advisor, but you don't have to be an Obama acolyte to appreciate Axelrod's experience or his perspective on how a progressive leader should govern a politically divided nation.
Beyond Outrage, Expanded Edition: What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and Our Democracy and How to Fix It
Still into the –isms? Further reading:
by Robert B. Reich
In Beyond Outrage
economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich provides a liberal perspective on the rising rate of inequality in the U.S., and prescribes the reforms and citizen activism necessary to address it. Reich's language is purposefully casual and his analysis is grounded in sound data (supplemented by comic graphics), making Beyond Outrage
a valuable and accessible resource for readers across the political spectrum. As Reich notes, he receives emails every day from liberal fans and Tea Party foes, but underneath the rhetoric, everyone's mad about the same things.
Note: Reich's newer book, Saving Capitalism
, is excellent and more current, but slightly less introductory.
Imagine Living in a Socialist USA
by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Smith
Anarchy, State and Utopia
by Robert Nozick
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement
by Brian Doherty