Books about morals & civics to give to civic-minded moral Trump voters
December 15, 2016 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for inspiring books that highlight the importance of moral and civil values as the foundation of democracy. By moral and civic values, I'm thinking of simple things like honesty, integrity, compassion, compromise, and a willingness to look at evidence.

I'm considering giving one or more of these books to some Trump voters for Christmas. These are people who I often give books to at Christmas, and I often give them books about America and American history, so I have a natural opening.

I don't want anything too pointed. I don't want the message of the books to be, "you were wrong to vote for Donald Trump." These are good people, who are themselves honest and helpful and embody civic and moral character. But somehow they've lost sight of the fact that things like simple honesty are important in our President. So as we enter this post-truth presidency, I'd like to give them a reminder that truth really is important, and that basic civic values are necessary prerequisites for a functional constitutional democracy, even though they can't themselves be dictated by a constitution or laws.

I've considered It's Even Worse than it Looks by Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, but I'm worried that it may be too partisan.

Another possibility is the Book of Virtues by William J Bennett. That has the advantage of being written by a deep conservative. I haven't read it, though, and I don't know if it really does express moral and civic values or whether it's just a conservative screed.

Maybe Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, or something by Michael Sandel?

I've seen this thread, but I'm looking for something quite different from that. I'm looking to get back to the basics of character that underlie civilization: honesty, truth, integrity, compromise. Modern books or classics of political philosophy would all be fine.
posted by Winnie the Proust to Law & Government (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Yes! My wheelhouse!

1. G. K. Chesterton. "Tremendous Trifles" is probably the easiest place to get started. G. K. is pretty much my personal hero, and is equally opposed to big government and big business. He comes from a very strong traditionalist Catholic viewpoint, which makes him palatable to conservatives, but he has an egalitarian reverence for the common man. He's also unbelievably funny. I can't recommend him highly enough. If I ruled the world, Chesterton would be required reading for every citizen.

2. Amitai Etzioni on communitarianism.

3. Toqueville is probably a good idea.

4. Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind". It's a good step back from the day-to-day of politics into the foundations of the philosophy.

5. Maybe Kit Lasch? He was a Marxist sociology professor whose traditional values made others place him on the right, even though he didn't place himself there. He was very concerned about the moral decay of society. People I respect value him as I value Chesterton, but personally I've never been able to get into him. A little too curmudgeonly for me.

6. If they're Catholic, something about Catholic social teaching. Specifically Quadragesimo Anno.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:23 AM on December 15, 2016

Also, Norm Ornstein is a Republican, if I remember correctly.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:24 AM on December 15, 2016

I think that if you are going to do this, you have to be very careful not to make a strong connection between the gift that you're giving and the person's political views. If people feel that you're preaching at them, then it's really going to raise their hackles and they'll entrench into their views even further (and you might damage relationships with people that seem decent and that you care about).

So, gosh. You really need to be subtle about this. Toqueville seems like a safe choice.
posted by Fister Roboto at 9:33 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have read (most of) the Book of Virtues, and I enjoy it, but I don't think it's what you're looking for: it's definitely moral parables and poems to tell to children. It's not going to make the connection between morality and civic duty. It may also include some 1950s-type understanding of what make a moral child that you may not want to endorse, such as this poem about being a pleasant and modest girl so everyone will like you.
posted by alligatorpear at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2016

Here is a book I've been considering, although I haven't read it yet:

The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (Amazon link)

It may seem tangential to your focus here, but I would argue that it's central.

Many people's ideas about what policies will "work" are predicated on the notion of punishing bad/lazy people economically, and rewarding virtuous/successful people. These are basically economic incentives, and behavioral economists have been debunking this mindset for years, in their little corner of academia.

However, the implications of this actually go to the foundations of government and economics (since a lot of government is about economics, and a lot of the rest is about more overtly judging people and affecting their behavior). It's crucial to understand what can motivate people to work, to build their communities, to fund other people's kids' educations, to abstain from unethical behavior even when it doesn't benefit themselves economically, to run for office, to put time into understanding difficult questions when it's not really that fun.

More than that, I think some people do have an intuitive understanding of these things, but don't know how to communicate that understanding to others.

And most important, if we believe everyone else is acting in a solely self-interested way, it makes it impossible to trust them. So, understanding that, in fact, most people are not motivated mainly by simple self-interest is at the heart of any non-fascist, non-might-makes-right government. People have to trust each other if they're going to let them live freely, and it's impossible to trust other people unless you believe sincerely that they are essentially "good".

Please, just at least read the introduction available freely on Amazon.
posted by amtho at 9:45 AM on December 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

reading up on lasch's work (see above), the revolt of the elites pretty much nails what i think "middle america" thinks. but i am not sure it has anything particularly subversive to add.
posted by andrewcooke at 10:33 AM on December 15, 2016

Mother Night by Vonnegut is all about people that do the wrong thing thinking that they're doing so for the right reasons and specifically addresses problems with authoritarian thinking.
posted by Candleman at 1:22 PM on December 15, 2016

A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830

Aurelian Craiutu begins with classical thinkers who extolled the virtues of a moderate approach to politics, such as Aristotle and Cicero [...] He traces how moderation evolves from an individual moral virtue into a set of institutional arrangements calculated to protect individual liberty, and he explores the deep affinity between political moderation and constitutional complexity. Craiutu demonstrates how moderation navigates between political extremes, and he challenges the common notion that moderation is an essentially conservative virtue, stressing instead its eclectic nature.

