Reconstruction Reading

A Primer for Progress

Like I said in my column on our Great Day of Partnership, the secret to advancing justice, equity, and equality in the United States is not some special formula or even that hard to predict. But it is never guaranteed.

We’ve had three great periods of rebirth as a nation. These eras were always constructed by citizens committed to each other and America’s original promise.

Despite what the entrenched elite would tell you, the actual end-game of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not controlled by trickle-down economic voodoo or charity from business titans disguised as really terribly-paying jobs. It’s not even some mythical free market ghost hand that decides who sees economic prosperity and justice in human events. Life is complicated, sure, but we know what works:

People-centered economics and politics — a genuine system of We the People.

Not a system where corporations are treated like individuals with extra rights and opportunities. Nope — what has always worked best is when business is the beneficiary of our productivity and personal success.

So here’s a primer of that history. This topic is huge. I’ve found the books below complement each other and provide a good overview.

Here’s a few things to remember when reading:

  • Context is key — pay attention to the details.
  • We need to retake the patriotic narrative from the anti-We the People forces that want to privatize our government for their own benefit. Watch for how they’ve hijacked patriotism throughout our history — and used race to do it.
  • The details are important but remember to be pragmatic and take a win when you can.
  • Progress is never finished or perfect. We have to rise up again and continue on tomorrow.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004)

Why’s it here?

I was one of four people who was ecstatic about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway masterpiece because I read the book first. Chernow’s tome on Hamilton totally upended everything I thought I knew about the American experiment. So much of the history we know has been carefully constructed to advance a certain narrative about ourselves — about who is and who is not genuinely ‘American.’

This book shows that whole premise is bullshit. By digging into the past as present, Hamilton and Jefferson’s philosophical showdown demonstrates that we have always been a broken nation forged by broken people. But it’s in that humanity that we see ourselves and each other. We must remember we are worth fighting for and this place can be made whole if only we do the work.

Key points:

  • Find a friend who challenges you and makes you better. We cannot — nor should not — make a movement alone.
  • Have principles. Get creative. Advance justice.
  • The work goes ever on — give the next generation a hand up.

Important line:

“In general, however, their two voices blended admirably together. The result was a literary miracle. If Hamilton was the major wordsmith, Washington was the tutelary spirit and final arbiter of what went in. The poignant opening section in which Washington thanked the American people could never have been written by Hamilton alone. Conversely, the soaring central section, with its sophisticated perspective on policy matters, showed Hamilton’s unmistakable stamp. It is difficult to disentangle the contributions of Washington and Hamilton because their ideas overlapped on many issues.”

Personal note(s):

  • I have a Hamilton tattoo. #JeffersonSucks.
  • I told Leslie Odom Jr. I’d never thought I’d find Burr charming before seeing his performance.
  • I knew Hamilton died in a duel at the beginning of the book. I still bawled at the end of the book. Like, body-shake ‘They killed Dobbie’-style crying.

The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas R. Egerton (2014)

Why’s it here?

After the Civil War, there was a establishment backlash rooted in classism and racism against the expanded freedom — both real and perceived — of Americans. Just like in 2016. It took nearly 100 years for the those sins to be absolved. I don’t think we can afford to take that much time this go-round. This book is instructional and reflective.

Key points:

  • Sets the record straight about “the brief, violent history of America’s most progressive era.”
  • Shows how freedom, equality and equity are won: voting rights, representation, economic and social justice. And how they are lost: corruption, disenfranchisement, designed, deliberate division.
  • The past is present — from gerrymandering, to voter suppression, and rise of the Alt-Right, the current racist backlash isn’t new. Polo shirts and tiki torches, however…

Important line:

“If black officeholders symbolized what African Americans could aspire to, predominately black or interracial schools, churches, and Union League halls — which were frequently one and the same — paved the way for such achievement. As they had virtually since Appomattox, whites torched them almost as rapidly as blacks could construct them.”

Personal Note:

👆🏻Does that line sound familiar? #PastIsPresent

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States by Michael Lind (2012)

Why’s it here?

