Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BOOK TALK....I've been reading an unusually large number of current events books lately (aka "books that publishers send me for free"), and although there have been a couple of clunkers in the lot, several of them have been very good. I've been remiss in not writing them up on the blog, but at the very least I feel like I ought to give them a brief mention. There have been four that were especially good:

  • Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. This is a followup to Rick's phenomenal first book, Before the Storm, which chronicled Barry Goldwater's presidential run in 1964 and the birth of movement conservatism.

    Nixonland is, for obvious reasons, a darker book than Before the Storm, and one that's narrated with less sympathy toward its subject, but it's really a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what happened to both Democrats and Republicans during the 60s and how our country managed to change so dramatically in the space of less than a decade. Before I read Nixonland, I think I'd pretty much blotted out my memory of the 1972 Democratic convention (with good reason), but now it's fresh in my mind and scaring the hell out of me. Thanks, Rick. I hope 2008 isn't a repeat. Nixonland's official release date is next Tuesday.

  • The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, by Steven Teles. It's become common in liberal blog circles to recount the story of how the right outflanked the left by building up its think tank machine in the 70s and 80s. We all know the basic narrative by now (Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife, AEI, Grover Norquist, etc.), but too often this movement is portrayed as something that sprouted de novo from the forehead of Zeus (or perhaps Lewis Powell), with virtually no historical antecedent. Teles fixes that in this book about the rise of the Federalist Society, the Institute for Justice, the Center for Individual Rights, and the law and economics movement more generally. In particular, chapter 2 ought to be required reading for liberals: it explains the evolution of the liberal public interest law movement of the 60s and 70s and provides valuable insight into what conservatives felt they were up against at the time and why they chose the particular response they did. In the end, the good news for liberals is that although the conservative legal movement of the past couple of decades has had obvious successes, it's also had a lot of hiccups along the way and its influence remains, perhaps, more moderate than we often think. Bottom line: If you believe that "know your enemy" is a good maxim, then this is a book you ought to read.

  • U.S. vs. Them, by Peter Scoblic. This is another book in the same vein as the first two: a historical look at conservatism and its intersection with liberalism over the past half century. Where Teles focuses on law and Perlstein focuses on domestic turmoil, Scoblic focuses on foreign affairs.

    Nickel summary: post-9/11 neoconservatives aren't really hawking anything all that new. American conservatives since World War II have always been militaristic and nationalistic, they've always hated the idea of wasting ink on treaties with other countries, and they've always been obsessed with total military superiority. For them, international affairs is a decidedly zero sum game, and George Bush is just the apotheosis of this belief system, not something truly new and different. The book's website is here; you can read the introduction here.

  • Heads in the Sand, by Matt Yglesias. Matt has taken on a pretty tough task in this book: trying to convince us that good 'ol liberal internationalism is the best foreign policy bet we have to deal with global terrorism and other threats over the next few decades.

    This is a decidedly unsexy position to take (there's a funny section toward the end where he talks about desperate liberal efforts to rebadge liberal internationalism just to make it sound newer and more exciting than it is), but it has the virtue of being essentially correct. The final chapter, "In with the Old," is as good a brief for liberal internationalism as I've read recently.

I've also recently read Grand New Party, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, which was good, but also frustrating and unconvincing in places. However, I have a full review of the book in the next issue of the Monthly, so I'll hold off on further comment until it comes out.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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Comments

Having recently read Richard Rorty's "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in America" in honor of his passing last year, I highly recommend it. It's short. A series of lectures, transcribed, really. You can read it in a day. But it's very enlightening and Rorty lays out a clear plan for the future of leftism.

Posted by: Christopher on May 6, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

I really enjoy these book posts and the discussions and further suggestions they generate. Thank you.

Posted by: shortstop on May 6, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

Strict construction of the USC is impossible because of the "unenumerated" clause of the 9th Amendment. This is a foundational issue, not some little twist or squiggle. Judges therefore *have* to be activists, asking always if e.g. privacy is one of those unenumerated rights that should be recognized despite being, well, unenumerated. How many conservatives or even official "Think Tanks" writers you know act like they appreciate that?

Posted by: Neil B. on May 6, 2008 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

although the conservative legal movement of the past couple of decades has had obvious successes, it's also had a lot of hiccups along the way and its influence remains fairly moderate.

Well that's a relief. I guess those five guys on the Supreme Court are just passing through or something.

Posted by: sniflheim on May 6, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps I might recommend a book for your list of new titles: Ain't My America: Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. You can find out more about it as this Amazon.com web address:

http://www.amazon.com/Aint-America-Conservatism-Middle-American-Anti-Imperialism/dp/0805082441/lewrockwell

Posted by: Sean Scallon on May 6, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

I recomment My Pet Goat

Posted by: GW on May 6, 2008 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

I just finished "Gang Leader for a Day," by Suhir Venkatesh. Excellent!

