The final decisions of the Supreme Court’s 2021-2022 term should prompt a major rethink on the part of climate activists and communicators. 

Commentary

Here’s why. While liberal activists have spent decades trying to turn positive public opinion polling into effective policy, conservatives spent those decades creating the conservative court that simply dismissed public polling on gun control (60% of Americans want stricter gun control laws), climate change (65% think government should do more on climate), and abortion (61% say it should be legal in all or most instances). Clearly, generating greater public concern or agreement isn’t sufficient. 

So what is to be done?

A good first step would be to systematically review what just happened. The 12 titles in this month’s bookshelf offer distinctly different but broadly corroborating perspectives on issues involved in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions and on how the court itself has changed. None, it should be noted, think conservatives achieved their recent success because they followed the Constitution.

Likely the best and most direct vantage point will be offered by the forthcoming book by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). He sees a decades-long strategy to capture the Supreme Court, a strategy financed with dark money provided by corporate interests (e.g. oil companies) and wealthy ideologues (e.g. Rupert Murdoch). Read the blurb, and advance-order the book (due in October) from your favorite bookseller. Then turn your attention to the other titles on this month’s list, which detail different sectors of the big picture Senator Whitehouse will present. 

Two titles focus on banner issues addressed by the court this term. The first examines the politicization of gun ownership by the National Rifle Association; the second describes the weaponization of the abortion issue by the religious right. 

Three titles review the critical role played by Donald Trump in the decades-long story of American politics and the courts; another three provide historical, economic, and demographic context. 

But there is still hope, argue the last three titles in this list. Culturally diverse democracies are still in the experimental phase. And people are still learning how to function, effectively and compassionately, in a world increasingly defined by social media. Management consultants often invoke the analogy of “fixing the plane while flying it.” Americans now face a similarly daunting challenge: re-inventing a democracy that will act on climate change.

Failure may mean summers too hot to celebrate future Fourths of July. And that would be unpatriotic.

As always, the descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are provided, the second refers to the release of the paperback edition.


The Scheme: How the Right-Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse with Jennifer Mueller (The New Press 2022,* 304 pages, $26.99)

Following his book on the corporate capture of regulatory and government agencies, and drawing on his years as a prosecutor, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse here turns his attention to the right-wing scheme to capture the courts, and how it influenced Trump’s appointment of over 230 “business-friendly” judges, including the last three justices of the United States Supreme Court. Whitehouse traces the motive to control the court system back to Lewis Powell’s notorious memo, which gave a road map for corporate influence to target the judiciary. Full of inside stories, The Scheme pulls back the curtain on the hidden apparatus that has spent years trying to corrupt our politics, control our courts, and degrade our democracy. *Scheduled for release in October. 

Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners Into a Political Force by Matthew J. Lacombe (Princeton University Press 2021, 328 pages, $29.95) 

The National Rifle Association has consistently managed to defeat or weaken proposed gun regulations – even despite widespread public support for stricter laws and the prevalence of mass shootings and gun-related deaths. In Firepower, political scientist Matthew J. Lacombe takes readers from the 1930s to the age of Donald Trump and traces how the NRA’s immense influence on national politics arises from its ability to shape the political outlooks and actions of its followers. Firepower sheds vital new light on how the NRA has grown powerful by mobilizing average Americans, and how it uses its GOP alliance to advance its objectives and shape the national agenda, most notably by fueling Trump’s unlikely political rise. 

Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment by Mary Ziegler (Yale University Press 2022, 344 pages, $35.00) 

In Dollars for Life, legal historian Mary Ziegler shows how the anti-abortion movement helped to forge and then upend the Republican alliance between big business and conservative Christianity. RighttoLifers gained power in the GOP by changing how campaign spending, and First Amendment politics, worked. The anti-abortion movement revolutionized the rules of money in U.S. politics and persuaded conservative voters to fixate on the federal courts. The campaign finance landscape that abortion foes created fueled the GOP’s embrace of populism and the rise of Donald Trump. The slow drift to extremes in American politics, Ziegler argues, had everything to do with the strange intersection of right-to-life politics and campaign spending.

American Catastrophe: Fundamentalism, Climate Change, Gun Rights, and Donald J. Trump by Luke Winslow (Ohio State University Press 2020, 220 pages, $32.00 paperback) 

Most of us would agree that catastrophe is harmful and avoiding it is key to human survival. In American Catastrophe, however, Luke Winslow argues that we live in an age when catastrophe not only functions as a dominant organizing rhetoric but as an appealing and unifying force. Winslow employs rhetorical homology to explain how catastrophic appeals unite Americans across disparate religious, ecological, cultural, and political spheres. His analyses of Christian fundamentalism, anti-environmentalism, gun rights messaging, and the Trump administration reveal a consistent formal pattern. In teasing out this orientation toward catastrophe, Winslow offers a fresh, provocative, and insightful contribution to our most pressing social challenges.

