The 2021 End-of-the-Year Book List

By the Democracy & Society Staff

If you’re like us and have pushed all your holiday shopping to the last minute, this list of book recommendations from Democracy and Governance program alumni and professors might help you. This year’s collection challenges long-held assumptions about democracy, human history, and American exceptionalism, as well as current understandings of populism and a more assertive Russia.

Elton Skendaj, Associate Director

America through Foreign Eyes
Jorge Castañeda (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Building on a long tradition of international perspectives on US democracy and society, Castañeda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico investigates US exceptionalism, race, democracy and immigration. Castañeda points out how increasing nationalism and governmental dysfunction is making the US look less “exceptional” and more like other countries.

Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia
Timothy Frye (Princeton University Press, 2021)

An engaging book that questions the analysis of Russian politics through the lens of Putin’s power or unique Russian culture. By placing the personalistic rule of Putin in Russia in a comparative lens, Frye highlights the trade-offs that Russia’s rulers face in terms of election fraud, repression, propaganda and foreign policy. As oil prices are down, Putin has fewer economic and reputational resources, so the Kremlin is dialing up repression on the opposition. The book therefore highlights the limits to Putin’s power.

Rick Ferreira, Alumna (Class of 2019)

Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History
Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, & Barry R. Weingast (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Violence and the Social Order is a discussion of how institutions are essentially at the heart of what makes societies different from one another. The authors examine at length how the power-sharing agreements brokered between elites evolve into institutions that in turn define social orders. The social orders laid out in the book have the potential to transition from one to the other only when “doorstep conditions” are met and then some sort of driver is applied. The authors’ analysis of how these transitions occur and their case studies are engaging and insightful. Particularly in their noting of how these conditions are not sufficient to cause transitions on their own and how orders can transition in either direction. This allows them to explain how Open Access Orders, which are commonly associated with democracy, can account for both the liberal and illiberal forms.

Liza Prendergast, Alumna (Class of 2012)

The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes (Pegasus, 2020)

It presents a critique of some common assumptions about the “success” of democracy promotion and asks key questions about imitation versus grassroots democratization.

Avram Reisman, Alumna (Class of 2019)

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)

Using new archaeological and anthropological research, Graeber and Wengrow demand a rethinking of the story of the development of human societal structure that has predominated since Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and continued through “Guns Germs and Steel” and Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order. A remarkably accessible text despite the complex subject matter, Graeber and Wengrow identify alternative structures in indigenous societies that sparks the reader’s imagination about what is possible and desirable in governance and social structure. This book is an intriguing read that invites the reader to decolonize narratives of human progress by understanding the interactions with indigenous peoples which sparked enlightenment ideas about equality themselves!

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism
Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 2020)

In DG, “populism” is practically the same thing as xenophobic authoritarian movements. Yet the word itself first represented a deeply democratic movement that was anti-racist and sought a more equitable system in 1890s America. The history of how this word moved from meaning a movement uplifting the marginalized through anti-corruption democratic deepening to being synonymous with antidemocratic and racist demagogues is worth DG scholars and practitioners learning about because it involves familiar characters like Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset and may make us think twice about our presumptions about “vox populi”.