Senator Al Franken has graduated from being a comedian-turnedsenator to a senator who deftly uses humor as a political tool. His funny and serious new book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (Twelve, $28), tells the story of his Minnesota roots, his 42-year marriage to his wife Franni, his journey from Saturday Night Live to a 312-vote U.S. Senate victory in 2008, and his hard-earned stripes as a member of Congress at a time of growing partisanship and public disillusionment about government. The end result is one of the most genuine and entertaining political memoirs to date. And as we look to 2020, let’s remember: Weirder things have happened in America than the election of a Jewish comedian to be president. Just sayin’.
In this detailed history of the libertarian movement, Nancy MacLean fully justifies the lurid image of her title. Democracy in Chains (Viking, $28) chronicles a century or more of efforts by the radical right not simply to influence “who rules” but to overturn “the rules” of American government and save the wealthy minority from the “exploitative majority.” MacLean, a Duke professor of history and public policy, starts this “utterly chilling story of the intellectual origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today” in 1956 in Charlottesville, Virginia. At that point James McGill Buchanan, the Nobel economist at the center of her account, was establishing the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy at the University of Virginia. One of a number of ostensibly academic institutes and think-tanks, most funded by libertarian billionaires, the Center discouraged any open discussion of ideas and concentrated exclusively on turning “libertarian creed into a national counterrevolution.” MacLean tracks several campaigns that, while falling short of the ultimate goal, have nonetheless eroded trust in government institutions and have changed the way politics is done. Resisting the Brown decision, for instance, the state of Virginia pressed hard for the privatization of schools; one county closed its public schools for several years rather than comply with the order to integrate. But by reframing an issue of race as an issue of freedom of choice, the right opened a wider discussion of the government’s role in schools, and MacLean shows how libertarians have employed this “stealth” strategy with increasing success through the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Her closely-argued and passionate study loops back to John C. Calhoun and the Gilded Age for the seeds of Buchanan’s public choice theory, then shows, with the Flint water crisis, climate change denial, Scott Walker’s anti-union measures, increasing privatization of prisons, the anti-Obamacare movement, and much more, how effectively they’ve been sown.
As Hillary Clinton’s longtime former speechwriter, I was worried about whether she could write a book with authenticity and self-reflection less than a year after her shocking defeat in the presidential election. But writing What Happened (Simon & Schuster, $30), she explains, became her therapy. The book forced her to reckon with her own mistakes as well as the external forces that contributed to one of the most bizarre and disastrous presidential campaigns in American history. It is her sixth book and in it she speaks with candor and a wry humor that the public rarely sees. Especially poignant is her masterful connecting of dots on the allegations of Russian intrusion into our electoral process. This is not self-serving; she clearly and persuasively alerts Americans to the very real dangers presented when hostile countries and political foes weaponize social media and technology to manipulate opinions and attitudes, and attempt to erode our democracy. The book is interesting, very funny, and covers really important stuff. Read it.