Start 2020 Right with our Beginning-of-Year Book List

By Jennifer Raymond Dresden, Ph.D., Associate Director

Just when you thought book lists had wrapped up with the last days of 2019, we’ve got one more to help you start the new year right.  The Democracy and Governance program has tapped its alumni and faculty to bring you some of our favorite recent reads on democracy, governance, and development around the world.  Whether you’re looking to use that gift card from the holidays or need a good book to get you through the dark winter lull, we’ve got you covered!

For my part, I recommend that you check out the books from the Democracy & Governance Program’s 2019 Summer Book Club.  Our theme for the summer was “Upping your Water Cooler Game” and included books from the last year or two that everyone in the field was talking about (but not everyone has actually read!).  We covered Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (Broadway Books), Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  The books all offered useful insights for navigating the global terrain of democracy today.

On a rather different note, I’d also recommend Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Penguin Random House).  The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (one of our top reads during last year’s summer book club on “Dystopia and Democracy”), this book offers a thought-provoking look into how the fictional theocracy of Gilead begins to crumble.  Interesting as a work of fiction, but especially evocative from the perspective of authoritarian breakdown and political transitions.

Georges Fauriol, Faculty

How Democracy Ends, David Runciman (Basic Books) 

Among a wave of depressing assessments of the state of democratic governance, Runciman’s draws the reader toward a nuanced diagnosis. For starters, comparing today’s populist and nationalist movements to those of the darker 1920’s and 30s is off the mark — a somewhat reassuring observation. The real threat lies elsewhere, notably in democracy’s increased difficulty in managing growing complex bureaucratic systems and resulting overreach, let alone the all-encompassing impact of technology. Two good examples are  the inconclusive debates about environmental policy implementation, and the political disruptions being generated by the new digital economy – the latter torn between technology as an empowering and liberalizing influence or the more cynical view that technology in fact enables tyranny.  One of many, a good read on this subject is The People vs. Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It) (Penguin, 2018).  Nonetheless, disillusionment should not prevent a realistic assessment of today‘s democratic deficits; in fact, Runciman promotes the notion of what is essentially a civic responsibility to reverse this trend. This links up with a  cautionary argument of the author’s earlier work, The Confidence Trap (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013),  notably that democracies have an inherent flexibility in overcoming crises but have a poor record at anticipating threats – it is the relative passivity to threat that undergirds democracy’s ongoing decline.  

Jeff Fischer, Faculty

Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?, Douglas W. Jones and Barbara Simons (Center for the Study of Language and Information)

The controversy following the 2000 presidential election vote count led to demands for election reform. But the new voting systems that were subsequently introduced to the market have serious security flaws, and many are confusing and difficult to use. Moreover, legislation has not kept up with the constantly evolving voting technology, leaving little to no legal recourse when votes are improperly counted. How did we come to acquire the complex technology we now depend on to count votes?  Douglas Jones and Barbara Simons probe this question, along with public policy and regulatory issues raised by our voting technologies.  Broken Ballots is a thorough and incisive analysis of the current voting climate that approaches American elections from technological, legal, and historical perspectives.  The authors examine the ways in which Americans vote today, gauging how inaccurate, unreliable, and insecure our voting systems are. An important book for election administrators, political scientists, and students of government and technology policy, Broken Ballots is also a vital tool for any voting American. (Description adapted from the publisher.)

Jack Santucci, Alumnus

Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, Lee Drutman (Oxford University Press)

The book makes a forceful case for multi-party politics. In doing so, it asks to rethink some big issues. Can multiparty democracy coexist with presidentialism? If so, what changes first: the party system or the electoral rules? And what does all this mean for equal racial representation, currently achieved through the Democratic Party?

Ryan Bennett, Alumnus

The Credibility Challenge, Inken von Borzyskowski (Cornell University Press)

The book’s analysis of the impact of different types of aid implemented through the election cycle on election violence was extremely useful as a DG practitioner.

Small Wars, Big Data,  Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro (Princeton University Press)

The detailed book outlines how engaging civilians is a key determinant of modern warfare, including strong reasons for improving governance as a way to deter violence from both governments and insurgents.

Sundar Ramanujam, Alumnus

The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts, Joan Biskupic (Basic Books)

Perhaps the most significant collateral damage of polarization in America has been the independence United States Supreme Court (and its public perception). Not since the days of the Great Depression has America’s top court brought upon itself the scrutiny of a deeply divided electorate. In this book, Biskupic argues that the appointment of John G. Roberts Jr. by a conservative president gave the Court not an ideologue but someone who prioritized judicial restraint. The argument is that, by strategically balancing the Court’s decision-making process, Roberts seeks to safeguard institutional independence and integrity. Biskupic, an accomplished legal scholar and a Hoya lawyer, lays out her extensive research to showcase the internal workings of the Roberts Court on some of the most consequential cases since 2005. She also brings to light the Chief’s midwestern upbringing, Catholic faith, and robust academic training, all of which help deconstruct the roots of the Chief’s judicial philosophy. For those “stressed” about America’s future as a constitutional republic, this book is an excellent tranquilizer as it gives us plenty of reasons to be thankful for the Roberts’ stewardship of the Court in this unusual time in American politics.

Happy reading and best wishes for the new year from everyone at the DG Program!