The axiomatic truth of politics in the 2020s, the obstructive reality nobody can seem to get around, is that Americans are divided evenly on nearly everything. What happened to the great coalitions that brought robust majorities to power for decades at a time? Timothy Shenk, who teaches history at George Washington University and co-edits the left-wing journal Dissent, answers the question in “Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy.” Mr. Shenk writes about coalitions that formed under Andrew Jackson, the postwar Radical Republicans, William McKinley, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, and he does so with sharp wit and a refreshing lack of partisan tendentiousness. He does not always make plain the lessons he wishes his readers to draw about each episode, but on reflection that’s probably because he is a good historian and expects his readers to think things through for themselves. The book’s last coalition is the one LBJ put together to create the Great Society—and then destroyed by failing in Vietnam.

“The Myth of American Inequality,” by Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund and John Early, was largely ignored by the mainstream press, but it is an important book. The main argument: When the Census Bureau tabulates income, it generally does not include the many transfer payments received and spent by low-income Americans—Medicaid and CHIP benefits, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and a hundred other forms of assistance. Once these payments are included, income inequality is far smaller than we’ve been led to believe. So is the number of Americans living in poverty. That doesn’t stop well-meaning politicians, cheered on by do-gooding activists, from creating more such welfare programs—which further disincentivizes income-earning work and worsens the appearance of economic inequality. This book reveals a great deal of political rhetoric in the 2020s for the disingenuous rigmarole it is.

“The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People,” by this newspaper’s Global View columnist, Walter Russell Mead, is a brilliant and comprehensive chronicle of that mysterious friendship. Mr. Mead’s overarching aim is to debunk the falsehood that the U.S. has historically favored Israel because the “Israel Lobby” is so diabolically effective at inveigling the U.S. into ignoring its own interest. In fact, the Israel Lobby doesn’t possess the vast influence attributed to it, and the U.S. has a long list of reasons for supporting the Middle East’s only democracy. Mr. Mead does damage to other, less malign myths, too. The founding of the state of Israel had less to do with Harry Truman’s old pal Eddie Jacobson shuttling back and forth between the president and the great zionist Chaim Weizmann than with Truman’s need to fashion an anticommunist foreign policy and keep his Democratic coalition together.

Matthew Continetti’s “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism” is a superb work of scholarship and a delight to read. Conservatives will relish the anecdotes, the explanations of half-remembered books; liberals will learn something about their adversaries. Two essential principles, though, Mr. Continetti conveys with invaluable clarity. One concerns the nature of liberalism. Something happened to that political-philosophical doctrine after 1933. “In previous centuries,” Mr. Continetti writes, liberalism “established a realm of individual autonomy free from government interference.” Under FDR, liberalism “became a doctrine of government provision to satisfy ever-expanding human needs.” You can usually guess a person’s politics by whether he or she grasps how extraordinary that post-New Deal conception of liberal politics is. The second principle grows from the first. American conservatism is in chief respects an attempt to contain the excesses of modern liberalism. The tendency to forget this fact constantly tempts conservatives to believe they hold more power over American culture than they do, and as a result they sometimes fall behind troubled and troublesome figures prepared to disregard the liberal consensus but not prepared to build coalitions. Ronald Reagan is the chief exception here, but the history of American conservatism is dotted with rabble-rousers who couldn’t govern.


On the subject of Reagan, William Inboden’s “The Peacemaker” is a masterpiece of diplomatic history. Mr. Inboden shows that Reagan wasn’t the beneficiary of happy historical accidents but fully intended to achieve the goal he is rightly credited with achieving: ending the Cold War in victory for the U.S. Reagan wanted with all his might to avoid a nuclear exchange—or any kind of kinetic exchange—with the Soviet Union. He understood, though, that the only way to achieve that end was to enhance U.S. nuclear and conventional capacities so vastly that a noncrazy Soviet premier would have no choice but to negotiate. Part of Reagan’s strategy consisted of speaking the bald, ugly truth about the U.S.S.R. Everybody remembers the “tear down this wall” speech, but Mr. Inboden reminded me of a speech Reagan delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals in March 1983. “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride,” Reagan said, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label[ing] both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” Anthony Lewis of the New York Times called Reagan’s phrase-making “outrageous” and “primitive”; the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen disparaged the president as a “religious bigot”; the historian Henry Steele Commager called it “the worst presidential speech in American history.” Thank God Reagan ignored them.