There could not have been a stranger time to write about how recent books treat democracy and American culture than while listening to the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. As though they were combatants in a methodical ping-pong match, the opposed members took their turns at the table of party loyalty and repeated statements about what it meant to be persecuted or “not above the law.” The question of the law seemed so entwined with the question of democracy that it became a dizzying exercise simply to be the spectator watching the ball whiz back and forth across the table.

The desire alternately to entwine or to untangle democracy and American culture has affected more than the books under review. Even as they indicate forms of combat among the governing principles of what was, at the time many of them...

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