Telling them what they want to hear

TELLING THEM WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR…. From time to time, I’ve suggested that congressional Republicans act as if they don’t believe in reading books. I stand corrected.

There aren’t any sex scenes or vampires, and it won’t help you lose weight. But House Republicans are tearing through the pages of Amity Shlaes’ “The Forgotten Man” like soccer moms before book club night.

Shlaes’ 2007 take on the Great Depression questions the success of the New Deal and takes issue with the value of government intervention in a major economic crisis — red meat for a party hungry for empirical evidence that the Democrats’ spending plans won’t end the current recession.

“There aren’t many books that take a negative look at the New Deal,” explained Republican policy aide Mike Ference, whose boss, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, invited Shlaes to join a group of 20 or so other House Republicans for lunch earlier this year in his Capitol suite.

Well, no, there aren’t many books that take a negative look at the New Deal, probably because the New Deal worked and helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression. When a leader addresses a crisis, and his or her strategy works, historians tend to write complimentary texts on the subject. They’re funny that way.

But the fact that House Republicans would seek out books critical of the New Deal tells us a little something about their approach to problem-solving. For these GOP officials, one starts with the answer — FDR bad, spending bad, government bad, Hoover good — and works backwards, seeking out those who’ll bolster their answers before the questions are even asked. To those ends, Shlaes fills an important Republican niche.

Of course, that doesn’t make her book with legitimate scholarship. On the contrary, it’s nakedly partisan propaganda, retelling history in a way that makes Republicans feel better about themselves.

“The Forgotten Man” isn’t history; it’s fan-fiction.

Paul Krugman explained in November that there’s “a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse.” Shlaes is, alas, at the top of this enterprise.

Jon Chait wrote the definitive takedown of Shlaes’ book for TNR about a month ago. If you haven’t read it, Chait’s piece is worth a look.

Update: If the Politico piece on Republicans embracing Shlaes’ book sounds familiar, there’s a good reason — David Weigel got there first.

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