The idea that upheaval leading to destruction of the old order isn’t new. We felt familiar rumblings in 2008 with the collapse of the housing and financial markets. But IMHO our nation did do something differently: we did not do enough.

The ambitions laid out by President Obama were liberal intelligentsia-driven and poorly sold. Meanwhile, the Republicans shamelessly used race, division, and hate to stall all progress just because they wanted to win elections.

We came out on the other side in even greater peril and upheaval than before. Now, it seems like the financial crisis of 2008 was just the first shoe to drop. With the GOP having passed massive tax cuts for a very small number of Americans, dismantling the already weak banking rules (with the help of the Democrats) put in place after the 2008 crisis, and the peeling away of the Affordable Care Act, we are in for another painful event. The stock market soars while individuals still struggle to make ends meet. How will we ensure that when the next catastrophe occurs we do not repeat the mistakes of the last decade?

Key points:

  • Government and business work better as partners, not adversaries — but only if the benefits belong to all the people and average citizens are able to have a stake in it.
  • Massive inequality — like we see now — always ends in the same way: a realignment of politics and power.
  • Progress is only created when we take deliberate action to expand our democracy — and our nation can still be lost.

Important line:

“In the spirit of philosophical bipartisanship, it would be pleasant to conclude that each of these traditions of political economy has made its own valuable contribution to the success of the American economy and that the vector created by these opposing forces has been more beneficial than the complete victory of either would have been. But that would not be true.
“What is good about the American economy is largely the result fo the Hamiltonian developmental tradition, and what is bad about it is largely the result of the Jeffersonian producerist school.”

Personal Note:

Constant vigilance, friends. Although the arc of the universe bends toward justice, there are a lot of painful, deadly days in between. As Lind lays out in this book, each iteration of the American Republic has moments where the wheels seem like they’re about to fly off. And I’d argue that the massive suffering of our fellow Americans through Reconstruction and Segregation are examples of what happens when we fail to follow-through the first time. There are some hard things in this book — things I do not agree with completely. Still, get through it. The thesis is on-point.

Also, #JeffersonSucks.

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney Lopez (2014)

Why’s it here?

I have to be honest. Today’s liberals annoy me but two types in particular push my buttons more than a dozen varieties of conservative and libertarian mouth-breathers. Who are they? Neo-liberal union haters and post-racial colorblind liberals. I’ve met them in Washington D.C. and across the country — both in cities and rural communities. They’re primarily responsible for ceding so much thought and physical territory to conservatives and allowing liberalism to be redefined as a bad word. Those actions have resulted in the destruction of the middle class.

This is their story.

Key Points:

  • Running away from the realities of race in America ended up dividing us further and killing the middle class.
  • Unless you acknowledge race, you can’t address the impact and power of racism on all Americans.
  • Don’t believe what people tell you: Just because the millennials seem hip, young, and fresh doesn’t mean that racism and white supremacy is dying off or that Trump is the last iteration.

Important line:

“Post-racialism justifies walking away from direct responses to racial inequality by promising universal approaches, and in doing so, not only betrays minorities but dupes the middle class more generally. It’s not just that post-racialism abandons race-targeted efforts; the overriding impulse to flee from race also guarantees that post-racial liberals will only timidly fight for their vaunted universal solutions. After decades of dog whistle politics, even race-neutral liberal efforts do not escape racial taint: liberalism itself is widely perceived as race-targeted. Thus post-racialism ultimately encourages abandoning not only direct responses to racial inequality, but liberal endeavors too closely associated with nonwhites — which is to say, liberalism in general. Despite Obama’s promise to promote universal programs, in his flight from race Obama has jettisoned liberalism as well. Avoiding race so as not to alienate middle class voters, Obama has also sacrificed the middle class.”

Personal Note:

I was at Netroots Nation in 2015 and saw a group of navel-gazing liberals turn into what would eventually feel like a Trump rally. The mothers of Black Lives Matter occupied the stage during a presidential candidate forum with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley. It was horrifying to see the verbal and physical actions that many in that room took against our sisters because they dared to demand answers from these two white men.

