Book Talk

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.