Recording our Favorite Books of the Year podcast with staff and columnists from The American Interest, something we all agreed on is that these “interesting times” have certainly not been a curse for writers and readers. The best book title of the year goes to Sue Prideaux’s impressive biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite! (Tim Duggan Books). It’s a good leitmotif for the year in books given how many of them raise the question of whether the entire liberal democratic project might be in danger of blowing itself up.
Patrick Deneen’s brilliant Why Liberalism Failed (Yale) asked whether liberalism might in the end be its own worst enemy, creating a culture dominated by loneliness, disassociation, isolation, and dislocation. Part of the attraction of the book is not just the answers it suggests but the questions it raises. In doing so, Deneen has opened up a genuine dialogue across political traditions, including some fascinating exchanges with the likes of Samuel Moyn, Bryan Garsten, and Matthew Sitman.
Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger & How To Save It (Harvard) is an angrier book than Deneen’s, but this reflects the way he sees politics in the West, where citizens long disillusioned with politics are restless, angry, and even disdainful of the democratic process. Like Deneen’s, the book has sparked some fascinating dialogues, not least a brilliant counterblast from Shadi Hamid for this magazine.
Other books this year have focused on particular elements of why democracy may be in decay. Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton) helpfully reminds us what the word “liberalism” has actually meant over the centuries. At the TAI podcast we like ideas-merchants who put on their hard hats to draw out the practical implications of their work. In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (FSG) our own Francis Fukuyama admirably leads the way with a section boldly entitled “What is to be done?” in which he makes suggestions about forging a national identity, including the potentially contentious one of reintroducing a form of national service. The quality of democracy depends on more than the acceptance of the basic rules, he argues: Democracies need their own culture to function.
Someone else who put on the hard hat this year is Reihan Salam in Melting Pot or Civil War: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (Sentinel)—one of the most brilliantly provocative books I read all year. He does not duck the hard choices—amnesty, a points-based immigration system—but with so much posturing from all sides on immigration, here at last is a book that is consciously trying to offer a blueprint for an immigration compromise that liberals and conservatives can debate and take seriously. Yale professors Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro argue in Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself (Yale) that one of the ways in which Salam’s kind of compromise might be achieved is through the return of stronger political parties. Elites need to have more self-confidence, they argue. The best political reforms are those that “strengthen parties, weaken local selection mechanisms such as primaries and caucuses, and push back against referendums, direct elections of leaders, and other illusory instruments of popular control.”
It’s not only established powers that have problems; rising ones do too. Sulmaan Wasif Khan’s fine survey of Chinese grand strategy Haunted By Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao to Xi (Harvard) outlines the challenges facing China today, not least an aging population, government corruption, escalating tension with its neighbors, a trade war with the United States, and a choking environmental disaster. Chinese elites, Khan concludes, remain terrified the country will “fall apart again.”
Much of our time this year has been spent on questions of leadership, and a slew of fine books take on figures who continue to fascinate and sometimes perplex us. Andrew Roberts gives us the best single-volume life of Churchill (Viking). David Cannadine’s lavish Churchill: The Statesman as Artist (Bloomsbury) elegantly makes the link between statecraft and the imagination. Ramachandra Guha completes his magnificent biography of Gandhi (Knopf). Karen Sullivan vividly shows why the stories of King Arthur and Camelot have lost none of their old power in The Danger of Romance (Chicago). Joseph Ellis, always so subtle on the Founders, puts them in conversation with us in American Dialogue (Penguin Random House).
Finally, we spend so much time talking about systems, strategy and high politics that we can sometimes forget that these factors impinge on real people with real lives. Zora Neal Hurston’s posthumous Barracoon (Amistad) gives her account of a 1927 visit to meet Oluale Kossula, a survivor of the last known ship of the Transatlantic slave trade route. It’s an astonishing, heartbreaking story, brilliantly told, and full of cruelty and injustice. Yet standing his ground in the middle of everything is the 86-year-old Kossula, who remains a man “full of gleaming, good will.” The fortitude of the human spirit is an amazing thing, and we all benefit from reading about it.