In 2016, every time I saw white liberals and some people of color sharing a picture of Bernie Sanders being arrested at a civil rights rally, I thought back to his demeanor at Netroots — not to mention his supporters’ actions — and it disgusted me. Likewise, I was called naive by some of my professional colleagues in 2016 for worrying about Trump. It was never a surprise to me that Trump would have a crossover appeal to liberals and educated white voters. I am ashamed that I did not do more to call it out then.

The important line I cite above is still the central idea behind our liberal darling’s ‘revolution.’ There is still much work to be done.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal by William E. Leuchtenburg (1963)

Why’s it here?

It’s easy to look at history through rose-colored glasses while pushing one of those ‘that was easy’ buttons. It’s just another trait shared by the right and left in America today. For Trump supporters it’s “Make America Great Again;” for Liberals it’s their ‘all or nothing,’ OCCUPY DEMOCRATS demands in regards to legislation and elections. But history is messy and hard and terrifying. This book, written just in time to capture context and with enough distance to see the results is a wonderful look at the New Deal.

Key points:

  • You do what you can with what you have where you are.
  • Progress is hard. Your friends hate you. Your enemies hate you. You persevere because you must.
  • Experiment. Be pragmatic. Try things.

Important line:

“The New Deal was pragmatic mainly in its skepticism about utopias and final solutions, its openness to experimentation, and its suspicion of the dogmas of the Establishment. Since the advice of economists had so often been wrong, the New Dealers distrusted the claims of orthodox theory — “All this is perfectly terrible because it is all pure theory, when you come down to it,” the President said on one occasion — and they felt free to try new approaches. Roosevelt refused to be awed by the warnings of economists and financial experts that government interference with the “laws” of the economy was blasphemous. “We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature,” the President stated. “They are made by human beings.”

Personal Note:

I find hit heartening to read a history book like this. It demonstrates how agonizing it was to walk a tight rope hanging over a pit of disaster. Not everything good that should have happened did, but it was enough to keep this joint from falling apart completely. It also forces us to look beyond these midterms and even 2020. I don’t anticipate that the electoral college will be changing very much in the next two years. If we want to turn this around, our opportunity and time is waning. Let us steel ourselves for the work ahead.

RATF**CKED: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count by David Daley (2016)

Why’s it here?

Part of the reason we’ve come to this moment is the Electoral College’s quirky antiquity awarded the White House to Donald Trump despite losing the popular election by more than 3 million votes.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than three million votes.

Sorry. He’s said otherwise so often it is worth repeating. But getting ratfucked is about more than just the White House. Gerrymandering is another voter suppression tool employed to get around the will of We the People. Republicans do it. Democrats do it (poorly). It always hurts everyone.

These screwy practices take a lot of investment and planning — but boy, do they pay off. It’s why lawmakers can survive bottomed-out approval ratings election after election. The next chance at making our nation more democratic happens in 2020 with the census. If Americans fail to take note, the days of popular democracy are numbered.

Key points:

  • The rules matter. Liberals often take them at face value while conservatives run their entire strategy on bending the rules to their will.
  • Successful examples (like my home state of Iowa) are possible, but still at risk for a backslide.
  • Deliberate action, planning, and local mobilization is essential if we want to avoid being ratfucked.

Important line:

“Our system is infected. The rot starts with state legislative districts and then rigged congressional lines. It hardens when these bodies move quickly to restrict voting rights, and then to enact extreme legislation far beyond the wishes of the great center. It calcifies when majorities are unable to change these outcomes at the ballot box, either because the politicians are insulated from the voters or because districts are engineered to wipe out any genuine competition, dialogue or debate. And it is all the more dangerous and distorting in an era of deep partisan polarization.”

Personal Note:

There is no dress rehearsal. These 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election will determine if we are truly up to living out our ideals as a nation or if we are set to enter the end times of our democracy. The book opens with a quote, and I can’t think of anything more poignant than this:

“The decayed condition of American democracy is difficult to grasp, not because the facts are secret, but because the facts are visible everywhere.”


Again, this is just a small handful of books that have contributed to my thinking . There’s more to come from different viewpoints, authors, and topics about a Reconstruction Strategy, Vision, and Inspiration.