Democracy, If We Can Keep It

The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America

A vivid work of history and journalism—the definitive story of the ACLU and an essential account of America’s rediscovery of rights it had granted but long denied

“We have worked with and battled American presidents of both parties to ensure that our country makes good on its founding premise as the land of the free.”
—from the ACLU’s full-page New York Times advertisement, following Donald Trump’s election

For a century, the American Civil Liberties Union has fought to keep Americans in touch with the founding values of the Constitution. As its centennial approached, the organization invited Ellis Cose to become its first ever writer-in-residence, with complete editorial independence.

The result is Cose’s groundbreaking Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America, the most authoritative account ever of America’s premier defender of civil liberties. A vivid work of history and journalism, Democracy, If We Can Keep It is not just the definitive story of the ACLU but also an essential account of America’s rediscovery of rights it had granted but long denied. Cose’s narrative begins with World War I and brings us to today, chronicling the ACLU’s role through the horrors of 9/11, the saga of Edward Snowden, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

A chronicle of America’s most difficult ethical quandaries from the Red Scare, the Scottsboro Boys’ trials, Japanese American internment, McCarthyism, and Vietnam, Democracy, If We Can Keep It weaves these accounts into a deeper story of American freedom—one that is profoundly relevant to our present moment.


“Ellis Cose’s extraordinary exploration of the ACLU’s century of work is a timely and timeless read for all stewards of social justice.”
—Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation
“Over the last century, it’s astonishing how closely the history of the ACLU tracks with the history of the United States. It’s all here in Ellis Cose’s brisk, compelling, and urgent account of a vital champion of democracy.”
—Jonathan Alter, author, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life
“There are no easy answers for a democracy in troubled times, but if we are to ‘keep it,’ we surely need the nuance, honesty, intelligence, and memory that this book offers.”
—Jerry Kang, inaugural vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and distinguished professor of law and Asian American studies, UCLA
“Cose’s book is an excellent choice for anyone seeking to understand the ACLU as an organization and for those wanting to explore how the fight for civil liberties has evolved and helped to shape the society we have today.”
Library Journal
“Ellis Cose tells the story of the women and men who fought back when political speech became an imprisonable offense, when state and local authorities enabled violent mobs, and when courts ruled against peaceful protests and strikes—offering hard-boiled hope that we can transcend today’s tyranny too.”
—Elizabeth Green, co-founder and CEO, Chalkbeat
“The dramatic, turbulent, colorful, controversial, and, in many cases, little-known story of how the ACLU responded to the urgent need to defend the Constitution and how it has persisted in that mission for the last hundred years is told in an engaging new book by Ellis Cose entitled Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America.”
—Stephen Rohde, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Comprehensive and even-handed . . . this judicious account reveals just how integral the ACLU has been to the past century of American history.”
Publishers Weekly
“Ellis Cose’s elegant, masterly history of the ACLU is also a report on our country’s chronic autoimmune disorder, in which the system risks its own health in the act of ‘saving ’ itself. One comes away from this unflinching account with the urgent sense that there are no simple diagnoses or cures, that democracy is an organism in a constant cycle of decay and repair—and that survival is not inevitable.”
—Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Carry Me Home
“For anyone who is concerned about the decline of civil liberties and seeks to understand the magnitude of what is at risk, this book is an essential read.”
—Calvin Sims, president, International House, and former New York Times foreign correspondent
“More than a history of the ACLU, Ellis Cose has written a concise history of the United States in the twentieth century as seen through the prism of the fundamental rights that it claims, and so often fails, to uphold.”
—Carroll Bogert, president, the Marshall Project
“This brisk, sometimes breathless history provides a helpful introduction to these important issues.”
“In this engaging and important book, Ellis Cose tells the story of the ACLU’s century-long commitment to ensuring that America obeys its own laws.”
—Richard Smith, president, Pinkerton Foundation, former CEO and editor of Newsweek magazine
“A well-researched chronicle of democratic activism.”
Kirkus Reviews

News and Reviews

Author Intervew

Read a Q&A with author Ellis Cose about Democracy, If We Can Keep It, the ACLU, and the fight for rights.

Leonard Lopate at Large

Listen to an interview with author Ellis Cose on WBAI’s Leonard Lopate at Large.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Democracy, If We Can Keep It in Publishers Weekly.

USA Today

Read an op-ed in USA Today by author Ellis Cose that reflects upon the legacy of the ACLU on their centennial anniversary.

Goodreads Reviews