Book Review: How to Start a Revolution by Lauren Duca

[Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

Like many after the 2016 US presidential election, I became more politically active than I had been prior to the election. I protested, I joined political organizations, I contacted my representatives. I donated to causes that mattered to me.

And then I moved.

Not just to another city, or even another state. My spouse got a job across the Atlantic in the country of Luxembourg, which (sorry, Luxembourg) I’d barely heard of before his job offer.

The move was exciting, but it was also very difficult for several reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post. But one consequence of the overseas move was the waning of my newfound agency amid the ever-turbulent US political landscape.

We’re not in Luxembourg permanently; my spouse’s job is a temporary contract lasting three to five years, so we’ll be back in the states sometime after 2021. I’m hoping the state of American politics will look a bit different once we return. But in the meantime, I have been feeling even more helpless than I did on November 9th, 2016. Since I was no longer living in the States, could I still even use Resistbot to write to my representatives? Who were my representatives now? What could I possibly do about the US mess all the way over here?

Those were my feelings in a nutshell.

And then I read Lauren Duca’s How to Start a Revolution.

An Eerily Familiar Story

The introduction and first chapter of How to Start a Revolution tell the story of Duca’s own political awakening, and it’s a story similar to my own. Her stories of growing up vaguely “Republican” because she knew that’s how her parents voted, of coming into her own political beliefs, of having a “political awakening” that included tense discussions—even fights—with well-meaning family members she loved very much—I knew this song by heart. I could even sing along.

Duca’s descriptions of these familial tensions were, at times, difficult to get through because of these similarities. But that’s also why they are a vital part of her book. In her struggles, I saw my own.

In her triumphs, too, though, I glimpsed myself and my kin. I don’t want to give too much away because I want you to read the book for yourself, but I will say this. Her stories of interactions with family members are based on real life, so they definitely don’t end with everyone skipping down the road together to a Bernie Sanders rally or anything. But they’re not all doom-and-gloom, either. The last family story she tells is less an ending and more a continuing saga, shot through with a bright ray of optimism.

The Kids Really Are All Right

And speaking of optimism, this book is full of it. But don’t mistake this optimism for empty platitudes and wishful thinking. Rather, How to Start a Revolution shares the stories of young people around the US who reached a political breaking point, asked how they could make a difference—and then did it.

I’m an older millennial (b. 1985) who, for the past ten years or so, has worked in higher education. I’ve been both a tutor and a teacher of college writing classes, so for the past decade, it’s been my job to work with young people, mostly other millennials and Gen Z. You could say I know them well.

So, I knew going into this book that the kids were all right. But in reading How to Start a Revolution, I got an even better sense of the many ways that young people are working to change the world—they’re starting nonprofit organizations, campaigning for gun control, and running for office… and winning.

In a nutshell, Duca’s project investigates what she sees as a large-scale political awakening of young people after the 2016 US presidential election. She talks to young people around the country, asking them what kept them out of the political arena before, and why they’re entering it now. She consults foundational texts in political science and theory—and sometimes the authors of those very texts—to try to find a vocabulary for what’s happened, and I think that overall, she succeeds.

Food for Thought

I say “overall” because while I very much enjoyed this book, and I hope it is as inspiring for other people as it has been for me (spoiler alert),  there are a couple of small things that gave me pause that I want to discuss briefly.

Not everyone needed waking up.

While the “political awakening” Duca describes was very familiar to me, some people have been “awake” to the political ills of the US all along. And while Duca does acknowledge this, even explaining the origin of the slang “woke,” I often wished she did more to highlight the work of those who didn’t need any waking up—the folks young and old who campaigned for marriage rights, or the folks behind Black Lives Matter (though she does discuss BLM a bit).

I’m not saying she doesn’t acknowledge these movements, or acknowledge the work of movements long before these, either, because she does. But sometimes the language she uses in describing the “waking up” of young people eclipses those other movements. I think this happens in part because the drama of a political awakening can be quite motivating—I certainly found it so. But for the drama of waking up to be most effective, you have to start off asleep.

What is the job of journalism?

Another thing that gave me pause was Duca’s faith in her own profession. Which, to be fair, I can’t fault her for. I just take a much more cynical view. Duca sees her job, and the job of all journalists, as providing citizens with factual information so that they can form educated beliefs about the world around them. And, again, to be fair, that may be the job of individual journalists.

But the job of a newspaper is often to sell itself, and it always has been. As I tell my students, Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news—William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged it in it long before he did, and before them, so did John Adams! I take more of a Chomskian view of the media, which colored my perceptions of Duca’s proclamations about the point of the media.  

Once again, I want to be fair to her here, too. Though it’s not the major project of her book, she devotes a decent amount of real estate to discussions of media literacy. Media literacy is the ability to look at a piece of media and think critically about it—to question what’s being said in light of who’s saying it. Which I think Chomsky would approve of, and so do I.  As a college writing professor, I appreciate her discussions of media literacy so much that I am thinking about using portions of the book in future classes. I haven’t decided one way or the other, but I’m mulling it about in ye olde brainpan.

Who Should Read This Book?

The things that gave me pause, I think, mostly stem from the fact that, in some ways, this book isn’t really for me. Or, rather, I’m not who Duca had in mind when she was writing. Much of what she writes about, I already knew going in—things like the political-industrial complex, or the many ways that complex gatekeeps newcomers (especially young people).

But there’s plenty that I didn’t know, too. The particular stories of inspiring young activists across the US, the actual numbers behind youth engagement in (or alienation from) politics—many of these things were new to me.

What’s more, there’s a big reason that I’d recommend this book to anyone feeling frustrated and hopeless about or alienated from US politics. It’s inspiring meto act.

You I Really Can Make a Difference

As I was reading, I kept becoming so inspired by these young people’s stories that I kept putting the book down and googling new ways I can get involved and make a difference—even from across the pond in Luxembourg. There are two organizations I’m planning to join, one of which I’m planning to apply for a volunteer position.

Even as I sat down to write this review and remembered the feelings of both literal and metaphorical distance I’ve felt from US politics, I had myself a little google, and I figured out both who my congresspeople are—turns out they’re the same as where I was last registered to vote, lol. I also learned there’s a whole organization advocating for US citizens abroad that I didn’t even know about.

So, who should read this book? You, if you’re feeling like you want to make a difference but don’t know how. That’s the title of the book, after all—How to Start a Revolution. Duca ends the book with literally three easy steps for becoming a more engaged citizen, but I’m not going to spoil them here. For those, you’ll have to read her book for yourself.

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