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Good election-year reads 

Let's get political

You've probably heard about this: The Democratic National Convention is taking place downtown this week. In honor of the occasion, we present three new books and an older one to keep you up to date on that whole politics thing the Dems are talking about. As befits a gigantic gathering of Democrats, the authors here are unabashedly progressive, but with different areas of expertise or passion.

Thank God for writers who are able to show the effects of political decisions on ordinary Americans. Two of the very best are Donald R. Barlett and James B. Steele, legendary investigative reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time and Vanity Fair. The pair has won a bucketful of awards, including two Pulitzers, by reporting on the slow fade of the American system's promise of economic justice and prosperity for most of the population. They shine again in their new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream (PublicAffairs, 306 pages, $26.99), in which America's overarching economic and political trends of the past 30 years are laid out clearly in intensely researched detail: the increasing subservience of government to big business, the systematic lowering of the middle class' prospects and hopes, and a return to the late-19th/early-20th century robber baron era's obscene income inequality. As Barlett and Steele remind readers, this turn of affairs wasn't inevitable, but rather the result of deliberate government policy changes. The upside here is that those decisions are reversible. The downside is that new policies are needed quickly if damage to the American middle class is to be turned around.

Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, too, says there's no good reason we can't get out of the mess we're in, put people back to work and re-grow a large middle class. He outlines his ideas in End This Depression Now! (Norton, 260 pages, $$24.95), in which he calls for increased government spending to jolt the job market and rebuild our infrastructure, and a more just taxation system where the super-wealthy are made to once again pay their fair share. Krugman is a good writer with a sharp sense of humor, which makes what could have been pretty heavy lifting an entertaining read. He's particularly effective when eviscerating the old, debunked economic theories of the "invisible hand" of the free market and other such fairy tales — fantasies that have somehow become the new mainstream consensus in D.C. and led us into our new economic Dark Age.

The economy isn't the only issue pressing down on the American people, of course. There's also the little matter of our civil liberties taking a beating since Sept. 11, 2001. In 2007, the famed feminist author Naomi Wolf expanded her realm of expertise in the solidly documented The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green, 192 pages, $13.95). Wolf shows how the gradual erosion of Americans' rights to privacy, free speech, assembly and protest since 9/11 have chilling parallels to events in the early 20th century which gradually led to totalitarian governments in Germany, China and Russia. Wolf's book isn't exactly fun reading, but neither was Thomas Paine's Common Sense before America's Revolutionary War. Like that historic book, The End of America is a needed wake-up call, and an honest look at such huge issues as freedom, tyranny and saving a nation's ideals in a time when presidents of both parties have grabbed more power than they're entitled to.

OK, this is getting a bit dreary, I know, which is a good reason to pick up The McSweeney's Book of Politics & Musicals (edited by Christopher Monks; Vintage, 348 pages, $14.95), an edgy and hilarious new collection of scripts, diatribes, monologues, charts and, yes, musicals that skewer our political culture. The best way to give a taste of this book's flavor is a partial list of its contents, so here goes: Donald Rumsfeld, Love Doctor; Fragments from Palin! The Musical; The Adventures of Conservative Robin Hood; God Texts the Ten Commandments; Fragments from Bailout! The Musical; Presidents Who Could Also Be Strippers; and Noises Political Pundits Would Make If They Were Wild Animals and Not Political Pundits.

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