Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Our Country, by Michael Barone

Our Country (full title: Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan) is a survey of American political history. This is different than one of your usual histories, which might more strongly stress the sequences of large-scale events, or which might suggest windows into the minds of the decision-makers or even of the poor bastards that are stuck living under them. And it's not as if those viewpoints aren't worked into Our Country, but the here the emphasis is different, something more like modern political reporting than analysis of causes and plot. It sketches out voting blocs and census demographics and the newer science of polling. The heroes are senators, decision makers, and the drama is the campaign trail, the political debate, and the swings of public opinion. It is 60 years of American politics as written by the US News and World Report editorial staff (no coincidence). It is history as written by political reporters, with the notable exception that Michael Barone, in advance of cable television news, actually had to learn to read.

And there is some service in calling out the supporting players in more detail than we casual information consumers usually remember. I recognize a number of journalist tricks, for example the tendency to offer quick physical and personality sketches, as well as notecard-level issue summaries, to shortcut our engagement to the somewhat protean characters of legislators, and he does manage to paint the ability to get anything done in those chambers as a noble undertaking. And I did appreciate that, he fleshed these things out competently. The tricks of making campaigns come alive--defining electoral factions and pitting them against one another, dramatizing defining moments--are old hat by now (the book was written in 1990), and overplayed, but are generally successful, even if no human being could keep that stuff compelling for 670 pages. Barone clearly loves the political process, and clearly respects those who devote their lives to engage in it, loves the ones who are good at it, even those outside of his ideology. It makes him a sick fuck, of course, but a species of sick fuck that we all know well enough.

[There were a few interesting things I picked up, reading in the summer of 2009. His statements that neither California's Proposition 13 nor Reagan's (don't) tax and (military) spend policies had any negative consequences were a bit premature, as was his denial that Medicare created a constituency. His characterization of Dallas in LBJ's time, how badly staged protest helped get Johnson a senate seat struck unfortunate parallels to today's clumsy and vocal dissent. I was impressed (again) by the consistency in the pattern of 20th century conflicts, starting with covert actions and a defense sector build-up. And highlighting those particular sixty years made the national economic trajectory look a lot less impressive, the entire arc of industrialization, where blue collar became white collar became dual-income became service, started to look uncomfortably bubbilicious.]

Barone makes an effort to inform us of his conservativism, which appears closer to your uncle's conservatism than that of national movementarians. He interjects more than a few comments on "big government" and supports some level foreign policy aggression, but other than that, he's no more racist or sexist, for example, than any mainstream commentator, occasionally douchey for his lack of empathy, but supportive of civil rights in a general sense. His brand of conservativism is an affirmation that the usual story is the right one. (And maybe if there's anything more manipulative going on under the surface, there might be a grand unified theory in there of Reagan-style optimism in the works, one which could include the Gipper's youthful support for FDR.) He comes out early with a handful of conservative-ish theses: stating that "big government" is bad, except when it's not (usually it's bad when foolish liberals think the government is the solution to all their problems), and that social division was more important than economic politics, except when it wasn't (like in the 1930s, or the 1950s, 70s, or 80s). These views are not supported generally by the force of argument, and within the text are often contradicted within paragraphs. For example, when he drags out that social division point, he doesn't mention the economic factors that are complicit in that increasingly politicized social chasm, and for war, he's pretty selective about its big-government economics (although he's at least smart enough to recognize war as an effective stimulus, clearly preferring the blank-checks-to-private-contractors sort of approach). He cites economic tax policy a lot, especially while winding into the later part of the century, which hardly supports the non-economic divisions he mentions.

If you read this book looking for objectionable details, then you'll fill up pages of notes (and I did), but he's got a couple things in favor of his approach: (1) they're generally presented as clauses that introduce or close an otherwise uncontroversially factual sentence, and since they're minor, and largely irrelevant, they're easy to ignore--there is more data and accounts than there is opinion--and (2) they're not much supported by the text anyway. A history of campaigns and legislation isn't exactly the strongest venue in which to develop a pointed political philosophy.


artandsoul said...

I'm willing to give him the "big government is bad" argument since he wrote it (or it was published) in 1990. It probably was back then. Now it is what we have. And it has gone beyond good and bad (and straight into Neitzsche, right?) so we just have to figure out how to deal with it going forward.

I wonder if he has written anything about the last 20 years or if he has some articles about the most recent election? I think I'll Google that - thanks for the good review!

Keifus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keifus said...

(Now, in English!)

The wiki link says he's a commenter on Fox now, and I caught a Townhall piece (something about climate change) when I googled him the first time. Not altogether a good sign.

The best I can say about his thick book is that it tries to go down as a sorta sober-voiced semi-objective pro-American-convention survey, and it's okay at that level (if that level is in fact okay, but it's a common assumption), and I picked up a few details of sequence I hadn't appreciated before. That his opinions were basically non-sequiturs was for the best. Less good is that I have grown a major aversion to that brand of "seriousness."

(I read this because I have been cleaning out my shelves. I should probably stick to recommendations, eh?)

I turned 18 in 1990, and if libertarian thought was glossing my mind at the time, then that's my excuse. I've spent some time since thinking about how people other than me and mine are getting by, and how that came to be.

artandsoul said...

I end up being "liberal" not because I choose the label, or believe in all those things liberals believe in... it just happens to be where I fall when I put my opinions, thoughts and preferences together.

I don't pretend to believe that my ideas should run the country, especially one so big as ours. Nor do I believe that everyone should get on board with my viewpoint.

For instance, I'm wackily anti-gun. Oh well, just the way I am. I could care less that there is a 2nd Amendment right for people to bear arms, I don't feel it offers one good thing to me or to the country. I wouldn't mind if all guns were illegal, but that you could apply for one for hunting purposes, and that if you were in law enforcement or the military then fine.

So that puts me well past "liberal" in that one area, and I will never get a President who agrees with me on that.

But I also believe that caring about someone else (someone that I don't even know and won't ever know) is a good thing. I believe that at some level everyone who lives here should eat, be able to stay dry, warm and safe. That people should have access to education. And even entertainment.

I like the freedoms of religion, speech and wouldn't mind a specific Constitutional Amendment saying out loud and long that we all get a right to privacy.

It's too bad that people who most loudly frequent the airspace get offensive and defensive about their "positions" and don't seem inclined to dialogue.

I admire you for spending time reading a book by a guy who is a commenter on Fox, I hate to admit that would preclude me doing so. Being already over 50 time is short!


Keifus said...

I've just tried to take some of the basic notions of fairness, distrust of self-promoters, and rationality home to their reasonable conclusions. Most of the assorted isms tend to ignore the ample counterevidence, especially when it drifts from the anecdotes of their own lives. I think I've ended up something of a radical as a consequence, although not, as I've mentioned, the sort of radical that does stuff.

Not a genius of historical detail, and that time period is a reference point for most people. I guess the book served that purpose. I've finally submitted that Amazon order, though.