Democracy Talks Reading Group


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.

What's Up Next?

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Wednesday, September 15, 1:30-30 pm by Zoom. The discussion will begin (but not necessarily end) with Stacey Abrams's non-fiction book, Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. Although Abrams came in for a slap on the rhetorical wrist for saying the election she lost to Brian Kemp for governor of Georgia was "stolen," no one--including Richard Hasen--can ignore the power of her rhetoric and the effectiveness of her voter registration drive in her home state. From the publisher's website:

Our Time Is Now is not a political memoir or a long-form résumé; rather, it is a striking manifesto, a stirring indictment and a straightforward road map to victory...She portrays her constituents and their concerns in such a way that they feel more actual than symbolic, more individual than indicative. When she turns her gaze onto her family, her narrative gifts are in full flower."Tayari Jones, The New York Times Book Review

"Stacey Abrams’s powerful, deeply moving book shines a bright light on the ongoing attacks on the sacred, constitutional right to the ballot. Stacey provides everyday Americans and political leaders alike with the tools that are urgently needed to confront and defeat the forces that seek to deny Americans their voice in our democracy. The right to vote is the foundation of our freedom and a key pillar of our democracy, and we must all fight to ensure that all Americans have a say in their nation’s future." —Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives

The conversation in September will be open to anyone interested in democracy (pro, con, or just puzzled)--even those who haven't gotten around to reading Abrams's book. To read more about the book and to purchase it, visit its page on the Macmillan website.

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 related to the topics. No dues required; everyone welcome. For more information and a Zoom link, contact Gil Gustafson.

Recent Discussions

Election Meltdown
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Wednesday, August 18, 2021, 1:30-3:00. The August "Democracy Talks" focused on the 4th part of Slate's 5-part series, "Election Meltdown," which, not coincidentally, is the title of Richard L. Hasen's book (subtitle: "Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy"). The podcast, which is titled "Rhetoric and reality: When is it OK to say an election was 'stolen'?, includes host Dahlia Lithwick, Hasen, and Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory U and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. Anderson and Hasen share the critique of Kemp's voter suppression tactics, but they disagree about the effect of the "stolen election" rhetoric. After the gubernatorial election in Georgia, in which Brian Kemp bested Stacey Abrams while managing the election as sitting Secretary of State, Abrams called the election stolen and called herself, not Kemp, the legitimate winner. Professor Hasen, although he was on record criticizing Kemp's self-interested mismanagement of his own election, responded to Abrams's claim with a critical article in Slate titled, "Why Democrats Should Not Call the Georgia Gubernatorial Election 'Stolen.'" In his book Hasen explains, "A democratic polity depends on losers accepting election results, even if the election was not conducted perfectly," Hasen explains that Abrams could not prove that Kemp's tactics, however nefarious, resulted in his winning an election he would otherwise have lost. Reflexively making such claims about lost elections, Hasen contends, can lead to the "Distrust" called out in his book's subtitle. And that distrust, if widespread and persistent, becomes a threat to democracy. If elections are seen as open to be stolen, why vote? Why indeed? As moderator Lithwick said in summary, "Voting is the best revenge."

"Democracy Talks" took July off. Readings for the August session will appear here when we've decided. There's a chance we can gather in August in person--perhaps outdoors, perhaps as a special occasion: a first annual "Democracy Talks" celebration.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 1:30-3:00 pm. We finished discussing Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Answers to "What was your favorite part": The explanation of the the reaction to the election of President Obama and the author's account of engaging a surly, unhelpful plumber, who begins the visit my mistaking her for a maid, in conversation about family. Before long, they're chatting like old friends about relatives living and dead. In a book that can justify anyone's fears for the future and despair of the past, that anecdote provides both hope and a model to emulate. "To imagine an end to caste in America," she writes in the Epilogue, "we need only look at the history of Germany [to see] that if a caste system...can be created, it can be dismantled."

Some comments:

  • "It's a game changer."
  • "Living in terror [like African Americans] is something I never before imaged."
  • "It should be taught in all high schools, required for everyone entering college, and assigned in all police training programs."

Caste is available from Random House.

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Listen, Liberal
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Democracy in One Book or Less by David Litt, Harper Collins hardcover, 2020. Former Obama speechwriter explains the essential facets of our democracy from who gets to vote (and who does not) through gerrymandering, inequality, and the rising power of corporate lobbies. A witty storyteller in command of deep historical research, Litt lays out both problems and solutions.


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.

Listen, Liberal

 "...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.


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.


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.


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

Recent 2020-2021 Sessions...

Wednesday, March 17, 2021. We focused on the "For the People Act," HR 1 in the US House of Representatives. Here's a section by section summary to whet your appetite. There's almost everything in this bill a friend of democracy could ask for--from automatic registration to independent redistricting and enhanced election security; there's also some tangents: support for D.C. statehood and mandated code of ethics for the Supreme Court. (That's right; there currently is none.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2021,  The topic was the the election section of the 17 article on the web site Second Rate Democracy: Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021. We devoted a second session to David Litt's Democracy in One Book, with emphasis on the "Possum Kingdom" section about the rise of lobbying since the 1970s. After the 1971 "Powell Memo,"  the burgeoning ranks of corporate lobbyists overwhelmed the influence of voters and essentially replaced underpaid, inadequate congressional staffers in fleshing out legislation. Suggested fixes include enhanced transparency into the amount of spending by the "influence industry" and beefing up staff. Here's an excellent review of the book.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020.The main topic of discussion was David Litt's Democracy in One Book: How It Works, Why It Doesn't, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think. A powerful analysis and history of US Democracy, Litt's book sparked an animated Zoom discussion. It may be "One Book," and it's definitely lively, but it's not a short book. We decided to devote the first session of 2021 to the same book.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020. 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, 2020.  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 2020: 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 2020: 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.)