"Democracy Talks" Book Club

Established in 2016 as the "Dark Money Book Club" to discuss Jane Mayer's book on "the hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right," the club is now called "Democracy Talks" and has broadened its agenda to include political and cultural critiques of threats to US democracy from both the right and the left. Beyond reading (or viewing) books, articles, videos, and podcasts, members bring their own perspectives to discussions and strive to put ideas into action. The club owes its founding and continued success to the Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church and Clean Elections Minnesota. Meetings generally take place on the third Wednesday of each month at the church. During the pandemic, however, meetings have been Zoomed. No dues; everyone with a stake in our democratic policies and principles is welcome.

Next Session

Wednesday, December 16 2020, 1:30-3:00 pm--by Zoom unless a Christmas Miracle restores the world to health. The main topic of discussion will be David Litt's Democracy in One Book: How It Works, Why It Doesn't, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think. Given the organizing principle of "Democracy Talks," Litt's book seems an obvious choice. A former speechwriter in the Obama administration with a special focus on humor (e.g., Obama's Press Club routines), Litt brings a light touch to a weighty subject: "Bill Bryson meets Thomas Frank" according to the marketing blurb writer. Democracy may require only one book to understand, but at 400 pages it's not a short book; Litt begins at the Founding and ends in the Trump era. According to Rachel Lienfeld (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow), Litt "brings Dave Barry-style humor to an illuminating book on what is wrong with American democracy — and how to put it right. His humor and ability to clarify the complex take readers on a jaunty journey. In rejecting jargon like “voter suppression,” for instance, he explains, “It’s like describing a murderer as engaged in ‘lifespan adjustment.’” How can one resist? Everyone with an interest in Democracy welcome to the discussion. No dues Just let us know and we'll send you a link that Wednesday morning. See you then.

And Recent Sessions...

Wednesday, November 18. With no reading or viewing assigned, we discussed current events--the election, the recent crime wave in Minneapolis, future election strategies, and, of course, what to read next. Since we began with Jane Mayer's attack on Dark Money, which traced the tentacles of the Kochtopus, Charles Koch's new book, Believe in People, deserved at least a mention--which is pretty much what it got. Mr. Koch, now 85 years old, claims to have had second thoughts about some of his decades-long crusade against American democracy, but advance notices indicate he's sticking to his radical libertarian guns. We're waiting for the reviews. Next read: David Litt's Democracy in One Book or Less. Also worth a look, given the still unresolved election (at least in the mind of the president and his die-hard supporters), NY Times editorial writer Jesse Wegman's attack on the Electoral College, Let the People Pick the President. It may be tilting at windmills, but, really, do we want to go through an election like 2020 again?

Wednesday, September 16, 2020, The discussion focused on the final three podcasts in the New York Times' "1619," a revisionist look at the history of the British colonies and the United States with special attention to fundamental impact of slavery and white racism on America's society and economy. We also discussed the criticism of the project and other readings on the subject. he group decided to skip an October session, allowing time for election-related activities. Future readings remain to be selected. Under consideration: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder; Democracy in One Book or Less by Obama speechwriter David Litt.

Here is a link if you want to listen on your computer or download to a podcast app on another device:

Wednesday, July 15.  We Zoomed through another lively session. Pre-reading included a recent entry of impressive scope in Clean Elections member Doug Pederson's blog "The View from My Bubble." He's not a fan of "normal": "These are extraordinary times. Because of that, I think everyone knows that our lives are going to change. Still, many of us seem to hope that we all go back to our old ways of life, back to our own “normal” bubbles. I’m here to suggest that is the LAST thing we should do." But the discussion focussed more on a second reading (or viewing): a presentation on racism entitled "The Magis and Justice," by Fr. Bryan Massingale. 

