*Undermining the State from Within*, Rachel A. Schwartz

5 Absolute Must Read Books About Democracy from 2023



Dec 28, By Justin Kempf

This list is different than most. What sets it apart is not simply that it focuses on books about democracy, but that it looks for ones that will challenge our assumptions and expectations. For those of us who have read extensively about democracy for years, this becomes very difficult. But quite a few scholars do find ways to approach different aspects of democracy in novel ways. They examine concepts in different settings that raise difficult questions that don't have easy answers.

Over the past few years I have found most of the best books on democracy have flown under the radar. This does not mean books about democracy are not popular or do not sell. Liz Cheney's Oath and Honor, Rachel Maddow's Prequel, Heather Cox Richardson's Democracy Awakening and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's Tyranny of the Minority were all New York Times Best Sellers this past year. Those are all amazing reads that I highly recommend. However, they did not make my top five (although Prequel came very close).

Like always my list is eclectic. I have included books focused on Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Two of the books are historical. Three of the books are from first-time authors. But they all touch on questions about democracy in unconventional ways. For those wondering, the list is not ranked. But you'll find they appeal to different people for different reasons. Still, each one is remarkable in its own way.

Undermining the State from Within

It's difficult to put into words what Rachel Schwartz has done in this book. On the surface, this is a book about institutions in Central America or more specifically Guatemala and Nicaragua. However, it's far more ambitious than that. It's really about how institutional erosion weakens the state. Inevitably, the corruption of institutions weakens the foundations necessary for democracy to thrive.

Schwartz focuses on Central America, because she shows how civil wars serve as the cause or impetus for institutional decay. Her thesis challenges Tilley's famous dictum, "War made the state and the state made war." Schwartz shows how civil wars create perverse incentives that destabilize the state over time. Moreover, the impact on those institutions lasts long after the civil war is over.

This is not an easy book to read. Schwartz dives into the weeds in all of her case studies. However, for those who work their way through to the end, the payoff is incredible. Some of the most exciting scholarship today touches on issues of institutional weakness and its relationship to democracy. Schwartz has written a book that will serve as a foundational text for a wide range of future scholars.