THE POST-ELECTION HOLIDAYS are a good time for conservatives to lick our wounds, reflect on the recent past, and contemplate new beginnings. My three recommendations describe the complicated realities of ethnic politics in America in the 21st century. Conservatives and Republicans have to grasp that the America of Ronald Reagan no longer exists.
First, there’s Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. Fans of Wolfe’s prose and sociological insight will not be disappointed as the master turns his gimlet eye to Miami.
Second, there’s Joel Kotkin’s The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Kotkin argues against American decline. He says immigration from Asia and Latin America will be a force for dynamism, innovation, and prosperity. The challenge will be promoting social mobility and economic prosperity for aspirational Americans.
Third, there’s Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America, which was first published in 1981. Sowell’s history of American ethnic groups, from Germans and Irish to blacks and Mexicans, is one of the most unlikely page-turners I’ve read. He traces ethnic groups from their first appearance in America to the beginning of the Reagan presidency. What he finds for all groups is improvement in material and social conditions over time. The rate of improvement varies between groups, and often can be interrupted by setbacks, but the United States of America still has been the greatest engine of upward mobility in human history. Someone needs to update Sowell’s book to account for all the ethnic groups that have been added to the mix.
The near future of American politics is likely to be characterized by conflict within and between ethnic groups. “In Miami, everybody hates everybody,” says a character in Back to Blood. In an age of austerity, the melting pot is likely to turn into a boiling pot. These books can serve as an education in ethnic politics. And they’ll go well with a post-election serving of humble pie.
Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.
JONATHAN MAHLER’S Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning is an undeservedly obscure pleasure. It describes, with a novelist’s acumen for detail, the passion play that was New York City in 1977, when a power blackout and the Son of Sam killing spree brought the city to the edge of a breakdown. Mahler adds to that canvas an epic, brutal mayoral election; the melodrama that was the New York Yankees chasing a title amidst the distraction of Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson blood feuding; and the decadence of the city’s counter-culture in the dawn before AIDS. There are a handful of writers who can seamlessly shift from the burlesque comedy of the Yankee locker room to Mario Cuomo on the cusp of political fame to a blow-by-blow of the dark hell of an urban blackout. This is an ambitious book that can double as a primer on how to transform the journalistic essay into book form. It is stunningly good.
Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln is the coffee table tome that actually deserves to be read. It is massive, just under a thousand pages, too big to lug through an airport, but indispensable if one wants to relive the contours of American civic life from the founding of our constitutional democracy to its unraveling under the weight of slavery. This is not the Wilentz, by the way, whom conservatives learned to loathe during the Clinton impeachment saga and who penned an essay dubbing George Bush the “worst president”: it is instead the too-intoxicating-to-browse narrative of a judicious observer who conveys the interplay between ideas, personalities, and blind chance that always drives politics. And any conservatives who can’t get Wilentz’s past polemics out of their system should read the unblinking dissections in the New Republic and Newsweek he made of Barack Obama during the primaries in 2008: if Democrats had listened, the president would have spent the last four years as a chastened senator who aimed too high too soon.
Craig Shirley’s Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America is proof that a 30-year campaign can unfold like a suspense novel if it has the right storyteller. This history of the 1980 campaign cycle is a gorgeous reminder that there was nothing inevitable about Reagan’s ascension: the country in the late ’70s was barely a quarter Republican, Edward Kennedy seemed an inevitable president, and the Republican establishment wagered its bets on Howard Baker, John Connally, and George H.W. Bush. How Reagan overcame those odds and refashioned conservatism for the modern era is an account that Shirley nails, and it is one that conservatives ought to read until it is hardwired into their brains. This is the single best book on an American election since Teddy White laid down his notepad.