Demolition Agenda: How Trump Tried to Dismantle American Government and What Biden Needs to Do to Save It by Thomas O. McGarity (The New Press 2022, 352 pages, $27.99)

Koch Industries spent millions in the early days of the Trump administration to ensure the appointment of allies like Scott Pruitt (EPA). Ryan Zinke (Interior), and Rick Perry (Energy). In an original and compelling argument, Thomas McGarity shows how adding populists to the Republican’s traditional base of free market ideologues and establishment Republicans allowed Trump to come dangerously close to achieving his goal of demolishing programs that Congress put in place over the course of many decades to protect consumers, workers, communities, children, and the environment. Finally, McGarity offers a blueprint for rebuilding the protective edifice and restoring the power of the American government to offer all Americans better lives.

Battling the Big Lie: How Fox, Facebook, and the MAGA Media Are Destroying America by Dan Pfeiffer (Twelve / Hachette Book Group 2022, 336 pages, $30.00)

In Battling the Big Lie, Dan Pfeiffer explains how the right-wing built a massive, billionaire-funded disinformation machine powerful enough to bend reality and nearly steal the 2020 election. ⁠The “MAGA Megaphone”⁠ personified by Fox News and fueled by Facebook⁠ is waging war on the very idea of objective truth. It’s the reason Donald Trump won in 2016, and it’s why the U.S. is incapable of addressing problems like COVID-19 and climate change. A functioning democracy depends on a shared understanding of reality. America is teetering on the edge because one of the parties in our two-party system views truth, facts, and science as opponents. Battling the Big Lie is a call to arms for all who care about truth and democracy.

White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams, with a new preface (Harvard Business Review Press 2017/2019, 208 pages, $19.99 paperback) 

Now in paperback with a new preface, White Working Class explains why so much of the elite’s analysis of the white working class is misguided, rooted in class cluelessness. Feminist legal scholar Joan C. Williams explains that many people have conflated “working class” with “poor” – but the working class is, in fact, the purportedly disappearing middle class. Their dream is not to join the upper middle class, but to stay true to their own values in their own communities – just with more money. For anyone wondering why so many would seemingly vote against their own economic interests, or simply feeling like a stranger in their own country, White Working Class will be a convincing primer on how to connect with a crucial set of workers – and voters.

The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism by Matthew Continetti (Basic Books 2022, 496 pages, $32.00) 

When most people think of the history of modern conservatism, they think of Ronald Reagan. Yet this narrow view leaves many to question: How did Donald Trump win the presidency? In The Right, Matthew Continetti gives a sweeping account of movement conservatism’s evolution. He describes how it began as networks of intellectuals, developing and institutionalizing a shared vision, until they buckled under populist pressures. Drawing out the tensions between the desire for mainstream acceptance and the pull of extremism, Continetti argues that the more one studies conservatism’s past, the more one becomes convinced of its future. The Right is essential reading for anyone looking to understand American conservatism.

Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture by Kevin Munger (Columbia University Press 2022, $30.00 paperback) 

The Baby Boomers are the largest and most powerful generation in American history. They are, on average, whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than younger generations. They dominate cultural and political institutions and make up the largest slice of the electorate. Generational conflict, with Millennials and Generation Z pitted against the aging Boomer cohort, has become a media staple. The generation gap is widening into a political fault line. Kevin Munger argues that this generational conflict will define the politics of the next decade. Combing expertise in data analysis and digital culture with keen insight into contemporary politics, Generation Gap explains why the Baby Boomers remain so dominant and how quickly that might change.

Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side by Robert B. Talisse (Oxford University Press 2021, 184 pages, $29.95)

Democracy is not easy. Citizens who disagree sharply about politics must nonetheless work together as equal partners in the enterprise of collective self-government. Drawing on extensive social science research concerning political polarization and partisan identity, Robert B. Talisse argues that when we break off civil interactions with our political opponents, we imperil relations with our political allies. In the absence of engagement with our political critics, our alliances grow increasingly homogeneous, conformist, and hierarchical. In the end, our political aims suffer because our coalitions shrink and grow ineffective. Why sustain democracy with our foes? Because we need them if we are going to sustain democracy with our allies and friends.

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure by Yascha Mounk (Penguin Press 2022, 368 pages, $28.00)

Some democracies are highly homogeneous. Others have long maintained a brutal racial or religious hierarchy, with some groups dominating and exploiting others. Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly. And yet achieving that goal is now central to the democratic project. The Great Experiment is that rare book that offers both a profound understanding of an urgent problem and genuine hope for our human capacity to solve it. As Mounk contends, giving up on the prospects of building fair and thriving diverse democracies is simply not an option – and that is why we must strive to realize a more ambitious vision for the future of our societies.

Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy Is Flawed, Frightening—and Our Best Hope by Jedediah Purdy (Basic Books 2022,* 304 pages, $30.00)

Americans across the political spectrum agree that our democracy is in crisis. We view our political opponents with disdain, if not terror, and many of us are willing to consider authoritarian alternatives. In Two Cheers for Politics, Jedediah Purdy argues that this heated political culture is a symptom not of too much democracy but too little. Today, the decisions that most affect our lives and our communities are often made outside the political realm entirely – by markets, bureaucrats, or influencers. The result is a weakened political system and an increasingly unequal and polarized society. We need to claw back the ground we’ve ceded to anti-politics and entrust one another with the power to shape our common life. *Scheduled for release in August.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...