Several years ago, I came across a quote by General “Mad Dog” Mattis, in his book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead: “If you haven't read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren't broad enough to sustain you.” Damn.
When I read this quote, I thought to myself, “nobody reads that many books – there isn’t enough time!” Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine posted his Goodreads year in review, showing that he had read 85 books that year, while I had been averaging 25 books a year for the four years prior. To quote Seth Godin in The Song of Significance, “We don’t need more time. We simply need to decide.” That January, I made a resolution to read consistently every night and to listen to audiobooks during my commute to and from work. That year, I read 124 books (slightly inflated because I also logged children’s books that I read with my daughter). This year, I cut out the kids books and read 100 books – most of which were political in nature. Over the next two weeks, I’ll share which books I read each month, and some key takeaways that have stuck with me.
I have always read primarily political books, since that has been my passion for as long as I can remember. But after awhile, even I need a break from the intensity and deep thinking required to get through some of those books. You’ll notice throughout the year that each month usually has at least one “palette cleanser” of a book. Whether that’s Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat in January, or the sci-fi and fantasy books that you’ll see throughout the year. For the most part, I won’t comment on these books, as they are largely just for fun and to break up the monotony of reading so many political books.
You’ll also notice (I hope) that I try to give somewhat equal treatment to the Republican point of view in my reading. It helps me to understand how Republicans view Democrats, and hopefully why they think that way. This was another of my New Year’s Resolutions in 2023 – to read more books from a Republican perspective.
For January, the book that stuck with me the most was by far Soul of a Democrat. Throughout the year, you’ll see that I have read numerous books trying to answer the question of “what makes a Democrat or a Republican who they are?” If you read no other book, if you want to understand the history and future of the Democratic Party in America, you must read this book.
Soul of a Democrat presents a comprehensive assessment of the Democratic Party’s current challenges and proposed solutions. It argues against complacency and emphasizes the need for a revitalized Democratic Party. Importantly, it highlights the danger of viewing policies as interchangeable with politics, emphasizing the necessity of a unifying ideological framework to guide the party. The importance of understanding and connecting with diverse demographics within the Democratic base is underscored, with a call for a more inclusive and expansive approach to build a stable majority.
Addressing the perceived alliance between Republicans and big business, the books argue for Democrats to actively counteract this trend and advocate for policies that prioritize the common citizen over special interests. It emphasizes the Democratic Party's historical role as the party of the people, fighting for economic fairness and individual rights. It stresses the importance of economic justice, individualism, and the need for Democrats to articulate a compelling narrative that resonates across diverse demographics, including the white working class.
In sum, the book calls for a renewed, principled, and cohesive Democratic Party that can effectively communicate its ideals, engage a broad coalition, and address the evolving challenges of contemporary American politics. Soul of a Democrat advocates for a return to fundamental principles and a commitment to a politics of purpose and ideals over narrow policy focus.
This month continued my quest to understand “what makes a Republican who they are” by reading Barry Goldwater’s classic, The Conscience of a Conservative. Written in 1960, The Conscience of a Conservative advocates for a minimal, decentralized government that respects states' rights and adheres strictly to the Constitution. It emphasizes individual freedom, and supports a free-market economy, reducing government intervention, and allowing people to make their own choices. In the context of the Cold War, Goldwater underscores a strong stance against communism, advocating for a robust national defense to protect American interests. Ultimately, the book outlines core conservative principles, including limited government, constitutional adherence, and a free-market economy, shaping the foundation for the conservative movement.
What struck me, however, was how much the modern conservative movement has changed from the vision that Goldwater articulated back in 1960. Recent policies advocated by Republicans seem to increase government intervention into people’s lives – everything from abortion to book bans as an example. Additionally, whereas Goldwater advocated a strong stance against communism, President Trump seemed content to cozy up with various world dictators, even those who led communist nations. It seems to me that the modern conservative movement is a far cry from what Goldwater envisioned.
Another theme in this month’s books included grassroots political movements, as evidenced by books on MoveOn.org, ACORN, and political boss Richard Daley of Chicago. I have long been intrigued by how certain organizations or individuals are able to generate a grassroots movement in support of their political goals. From what I gathered, in many cases it seems to revolve around what we would call “constituent services.” That is, providing needed goods and services to your constituents. In Mayor Daley’s case, he provided jobs and support to the people of his city (albeit through some level of corruption, nepotism, and patronage).
The one bad thing about using audiobooks during my commute is that it’s difficult to take notes or remember key points. This particular month, my family and I spent a lot of time in the car (or on a bus) taking trips to go snowboarding, and almost every book this month was an audiobook.
I’ve always liked the “Ragin Cajun” James Carville (who is married to Republican strategist Mary Matalin), but I’ve come to find that most of the books he wrote back in the 90’s are largely outdated at this point. There isn’t much to be gleaned, despite most of the Democratic challenges being the same.
Evicted was an eye-opening account of the world of renters in urban areas (primarily in Milwaukee). The book jumps around between various stories and numerous points of view, which made it difficult to follow which challenge went with which person, but ultimately just knowing that the challenges are out there was good enough.
Finally, Michael Fanone’s first-person accounting of the events of January 6th were incredibly difficult to read – not in a grammatical way, but in an infuriating way considering people still insist that January 6th was a “normal tourist visit.” The book is laced with profanity and isn’t for the faint of heart. But this is one I highly recommend in audiobook form, since Fanone narrates the audiobook himself.
Air Force veteran, writing about the intersection of domestic policy and national security, especially as it effects his home state of Florida.