REVIEW: When America Stopped Being Great by Nick Bryant

In brief: How America’s politics have changed over the last 40 years – and not always for the better.

The good: Very interesting with a well-researched look at history.

The not-so-good: These things happened.

Why I chose it: Christmas present.

Year: 2020

Pages: 423

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)

Setting: United States of America

Rating: 9 out of 10

When I asked for this book for Christmas, the US 2020 election hadn’t even occurred. Who knew that this book was going to become even more relevant after the election and in the last days of the current presidency?

Like many Australians, I have a fascination for US politics because it all seems so different and like many things American, on such a grand scale. Super Tuesday, rallies, slogans, T-shirts, music, the Electoral College…it’s all so different. Everyone seems so passionate and invested (while in Australia, the main dilemma is what sauce to put on your democracy sausage or travesty if the local polling place dares not to have a sausage sizzle). When America Stopped Being Great looks at how American politics has changed since Ronald Reagan was elected and how it hasn’t always been for the better. There are chapters on each president – Bush x 2, Clinton and Obama. Then, the book focuses on Trump’s campaign and his presidency up until mid-2020 in more detail. The premise is that Trump inherited a number of problems from previous presidents and the choices of Congress and the House. Bryant definitely doesn’t excuse Trump for all his choices but the book shows how previous politics has impacted on each presidency, often not in a good way.

The book describes how each president put his own spin on things – Reagan made the presidency a show, while Bush Senior tackled the end of the Cold War with a new show of force in Iraq. Clinton made things more personable, right down to boxers or briefs (and then some). George W. Bush took on the War of Terror, while Obama didn’t use force to claim America’s superiority in the world. And Trump – well, we’re living that right now. I didn’t always agree with Bryant’s statements about Obama – I commend him for not trying to solve every problem with force – but it was a fascinating read, particularly about presidents before my time. Along the way, Bryant shows the disparity between the Republicans and Democrats in their determination to chase those elusive voters who may be wandering away from the party and gain new followers. Over the past 40 years, the parties (G.O.P. in particular) have split into different factions, which has made governing difficult. The way it’s painted by Bryant (and I don’t know any different because all I see is the Australian news and the New York Times) is that intra- and inter- party differences and alliances rule over what’s best for the country. It seems near impossible to make any meaningful, lasting changes.

When America Stopped Being Great is an interesting read, and it’s very readable. It’s not dry at all and explains things in a way that it’s easy to understand if you’re not American. It doesn’t leave you with optimism that Joe Biden’s presidency will change things dramatically, but hopefully recent events will refocus the government on governing rather than party politics. A very worthwhile read.

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