Building a Presidential Bookshelf: Recommendations from Five Stanford Faculty


Dear Mr. President-Elect,

Greetings from Stanford University (the UPenn of the West)!

I know you are very busy preparing for your upcoming inauguration, but I wanted to offer a few suggestions in light of the awesome responsibility you are about to assume.

I help lead a program called Worldview Stanford that creates interdisciplinary media and learning experiences about the forces shaping the future. Last August, we launched Wide Angle: Election 2016, a video project that captured scholarly, non-partisan insights about the election and the challenges ahead. In total, we and our campus partners produced 32 short videos featuring 14 Stanford faculty and eight external experts who spoke to an elections class open to the public. 

The videos covered a wide range of issues that proved influential throughout the election and continue to resonate: the power of the presidency, political and cultural polarization, trust and authenticity, racial and economic inequality, immigration, the changing media landscape, the “post-truth” society, leadership, millennial voices, social movements, and more.

If you already follow Stanford on Facebook or Twitter, you might have seen these videos. Like you, we decided to use social media channels to inform and engage Americans, since that’s where so many people get their news and opinions these days.

If you missed the videos (I know you had a hectic Fall), you can still watch them all here. In fact, a few might be especially relevant to your immediate policy agenda regarding immigration, jobs, geopolitical and military challenges, uniting our nation, etc.

What I especially wanted to share with you – and with others in your administration – are some book recommendations from five Stanford faculty. I realize you’ll have limited time for reading in the days ahead, but who knows? While you’re jetting between D.C. to New York and centers of power around the world, you may have a spare hour or two to explore something new.

By the way, when we conducted these interviews between August and October, no one knew who would win the election, so our faculty kept their comments and recommendations nonpartisan.

We’ll lead off with Pulitzer-Prize winning historian David Kennedy, a professor emeritus and co-leader of Stanford’s popular course “Election 2016” (which was also offered in 2008 and 2012). “My personal opinion,” says Kennedy, “is that we need to take steps to make the president more capable of delivering on the kinds of promises that he or she offers in order to get elected in the first place.” The book he recommends is Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government – and Why We Need a More Powerful Presidency, written by his Stanford colleague Terry Moe and coauthor William Howell. “They argue exactly this case, that the president is incapable – for structural, Constitutionally-mandated reasons – of really delivering on the kinds of promises and expectations the public increasingly invests in that office.” Moe and Howell propose a “fast track” legislative solution similar to what’s done with trade that would “invest in the president the power and the authority to put bills and proposals into the Congressional hopper to implement the program on which he or she has campaigned.”

You’ve made a lot of ambitious promises to the American public. But the structural barriers to delivering on those promises are not widely appreciated by the public, nor are they easy to overcome, as many of your predecessors have learned.

Clearly, policy will be a huge dimension of your new role, and so will be governing. Emilee Chapman, an assistant professor of political science here at Stanford who studies the role and ethics of voting, recommends a political theory classic, The Concept of Representation by Hanna Pitkin. According to Chapman, “It’s important for elected officials to have a conception of themselves and their connection to the people, how relevant the voices of people should be, and in what kind of capacity they should respond. Although this book was written several decades ago, it does a good job of bringing together the often conflicting ways that we think about what representatives should be doing, which is an important point for reflection.”

You’ve said many times that you want to be the president for all Americans. That can be tough in such a richly diverse and divided country. Perhaps Pitkin’s book will offer some insights.

Francis Fukuyama is a political scientist whom you’ve probably encountered before, since he’s the author of more than 10 books, including The End of History, Trust, and America at the Crossroads. Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford and director of its Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Fukuyama recommends three books on populism and the white working class in the U.S. – an issue that your campaign certainly brought to the fore. The first two are Coming Apart: The State of White America, written by a conservative, Charles Murray, and Our Kids by Robert Putnam, a liberal social scientist at Harvard. Both, says Fukuyama, “tell the story of the decline of the old working class. Putnam argues that class has become the single most important dividing line, much more important than gender, than race, than ethnicity, than religion in the United States.”

Also on Fukuyama’s list is Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance, which he describes as “a personal memoir about what it’s like to grow up in hillbilly country... and its problems with broken families and drug use, crime, and associated social ills.” It also demonstrates, says Fukuyama, “how completely cut off well-educated people living in places like Palo Alto, California are from people that live in ailing parts of America.”

Since the white working class formed a strong part of your base, I’m sure these books will resonate with you. Delivering on this group’s expectations, hopes, and dreams will no doubt be one of the foremost goals and challenges of your administration.

Paula Moya, a professor of English and the director of research at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, offers another perspective on America’s social divides. Says Moya, “One book that I have found to be incredibly powerful, readable, and scholarly is Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. It traces the history of immigration policy and enforcement. A lot of Americans don't understand the degree to which immigration policy – not just slavery and the Civil War – shaped the world that we live in and this nation that we share.”

Moya, like any great English professor, also recommends fiction, specifically Toni Morrison's A Mercy. She explains, “It is set at a time before race existed in the way that it does now, a time when race was still coming into being. She makes us see a very different world – a world before race. Perhaps that also allows us to see a time after race.”

We’re still a long way from a post-racial America. But the amazing thing about literature is that it offers a unique opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes, understand the past, and imagine new possibilities for the future.

Finally, we come to one of Worldview Stanford’s favorite books, which was also recommended by Margaret Levi, a political science professor and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. Thinking Fast and Slow is the bestseller by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who is one of the founders of the field of behavioral economics. As Levi notes, “We're all filled with cognitive illusions, whether we're the president of the United States or the public. We need to be aware of our own cognitive illusions as well as those that affect the opinions, views, and evidence that others espouse.”

If the election and its aftermath proved nothing else, it’s the importance of knowing who we are, what we believe, and how we engage with others who are different. And it’s time for everyone to challenge their mental models if we’re serious about moving ahead together.

I hope these recommendations prove helpful – and please feel free to pass them onto your appointees and advisors.

We’ve all got a lot riding on the next four years.

Crisis Text