June: For the June session we had some leeway in choosing what to view in preparation. Gil suggested watching at least the June 2 video from the series of weekly YouTube monologs by history prof Heather Cox Richardson. Here's a link to her channel. In the recommended video she provides detailed background on the Insurrection Act, recently cited by President Trump as justification for using federal troops to quel domestic disturbances, and related issues related to use of violence on American citizens. Ruth Cain provided links to several videos of interviews with and presentations by Chris Hedges, including this interview in which Hedges rejects the programs and past achievements of both major parties, "corporate media," including public tv and the cable networks, and praises Julian Assange. Richardson and Hedges provide stimulating, historical detailed defenses of often contrasting positions.

May: The May session focused, at least in part, on Jon Meacham's discussion of his book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels at a National Press Club event. The consummate "public intellectual," Meacham is an engaging raconteur as well as an accomplished historian. In this 2018 press club event, he answers questions from the interviewer and members of the audience about the battle between our best and worst instincts. In his cosmology, the "soul of America" includes both light and dark possibilities. You shed more light, according to Meacham, if you do not demonize your opposition. (Hard advice to follow. If you do yield to that temptation, at least count to 10 before putting it in words on Facebook or in a Tweet.)

Discussion Format

The group has agreed-upon guidelines to keep discussions productive, civil, focused on the reading but flexible enough to allow for personal contributions relevant to the topics. No dues required; everyone welcome. For more information contact Gil Gustafson.

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History professor Nancy MacLean's book, published in 2017, was a finalist for the National Book Award that year. It was also a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, winner of the 2017 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award, named the "Most Valuable Book" of 2017 by The Nation and chosen as a favorite Book of the Year by The Progressive. Despite the obvious progressive/leftist accolades, MacLean considers her topic as more fundamental to democracy (small "d") than an attack on a particular ideology "This is not about Ds and Rs," she explained in a talk on the topic. It is "not even about liberals and conservatives in the old way. This is something new and different...a messianic plan decades in the making to fundamentally change the relationship between the people and our government." This Koch-funded radical right movement, MacLean believes, essentially seeks to cancel the political and social advances of the 20th century.

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Taxation Only With Representation: The Conservative Conscience and Campaign Finance Reform. Richard Painter. Take Back Our Republic: Feb., 2016, 202 pp.  "...discusses how our money driven campaign system undermines the vision of the Founding Fathers...(and) lays out a plan for reform that (defines) the government's right to tax its citizens in a way that will give each citizen a real voice in funding campaigns." -- Publisher's abstract Mr. Painter teaches in the University of Minnesota Law School and appears as commentator on national television.

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 "...the story of how the 'Party of the People' detached itself from its historic constituency among average Americans and chose instead to line up with the winners of our new economic order." To Frank, it isn't only Dark Money and Citizens United that brought us so close to oligarchy; Democratic Party leaders--the so-called New Democrats and the "Democratic Leadership Council--have also contributed.

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Reich laments the “winner take all” mentality that undercuts “our core identity…the ideals we share, the good we hold in common.” “Love of country," he writes, “based on the common good entails obligations to other people.” These obligations include paying taxes in full (not looking for loopholes), volunteering in the community, serving on school boards and city councils, and blowing the whistle on corruption. He reminds us that the common good “has sometimes required the supreme sacrifice.”  Reich even advocates two years of “required public service.” An economist who served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton White House, Reich has written a relatively short, straightforward book that’s sure to spark conversations and controversy.

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How Democracies Die. Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. Crown: 2018 (Hardcover). “…[A] brilliant diagnosis of the most important issue facing our world: Can democracy survive?”–E.J. Dionne, Jr. “Two years ago, a book like this could not have been written: two leading political scientists who are experts in the breakdown of democracy in other parts of the world using that knowledge to inform Americans of the dangers their democracy faces today” — Francis Fukuyama.

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Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right. Jane Mayer. Doubleday: Jan. 19, 2016, 464 pp. “A careful exposé of the libertarian agenda, spearheaded by the Koch brothers, to 'impose their minority views on the majority by other means.'... Mayer provides plenty of ammunition for those convinced that the U.S. is no longer a representative democracy but instead an oligarchy. A valuable contribution to the study of modern electoral politics in an age that Theodore White, and perhaps even Hunter S. Thompson, would not recognize.” – Kirkus Reviews