While 2021 will doubtless be an improvement over 2020, some grounding in the fundamental nature of the political order will prove useful. We can dispense with the contemporary political studies for a moment and perhaps consider the higher potentialities of politics. Here are a few books worth reading and giving as gifts:
1. James Monroe: A Life (752 pages, Penguin, 2020):
Tim McGrath’s new work on America’s fifth president attempts to convey the central role of Monroe in the development of the American regime. The tome may not be the last word, or even the most insightful study of the great patriot, but it is a lively and accessible book and will help acquaint many students of social and political thought with a seminal figure who has suffered from neglect.
2. The American Right after Reagan (232 pages, E. Elgar, 2019):
In this thoughtful and timely volume, Edward Ashbee (Copenhagen Univ., Denmark), John Dumbrell (retired, Durham Univ., UK) and Alex Waddan (Univ. of Leicester, UK) trace the development of conservative thought and public policy in the U.S. from the end of the Reagan presidency to the Trump presidency. The authors argue at length that in terms of U.S. conservatism Reagan’s legacy was “mixed in character” (p. 7) and the “Reagan revolution was partial” (p. 9), and this complicates political analysis. The first four chapters are devoted to, respectively, critiques of the evolving nature of post-Reagan conservative responses to the Reagan legacy and economic, social, and foreign policies. The remaining three chapters assesses conservative responses to cultural issues and populism. The authors’ delineation of major conservative foreign policy approaches during the period constitutes a significant achievement. The authors generally assume a detached approach toward all elements of American conservatism, although bias against “paleo-conservatism” and Pat Buchanan appears at some junctures and distracts from an otherwise exemplary study. Trump is depicted as a “disjunctive” president (p. 25) whose ability and commitment to nurture the Reagan legacy is tenuous at best. The overarching theme of the book is the gradual unity of conservatism and Republicanism in the post-Reagan years.
3. Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America (432 pages, University of Chicago Press, 2019):
In this incisive and engaging work, Thomas Milan Konda (emer., political science, SUNY, Plattsburgh) analyzes the development of conspiracy theories from the origins of the American Republic to contemporary movements. Though he acknowledges the persistence of conspiracy theories, the author is specifically interested in what he calls conspiracism, i.e., a “mental framework, a belief system, a worldview that leads people to look for conspiracies, to anticipate them, to link them together into a grander overarching conspiracy” (p. 2). In chapter 1, Dr. Konda focuses on defining the meaning of conspiracy theories in an effort to advance scholarly and popular knowledge of the subject. He devotes the majority of the remaining 17 chapters to critiquing specific conspiracy theories and the movements that have arisen as a result of these theories. Though Dr. Konda offers valuable insight on all major movements, he concentrates on those of the right wing, a trajectory that deserves scrutiny, as does his questionable treatment of some vital religious movements (especially American Pentecostalism, discussed in chapter 3). That aside, Dr. Konda’s assessment of the “new dynamics” of conspiracy theories in contemporary U.S. politics is a significant contribution. Written with a clarity of expression rare in academic writing, the book is accessible to a wide readership.
4. Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (304 pages, Harvard University Press, 2016):
The final work by my friend and mentor, the late and great George Carey, and also by one of the best scholars of traditionalist conservatism, Bruce Frohnen, who has many more books to compose in the years ahead. This book has become a modern political classic, especially among those who have had an opportunity to encounter it. The Kendall/Carey scholarly nexus has become the Carey/Frohnen nexus! The debates over the nature and purpose of the American Constitution have raged in recent years, and any thoughtful student of the American political tradition will want to read this book as soon as possible.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.