Eyes on November

Scott McLemee offers a preview of fall 2020 books focused on the presidential campaign.

July 17, 2020
 
 
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A recent political ad features a voter looking back fondly on a time before bipartisan cooperation vanished from Washington, D.C. The sentiment is hardly unusual, although it was strange to learn that the voter had 2014 in mind. To each their own golden age. Someday people will even feel nostalgia for this, the weirdest of all presidential election years.

But for now, the roller coaster is still moving fast, with who knows what risky sudden turns ahead. The most topical books in the university press catalogs for this fall tend toward white-knuckle scholarship, so to speak -- the authors just trying to hold on while the world lurches beneath them.

Trying to understand what happened during the last presidential election cycle remains the priority for a number of authors.

William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe’s Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (University of Chicago Press, July) pursues a not exactly unprecedented argument: the rise of Donald J. Trump was driven by “social forces like globalization, automation, and immigration that for decades have generated economic harms and cultural anxieties that our government has been wholly ineffective at addressing.” If Trumpism is a symptom, the underlying condition is modernity. The same factors “will still be there for other populists to weaponize” in years to come, the authors warn. Thus the urgency of enacting “reforms that harness the promise of presidential power for effective government, but firmly protect against the fear that it may be put to anti-democratic ends.” (All quotations in this column are taken from the publishers' catalogs.)

Nathaniel C. Green puts Trump’s sui generis presidency into a still longer perspective in The Man of the People: Political Dissent and the Making of the American Presidency (University Press of Kansas, October). Examining the debates over presidential power and character between the ratification of the Constitution and Andrew Jackson’s time in the Oval Office, Green finds the office turning into “an incomparable symbol of an emerging American nationalism that cast white Americans as dissenters -- lovers of liberty who were willing to mobilize against tyranny in all its forms, from foreign governments to black ‘enemies’ and Indian ‘savages.’” The details change; the tropes remain the same.

Luke Winslow focuses on another component of Trump’s persuasive powers in American Catastrophe: Fundamentalism, Climate Change, Gun Rights, and the Rhetoric of Donald J. Trump (Ohio State University Press, June). Examining Trump’s public discourse, the author detects “a consistent formal pattern oriented toward catastrophe,” with anxiety over collapse and devastation functioning as a “unifying force for many communities” in the United States, “across disparate religious, ecological, cultural, and political spheres.” Now, campaigning as an incumbent, the president faces the distinct rhetorical challenge of trying to banish a real catastrophe from public awareness, in real time. That may require its own monograph.

While not focused on the American scene alone, the papers that Sharon Mazer and three colleagues have assembled in Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism (Seagull, distributed by University of Chicago Press, November) were “provoked by the disruptive performances of Trump as candidate and president” and by “his longstanding ties” to World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Looking “broadly and internationally at the infusion of professional wrestling’s worldview into the twinned discourses of politics and populism,” contributors suggest that the most theatrical of sports (using that term loosely) is potentially open “to the left as well as to the right, to contestation as well as to conformity, making it an ideal site for working on feminist and activist projects and ideas.” It bears mentioning that the president is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame, having made (as the company’s website indicates) “a consistent impact … since the days when Andre the Giant was still king.”

Other new and forthcoming titles look beyond the White House and its current occupant toward questions bound to remain in dispute for the rest of this decade. Edmund Fawcett’s Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition (Princeton University Press, October) acknowledges that conflict over its core commitments and tactical maneuvers began long before the advent of Twitter. Conservatism is “as much at war with itself as with its opponents,” with no consensus over the traditions it wants to preserve or the degree of flexibility entailed in “confronting and adapting to liberal modernity.” The author focuses on American, British, French and German thinkers and leaders from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre until today, and the book “describes how Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and their European counterparts are pushing conservatism toward a nation-first, hard Right.”

Challenging the regular hand-wringing over a decline of civility in public discourse, William Keith and Robert Danisch take political divisiveness as a given in Beyond Civility: The Competing Obligations of Citizenship (Penn State University Press, July). Treating restrained and subdued discussion as a preferred norm, the conduct of public affairs “effectively silence[s] those who are not in power, gaming the system against the disenfranchised.” The authors propose redirecting attention “from the goal of political comity to that of building and maintaining relationships of minimal respect in the public sphere.” The aim would be one of “uniting people with differences and making them more equal.”

That sounds desirable, although experience suggests “uniting people with differences and making them more equal” is precisely what some political actors resist -- often quite blatantly. Gilda R. Daniels's Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America (New York University Press), published in January, considered the legal and political history of systematic disenfranchisement -- arguing that “voter suppression works in cycles, constantly adapting and finding new ways to hinder access for an exponentially growing minority population.” A more recent volume, Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections (University of Georgia Press, June), edited by Jim Downs, presents the transcript of a session at the 2019 conference of the Organization of American Historians during which a panel of historians discussed voter suppression with former Georgia state legislator Stacey Abrams, who lost her gubernatorial bid when the secretary of state struck hundreds of thousands of citizens from the voter rolls.

To end this roundup on the most literally academic of notes, Stacy G. Ulbig finds the roots of political tribalism planted during the undergraduate years in Angry Politics: Partisan Hatred and Political Polarization Among College Students (University Press of Kansas, December). The author “gauges the intensity and effects of partisan animosities on campus, examines the significance of media consumption in forming political attitudes, and considers the possibility that partisan hostility can operate like racial and ethnic animosities in fomenting intolerance for other groups.” But she finds hope in the possibility that colleges and universities will accept “their responsibility for developing responsible citizens capable of productive political engagement.” They might “inject more reason, and thus more civility, into future partisan debate.” It would count as a Herculean effort, if the prospects weren't Sisyphean.

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