If you read Freakonomics, you may recall the chapter that discusses why drug dealers live with their mothers. Much of that chapter was derived from Venkatesh's field work in the infamous Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago.

As a young University of Chicago graduate student, Venkatesh eagerly set out to prove himself as an able interviewer. Rather naively, he wandered into the South Side's housing projects to question residents about urban poverty. Quickly intercepted and initially harassed by local gang members, Venkatesh's guilelessness soon earned him access to the rich, varied culture, economy, and self-regulation of the community inside the projects.

It's a quick, breezy read, one that was so good I knocked it down in about a day and half, then promptly sent fanmail off to the author.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on May 6, 2008 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Suhir, sb Sudhir.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on May 6, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

So many good books, so little time. I'm glad you're reading them and giving us a quick review. Thanks for that!

Posted by: PTate in MN on May 6, 2008 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Matt has taken on a pretty tough task in this book:

And is quite obviously not up to it.

Posted by: Miss Information on May 6, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Re "Us vs. Them," Scoblic's analysis applies to "liberal hawks" to a fair degree, too.

Not that any of them run major blogs or anything.

Neil B., if we were Western Europe, we'd have an enumerated privacy rights amendment. (sigh)

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 6, 2008 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Ronald Reagan, a conservative, did build up US forces to counter the Soviets, challenging the USSR to a military buildup the Soviets ultimately lost because they could not afford one. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Reagan defeated them. For Pete's sake- read some history. You liberals are truly embarassing. It was armed might and not chatting with the enemy that defeated communism. Posted by: mhr

Ronald Reagan didn't defeat anything and by the time he left office barely knew where he was most of the time.

Communism died of it's own bad economic weight - its "internal contradictions." Afghanistan shoved the Soviet juggernaut over the cliff where it had been teetering for nearly a decade.

Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

The Authoritarians is free although I paid for a hardcopy to support the author.

This book should be required reading for everyone wondering what has been going on in US politics since 1973. In addition it gives us the nomenclature to accurately describe what is happening so we do not mistakenly anger the wrong people.

Posted by: Tripp on May 6, 2008 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Miss Information, that's why Kevin thought it (and Scoblic) were so great!

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 6, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

If you read Freakonomics, you may recall the chapter that discusses why drug dealers live with their mothers. Much of that chapter was derived from Venkatesh's field work in the infamous Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago. Posted by: Quaker in a Basement

Somewhat off topic, but Freakonomics is a complete piece of shit, with the exception of the above mentioned piece, which was based on research done my someone else.

Many of the chapters concern matters for which most reasonably well-educated people would have come to the same "insights" if they had been topics worth pondering in the first place, few of the books conclusions are backed by data (legalized abortion and a drop in the crime rate and cheating in sumo for two examples), and some are just so lame (choice of children's names) that it's amazing the guys could find a publisher.

Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin writes: "Conservatives since World War 11 have always been militaristic and nationalistic..."

I'm not so sure. change conservatives to neo-conservatives and you get closer. however, remember that post-war the neocons aligned with the democratic party, because they thought the democrats were better anti-communists. in fact they, while still democrats, attacked Nixon and Kissinger from the right because the neocons felt
that their negotiating arms control deals with the Russians was too accommodating.
they didn't leave the party and switch to the GOP until they soured on the carter administration.

Posted by: dj spellchecka on May 6, 2008 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

Despite the fact that he thinks I'm an ignorant tit, I'm still going to have to second Jeff II's assessment of *Freakanomics*. It IS a piece of shit.

Posted by: James R MacLean on May 6, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

I was unimpressed by the Richard Rorty book as well. It has the same problem as other books I've read that attempted to analyze anti-Americanism: the definition is really lousy, so that a realistic look at US history becomes regarded as prima facie anti-American.

Posted by: James R MacLean on May 6, 2008 at 7:12 PM | PERMALINK

Despite the fact that he thinks I'm an ignorant tit, I'm still going to have to second Jeff II's assessment of *Freakanomics*. It IS a piece of shit.
Posted by: James R MacLean

Any port in a storm, huh? You're easy!

Posted by: Jeff II on May 6, 2008 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

Well, OK, let me elaborate: I thought the book consisted of endless iterations of "curmudgeon's fallacy."

Posted by: James R MacLean on May 6, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

"'ve also recently read Grand New Party, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, which was good, but also frustrating and unconvincing in places."

A book by Ross Douthat was unconvincing in places? You don't say!

Posted by: nemo on May 7, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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