Some Book Recommendations


Fellow Democrats,

During the last couple of months, I’ve been working on revitalizing the Club’s website, with help from newsletter editor Pete Rockwell and graphic designer/webmaster Karim Sahli. If you stop by, you will notice a simpler layout, which I hope will be easier to navigate and load more quickly, and fresh content from our meetings and newsletters appearing on the homepage, which should be easier to read and share. This content will also now automatically go on our Twitter and Facebook pages, creating a steady supply of material for those platforms and helping promote your good work.

As I was reformatting material from newsletter back issues for the website, I was impressed by how many interesting book reviews there were. I was not surprised: Democrats are the party of education, science, and creativity. Reading your reviews as I put them into HTML inspired me to devote this month’s President’s Message to my own book recommendations.

These books are almost all recent political history. As I’ve written here before, as shocking as Trump and his fascist movement are, they are not unprecedented. Seeing them as part of trends in state, national, and party politics may help us to understand and oppose them, and to prepare for the next threat.

My first choice is Manuel Pastor’s State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future. With a subtitle like that, who needs a summary? When I began to get involved in politics I asked my Facebook friends what to read. The last California or Los Angeles book I had read was Mike Davis’ paradigm-changing City of Quartz, back in the ‘90s. State of Resistance was the main suggestion. Pastor teaches at USC and is close to Holly Mitchell. You may have seen him speak at her inauguration as County Supervisor or as part of Culver City’s General Plan Update process. In this book, he recaps California history since the 1960s, arguing that the nationwide right turn embodied by Ronald Reagan first went mainstream in California, where Reagan’s 1968 Gubernatorial campaign grew out of the 1964 repeal-by-initiative of Pat Brown’s attempts to desegregate housing. Pastor calls this initiative, Prop. 14, a “racial proposition,” and argues that similar appeals to white supremacy, such as 1994’s Prop. 187 and 1996’s Prop. 209, were a key part of Republican strategy. Even if they were bad policy or likely to be ruled unconstitutional, they brought conservatives to the polls and Republicans to the statehouse. Prop. 13, arguably also a “racial proposition,” was the prototype for a national “tax revolt” strategy. Republicans could not openly oppose Medicare and Social Security, but they could undermine their funding and exploit the resulting crisis. As Republican theorist Grover Norquist famously said, their goal was to make government small enough to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The violence of his imagery is appropriate to that of his desired policies.

Fortunately, Pastor argues, California has more recently been the incubator for progressive national politics. Opposition to Pete Wilson in particular helped shape new approaches to labor, sustainability, immigration, education, LGTBQ+ rights, the drug war, and other major issues which, according to Pastor, model the next national wave. State of Resistance is a useful crash course in modern California political history and will help you stay optimistic for the struggles ahead.

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the 1960s takes a holistic approach to the political and cultural movements of the 1960s. There are quite a few books which tell parts of this story, such as Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power, (no relation) Scot Brown’s Fighting for US, and Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’ Gay LA, but Davis and Wiener travel across a wide range of scenes from the Venice Beach Beat poets, the beginnings of LA modern art at the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, the Chicano Moratorium at colleges in the Valley, LGBTQ+ organzing at the Black Cat bar in Silverlake, the birth of LA’s rock scene on the Sunset Strip, love-ins in Griffith Park, the founding of KPFK and the LA Free Press, and more. These stories are often connected by the roles of the “Old Left,” including the CPUSA, and of the LAPD and other police agencies, who harassed and suppressed every one of these movements.

A non-book LA history recommendation is City of Ghosts, on Netflix. Suitable for all ages, it’s the animated story of four children who investigate ghost sightings. Unlike Bill Murray and company, they befriend the ghosts, who tell stories of their neighborhoods, from Venice to Boyle Heights. The ghosts are voiced by real people who draw on their own stories, such as drummer JMD in the Leimert Park episode.

Culver City’s own Kelly Lytle Hernandez summons some much less friendly ghosts in her City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. It retells the history of Los Angeles from colonization through the Watts Rebellion by asking which groups of people were the focus of the carceral system and why. You will never look at a child’s Mission project the same way again. Many of us have learned from Black Lives Matter and other abolitionists how little policing focuses on crimes against people or property. Hernandez’s Million Dollar Hoods Project has been an important contributor to this work. City of Inmates does this historically, showing how issues around race, class, sexuality, immigration status, and employment drove the construction of LA’s jails, sometimes literally, with inmates sentenced to work crews building more jails. Do not skip the introduction, where she explains that the LAPD has destroyed almost all of its archives (because police are exempt from most public records laws) forcing Hernandez and her team to figure out how to reconstruct missing information from alternative sources. As an author and librarian myself, I bow to her research skills.

Finally, I cannot recommend Rick Perlstein’s four books on the Republican Party highly enough. In Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, and Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980, he maps both the post-Civil Rights Act realignment of the parties and the Republican Party’s transition from a Northern ruling-class party to a rural populist one. Most of us lived through at least some of this history, but no one remembers it in this much detail or with this much insight. There is a very good chance that, if you have heard me sound like I know something about American history between 1964-1980, I was summarizing something from these books. Some have read this series as telling a story of decline, terminating in Trump, but one important thing it revealed for me was not only that there have always been Trump-like elements in the American right, but that nostalgia for an era of “civility” is misplaced.

Back to the present, this month’s meeting will feature visits from another batch of June primary candidates. There will also be time for members to make one-minute speeches on our endorsements. I look forward to seeing you there!