1. “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This outstanding book infuriated me, for two reasons. The first was to see how, with great care, these two comparative politics scholars used their background in Latin America and Eastern Europe to explain how institutionalized democracies break down. They then take these guidelines and train their analytical lens on the United States. As someone who has been an awfully big fan of America’s Constitution, it was disheartening to see how well Levitsky and Ziblatt made their case that we should be concerned about the trends in this country. The notion that “it can’t happen here” does not hold up that well to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s scrutiny.
As an academic who writes for a wider audience, however, the book was infuriating for another reason: It was so well-written. Any social science scholar thinking of writing a general interest book should read “How Democracies Die” and use it as a template for making a subtle argument with clear prose. The way the authors deal with the uncomfortable relationship between race and America’s democratic stability is something to behold.
2. “Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers,” by David Edelstein. International relations theory does not have a great relationship with time. Realists do not think it matters very much. Liberals and constructivists look at time as an opportunity to have the world more closely reflect their idealized vision.
How does a hegemon’s attitude toward the future affect their present-day foreign policy toward a potential challenger? Traditionally, it has been thought that when great powers have a long shadow of the future, they are likelier to see the benefits of cooperation. Edelstein offers up a more counterintuitive thesis: Uncertainty can be useful in preventing great power wars. The less certain a hegemon is about a rising power’s intentions, the more likely it will focus on more short-term crises rather than launching a preventive war. Edelstein’s book takes time and preferences over time seriously.
3. “The Price of Prestige: Conspicuous Consumption in International Relations,” by Lilach Gilady. Why do states pursue flashy projects — such as hosting an Olympics — that make little economic sense? Why do governments pay for expensive weapons systems that might be unnecessary? Gilady examines the phenomenon of “Veblen goods” in international politics. Veblen goods are positional goods, in which demand increases along with price because the good is seen as a display of prestige. Veblen goods can explain why some countries choose to invest in aircraft carriers or space programs when they should be allocating scarce resources elsewhere.
The president of the United States, who got his start developing gaudy real estate investments, now wants a space force and a military parade. I cannot think of a more relevant moment to crack open this book.