Political Moderation in America's First Two Centuries

Political Moderation in America's First Two Centuries corrects the popular misconception that moderates are timid and cautious. Robert M. Calhoon examines the structure of political moderation; he characterizes moderation as a compound of principle and prudence; he defines it as humility in the face of the past; and he classifies it as historically grounded political ethics. [nb: this was written by a relative and is also an academic text, so may not be the right type of thing]
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:31 PM on December 15, 2016

Just looked through my Amazon wishlist and these four seem particularly applicable. (Some of them may discuss human evolution, in case that's an issue for your relatives.)

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

The most startling thing about disasters, according to award-winning author Rebecca Solnit, is not merely that so many people rise to the occasion, but that they do so with joy. That joy reveals an ordinarily unmet yearning for community, purposefulness, and meaningful work that disaster often provides. A Paradise Built in Hell is an investigation of the moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster's grief and disruption and considers their implications for everyday life. It points to a new vision of what society could become-one that is less authoritarian and fearful, more collaborative and local.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Pinker argues that the key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

The Empathy Exams: Essays

Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison's visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another's pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain―real and imagined, her own and others'―Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory―from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration―in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Our tribal emotions make us fight—sometimes with bombs, sometimes with words—often with life-and-death stakes. An award-winning teacher and scientist, Greene directs Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab, which uses cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive techniques to understand how people really make moral decisions. Combining insights from the lab with lessons from decades of social science and centuries of philosophy, the great question of Moral Tribes is this: How can we get along with Them when what they want feels so wrong to Us? Ultimately, Greene offers a set of maxims for navigating the modern moral terrain, a practical road map for solving problems and living better lives. Moral Tribes shows us when to trust our instincts, when to reason, and how the right kind of reasoning can move us forward.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:41 PM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm in the middle of rereading Romano Guardini's Learning the Virtues. From my reading last night, in the chapter on "Truthfulness":

"It is no accident that whenever the state, whose basic principles should be liberty and justice, becomes a tyranny, lying and falsehood grow proportionately. Even more, truth is deprived of its value; it ceases to be the norm and is replaced by success. Why? Because it is through truth the the spirit of man is constantly confirmed in its natural rights, and the person is reassured of his dignity and freedom. When a person says, "It is so," and this statement has weight in public because truth is honored, then he is protected against the force inherent in every government. But if the government succeeds in depriving truth of its value, then the individual is helpless.

"The most hideous manifestation of tyranny occurs when a man's conscience and consciousness of truth are broken, so that is he no longer able to say, "This is so . . . this is not so." Those who bring this about--in political and judicial affairs, or elsewhere--should realize clearly what they are doing: they are depriving man of his humanity."

The book is aimed at the individual who wants grow in virtue, but there are plenty of reflections on the connection between the corruption of virtue and authoritarian government. Guardini was an Italian-born German Catholic academic who was eventually forced to resign from his teaching position by the Nazis and that experience is reflected in his writings.
posted by HotToddy at 2:59 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

For me, books like "Anne Frank Remembered" by Miep Gies, "The Hiding Place" by Corrie Ten Boom, and "An Ordinary Man" by Paul Rusesabagina do this the best. None of these people thought of themselves as extraordinary or exceptionally moral, but their central values were what led them to protect the vulnerable at times of great danger. Miep and Corrie talk specifically about how their Nazi resistance is linked to being Dutch and how the Dutch as a whole resisted Naziism due to particular national values.
posted by epj at 4:15 PM on December 15, 2016

I love "Credo" by William Sloane Coffin. I don't really have the capacity to describe the extraordinary inspiration this book has for me.

Also, "I Asked For Wonder" by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

"Considered by many to be one of the most significant Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Abraham Heschel finds just the right words to startle the mind and delight the heart. He addresses and challenges the whole person, portraying that rarest of human phenomena—the holy man."
posted by Altomentis at 11:30 PM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you. There is much to contemplate here, and I'm sure some good choices.

I'd be interested in additional items that specifically talk about the connection between civics, ethical behavior, and democracy. I'm not so much looking for "how to be an ethical person" and more "democracy can't exist without ethical leaders and mutual respect."

I'm also interested in items that specifically address the importance of honesty and truthfulness. A whole book about honesty and truthfulness would be great.

One clarification: this gift doesn't have to be completely stealth. It's fine if they understand that there's a connection to the election. The important thing is that it be good spirited, respectful, and appeal to their better natures.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2016

Hmm, not quite what you're describing, but maybe some John Locke? (Government exists to protect people and their property, and if instead it becomes tyrannical, people should overthrow it?)
posted by salvia at 10:03 AM on December 16, 2016

Might Danielle Allen work?

Our Declaration
Talking to Strangers
posted by mahorn at 6:12 PM on December 16, 2016

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