Mark Frost’s Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series is so good that it creates the right kind of reader’s remorse: the wish that the author would keep going and tackle Muhammad Ali’s survival of Joe Frazier in Manila, or John McEnroe’s clash with Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in 1980, or Jack Nicklaus’ last Masters win in 1986. Every sports epic in our youth deserves to be recreated with this level of skill. It is no small gift to breathe drama into the fine print of a game between largely forgotten men played out almost 40 years ago, but Frost does it. This is baseball at its peak, when 75 million Americans stayed up watching Carlton Fisk’s winning home run, when the World Series matched its pretentious title, and when the resolution of its championship was not a month-long bore.
Artur Davis is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
TWO BOOKS I read this year serve as companion pieces to one another: Coming Apart by Charles Murray and Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. Examining changes in the lives of American whites over the last 40 years or so, Murray finds that many elites have rediscovered the virtues of family, industry, and faith—and that these are what lift them above the increasingly endangered lower class. Douthat adds to these insights by questioning not whether we’ve become a more or less religious society, but whether our religion, in abandoning ancient orthodoxy, has become less fulfilling and uplifting than it should be. Both books are clear-eyed and honest, neither takes an apocalyptic tone—and indeed, I found hope for the future in both. If the country is going to turn around, it won’t be because government commandeers our wealth for its purposes, it will be because wise individuals rediscover how to live well and relearn, in Murray’s phrase, to “preach what they practice.”
And since there’s never enough fiction on these lists, let me recommend Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A bestselling thriller and a rip-roaring read, this is also a clever and lacerating satire of contemporary marriage. Flynn plays on our expectations at the same time she parodies the way the media manipulates our emotions. It’s well-written, gripping, and a lot of fun.
Andrew Klavan is the author of several internationally bestselling thriller novels. His latest adventure novel for young adults is If We Survive (Thomas Nelson).
• Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. One must never forget the Great Books, from which all our thinking derives, however creative we believe we are. This is one of them, and next year is its 500th anniversary. It is the most famous book on politics ever written and the best one if you want to suppose or be persuaded that the sole object of politics is to win. I won’t say which translation is the best except to admit that I am partial to my own.
• Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. This is another anniversary book, republished for its 25th. It is a brilliant, all-around indictment of American higher education, still as true as it was when it was the number-one best seller for almost a year in 1987. Bloom argues that our clumsy effort to open minds results paradoxically in just the contrary—the “closing of the American mind.” The error lies in believing that an open mind is not the most difficult of achievements but can be had with the mere declaration of a thoughtless relativism. In another paradox, this “easygoing nihilism” descends to us, and I do mean descends, from a great thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche.
• William Voegeli, Never Enough. A book about “America’s limitless welfare state,” to cite the subtitle. Why is it that the Progress of which progressives speak has no end, not even in imagination, at which point we might look back in satisfaction instead of always anxiously peering ahead? Perhaps it is because the end of equality is impossible; or worse, perhaps no end is possible and life is just a clueless searching for one damn thing after another. Voegeli shows that the progressives in our midst, impatient in the face of obstacles to equality, come to despise the forms of our self-government while taking for granted the ordered liberty they provide for us.
• Ross Douthat, Bad Religion. Douthat is a journalist who could have been a scholar and shows it in this book. But we like him where he is at the New York Times, a calm voice in the strident headquarters of today’s liberalism. Instead of calling for more religion, or broadcasting its useful social effects, Douthat examines what religion we have now and have had since World War II. His conclusion from careful study is that America doesn’t have either too much or too little religion, but bad religion. What is that? Isn’t religion true or false, not good or bad? Read Douthat’s book and find out.
• Michael Davis, The Soul of the Greeks. In the world we live in we observe two distinctions among beings: some are alive, some not; some are aware, some not. Science—our science—does not make these distinctions. But if they are a delusion, and all life, all thought can be explained scientifically as not distinct, what causes this delusion? The answer is, and has to be, soul. Davis considers soul as it appears in the Greeks, the inventors of psychology—in particular, Aristotle, Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato. Guided by them, he wonders what can justify, despite our science, our attachment to the soul.
Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard professor of government and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.