Is there such a thing as the common good? Since Aristotle, Western political theorists have argued that the function of government is to promote the general welfare. Since the Enlightenment, they have often credited democracy as the form of government best suited to do so. Both ideas seem antiquated when considering American democracy today. A reality television star holds the White House, elected by Russian bots on Twitter; slavery’s structural legacy persists in police brutality against unarmed black men; and even a catastrophic threat to civilization itself—global warming—provides insufficient ground for cooperation or consensus. Some hope can be found in insurgent and decentralized movements like Occupy Wall Street and #MeToo, but traditional democracy, at least, seems to have ceased to function in some fundamental way.

In light of such concerns three recent books in American studies take up the urgent project of...

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