We are still in the middle of a pandemic. We've had four long years of broken norms and endless, horrifying, exhausting outrages. 2020 brought a long-overdue and ongoing reckoning with racism. We have spent January watching armed domestic terrorists attempt to stage an insurrection at the behest of political leaders. It feels like a strange time to be a policy wonk, but once it was the job of politicians to do that "boring" work and it was the job of an informed citizenry to learn about, advocate for, and criticize that work.
We can't put things back the way they were before and, in many ways, we shouldn't want to, but we can take time this inauguration day to reset, refocus, and think about the concrete policy changes we want to see made. As a small step towards that lofty goal, we have put together a reading list based on President-elect Biden's publicized policy goals for his first 100 days in office. From pandemic response and criminal justice to immigration and the economy, these books are a starting point for understanding the social issues that underlie the policy priorities of the incoming administration. May the next four years bring more time spent on policy and less time spent on Twitter.
On January 20, the Biden administration will be taking over the COVID-19 response in a country that has already lost more than 400,000 lives to the disease. In addition to efforts to flatten community spread, pass additional stimulus, and assuage the burden on our overtaxed hospitals, they will be working to dramatically speed up the vaccine distribution program. On top of the challenge of procurement, distribution, and other logistics, the difficulty of the process will be compounded by another factor: vaccine skepticism. Deer's thorough history and debunking of the anti-vaxxer movement and the "science" of its modern founder, Andrew Wakefield, is key reading for understanding how we got to a point where only 71% of Americans say they will likely or definitely be willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.
Bonus Read: Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria
Biden has named strengthening and extending the Voting Rights Act as a policy priority. For a deeper understanding of why that is so urgently needed, read Gilda R. Daniels. Uncounted is a deeply researched but concise examination of why the Voting Rights Act was, and still is, integral to US democracy, and the ramifications of disenfranchisement as it is currently practiced.
Bonus Read: Our Time Is Now by Stacey Abrams
Anyone who has ever needed, or known anyone who needed, medical treatment in this country knows that the American healthcare system is dysfunctional, heartless, and focused on maximizing profits. While Biden has not endorsed the Medicare-for-All plan endorsed by many of his primary opponents, he has signaled that he hopes to build on the Affordable Care Act signed into law during the Obama administration. It would take more than one book to become an expert on the labyrinthine American health care system, but American Sickness is an excellent starting place. Taking us inside the businesses that comprise the industry, Rosenthal explains the rotten system, how we can advocate for ourselves, and why we need to demand urgent reform.
Bonus Read: Health Justice Now by Timothy Faust
The Biden administration is planning to spend the first 100 days reversing Trump-era immigration policies: repairing the asylum system, putting an end to family separations, stopping funds from being diverted to the border wall by means of emergency declaration, rescinding the travel ban, and a long list of other priorities. This is a starting place, but it is important to remember that our immigration system was in desperate need of reform long before 2016 and it will take more than reversing the last four years to fix it. To feel a slice of what is at stake, read The Undocumented Americans. Villavicencio, one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard, gives voice to those who are most vulnerable in and vilified by our current system.
Bonus Read: Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan
Despite fierce corporate objections, Biden plans to raise the corporate tax rate from the 21% rate set by the 2017 tax cuts to 28%. This will still leave the tax rate far below the historic high of 52.8% in 1968. His more long-term economic plan also includes a tax increase on the top 1%. Again, keeping the tax rate far below historic levels. Evil Geniuses is the book to read if you want to understand how we have gotten to a place where even these modest tax increases are controversial. Andersen's explanation of the ramifications of our 50-year deification of the free market and shareholder supremacy are convincing and infuriating.
Bonus Read: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton
Among other environmental priorities, the incoming Biden administration plans to re-engage in the Paris Climate Accord and work to make the US an international environmental leader. As Mann makes clear, for the US to make meaningful progress against climate change, we will first need to fight back against the propaganda war that has transformed climate change in the public imagination from the urgent responsibility of governments and corporations into an issue of personal responsibility.
Bonus Read: Tales of Two Planets by John Freeman
While he has distanced himself from calls to defund the police, Biden has said he understands that there is an urgent need for police and criminal justice reform. In his first 100 days in office, he plans to institute a National Police Oversight Commission and work with Congress to pass the SAFE Justice Act, which aims to lower recidivism and reduce the use of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. For a vision of what public safety could look like without mass incarceration and discriminatory violence and punishment, along with an understanding of how mental health treatment, affordable housing, drug rehabilitation, and education intersect with criminal reform and justice, read We Keep Us Safe.
Bonus Read: Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo
The post-1989 belief that we had reached "the end of history,” the culmination of our ideological evolution as a species, with the rise of liberal democracy, has proved specious. While our democracy so far seems to have survived this particular hurdle, Biden is inheriting a fractured country that has spent four years making friends with demagogues and losing its esteem as a leader in world democracy. As part of his blueprint for picking up the broken pieces of the US's foreign policy, Biden is planning a global "summit for democracy" though it is difficult to know which countries will qualify at a time when democracy appears to be in retreat around the world. Given this climate, it is more important than ever for us to notice the warning signs of a failing democracy and understand what is at stake. Stanley's short but clarifying primer laying out the 10 pillars of fascism is as urgently necessary a read now as it was before November 3.
Bonus Read: Worldmaking After Empire by Adom Getachew
Biden has recently called for forgiving $10,000 or more per student loan borrower, but in a country where the mean borrower has more than $30,000 in debt and costs only continue to rise, that can only act as a small stop-gap measure. He has also endorsed a plan that would make public schools free for families making less than $125,000 and make Historically Black and minority-serving institutions free to attend. To understand why that is only scratching the surface of the reform our secondary education system needs, read The Merit Myth. Drawing from their backgrounds in education, the authors explain how our current system exacerbates inequality and make a compelling argument about the need for top-to-bottom reform.
Bonus Read: Sustainable. Resilient. Free. by John Warner
Fully understanding the incoming president's policy proposals requires also understanding the man himself. At fewer than 200 pages, Osnos's biography of Biden is not a comprehensive study of his 50 years in politics, but it is a useful starting point for examining his priorities, motivations, and the factors that will influence him while in office.