Posted by Lexington Green on October 21st, 2003 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Recently Lex and Mrs. Lex went out to dinner with some friends. First, we went to the live band karaoke at the Hideout, which got a rave review from me on the blog. One of our companions was a transplanted Englishman, whom I promised to send a list of recommended reading to educate him about Chicago and America. The ungrateful chap has never responded. The other person was a Chicago area author and lawyer of some repute. The email I ended up sending was essentially as follows. It may be of some interest to our readers. (Any suggestions of your own, in a comment, of books in the general subject areas of American political and economic history, especially Chicago and the Midwest, would be appreciated.)
I hope you two did not suffer too much from the live-band karoake. We are a pair old-time punk rockers (how dowdy we’ve become …) and we don’t get out much anymore.
On this question of books to read, I welcomed the request for a few suggestions. It gave me an excuse to write-up a little essay which I will put on my blog, in revised form, at some point. My house is one giant bookshelf. I read when I can, and even when I ought not to. Bookfinder.com is my crack pipe.
Now, on to the books.
On the question of the Midwest and who lives where and why they think and vote as they do, I must point you to a great favorite of mine, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. Fischer takes the main part of the story only down to the American Revolution, but he sketches in later developments, including the settlement of the Midwest by Yankees in the north and by scots-border-derived back-countrymen in the south. This is one of the half-dozen or so best books I’ve ever read, period, and the most single most helpful one for understanding America.
Another book which is in a sense a follow-on to Fischer is Walter Russell Mead’s brilliant synoptic work Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. It is in fact about the domestic political (and hence ethno-cultural) roots of American foreign policy so it is far broader than the title suggests. It is a good read, often funny, and it makes unusual connections. The most striking chapter is the one on the part of America Mead describes as “Jacksonian” — a school to which I belong, with a few quibbles around the edges. That chapter may be found here.
A related book, which is a sort-of companion to Fischer and Mead, is Kevin P. Philips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion: Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. It is something of a muddle, but full of good insights. Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority back in 1968, which predicted the realignment which led to Nixon’s electoral win and the reemergence of a Republican majority. The Cousins’ Wars projects Philips’ methodology back into time to look at the major civil wars in the rise of Britain and America, and who lined up on which side and why. Very insightful about the ongoing religious and cultural roots of American politics. Philips other books are more narrowly focused on politics, particularly his recurring theme that the American middle class was largely created by government policies, and that class is now under attack, and neither party is taking the necessary steps to preserve it. This theme has become more popular in recent years, though neither party has succeeded in exploiting it. His most recent book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, which I have only skimmed, seems to have almost anticipated the Enron business. Philips discusses the defects in corporate governance (recently laid out very well in a special section in the Economist), especially vast executive pay while jobs and benefits are being cut, which should create a populist opening, politically. Why no one is running with this is a mystery to me. Maybe the recession was not long or deep enough. Phillips posits a cyclic theory of capitalist greed leading to a populist backlash, followed by a counter-attack at the resulting over-reaching by the government. Maybe. I need to read the whole book.
A similar point is made in Robert H. Weibe’s book Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy. But Weibe’s focus is not the rising and falling of the rich, but the establishment of a middle class. Weibe’s historical depiction of the transformation of American democracy from a vibrant and vulgar activity to the more sedate phenomenon we know now is very good, as is his depiction of the rise middle-class culture in America circa 1870-1920. Weibe’s policy prescriptions are less interesting — plain vanilla communitarian/left-liberal, and not very plausible or practical sounding. But the historical parts are eye-opening.
On this business Philips discusses, of Anglo-America as an entity, take a look at Jim Bennett’s review of Philips’ book, found here, starting on page 9. (Disregard the libertarian claptrap — Bennett’s essay is in an entirely different league.) Bennett’s book on the “Anglosphere” is due out early 2004, and will be well worth reading. In the meantime, Bennett’s “Anglosphere Primer” is interesting: (The germ of a similar point was embedded in Samuel Huntington’s prescient Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, where Huntington refers to a “core group” of Anglophone countries at the heart of the old Cold War alliance.)
On the narrower focus of Chicago, we have already discussed William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis. There is no better introduction to Chicago, and the economic development of the Midwest, including the futures exchanges.
Tom Geoghegan’s book Which Side Are You On? is the best of his three (I think he’ll agree) and provides several things — a slice of life in Chicago at the time (1980s), a thoughtful Democrat’s reflections on the relative decline of his party, and a capsule history of the role of Labor in the Democratic party and in American political life — as well as other stuff . So you really ought to read it.
A good, if somewhat nostalgic book about Chicago is Alan Ehrenhalt’s Lost Chicago, which will give you some insights you may not get otherwise.
For a short and clear discussion of Chicago’s political machine, as well as the politics of several other American cities, I strongly recommend Steven P. Erie, Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985. Erie provides a good and atypical insight into American politics — though Michael Barone touches on this aspect.
On the political background to our contemporary situation, I strongly recommend Michael Barone’s book Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan. This book is somewhat dense, but if you like big slabs of no-nonsense political history, it is a feast. It discusses each biennial election cycle from 1928 to 1988. It was too academic for a large lay readership, but it was too clearly written and jargon-free and non-leftist to meet with the approval of the academic community, so it is an under-read and under-appreciated book. Barone is a sharp observer, and an empiricist. It is probably the second best book on this list, after Albion’s Seed. Barone is the author of the biannual Almanac of American Politics, and there is no one who knows the nuts and bolts of American politics better than he does. His articles are always worth reading.
A companion of sorts to the Barone book is Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office. It covers the dissolution of the old, disciplined, machine-type political party in America and its replacement in the 1970s by a self-appointed, “entrepreneurial” style. Another good book to understand contemporary American politics.
On American economic history, my favorite writer is the late Jonathan R. T. Hughes. His book the Governmental Habit, Redux: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present is the best book I have read about the history of government regulation of the US economy. It is free of ideological baggage, which is unusual Hughes has a college textbook entitled American Economic History which is, believe it or not, a truly brilliant work, going back to the early roots of British settlement here and the legal and institutional order which set the stage for what followed. There are numerous editions of the book. Mine is from the late 1980s and contains excellent end-notes and bibliographic material. His older book The Vital Few: American Economic Progress and Its Protagonists is a solid though old-fashioned book. A closely related field is covered well in Lawrence R. Friedman, History of American Law. It is a tome, but it is a very readable as well as learned treatment. It is the standard work on the subject.
I’ll also mention some items which are more narrowly economic which have influenced my thinking include George Stigler’s piece “Director’s Law of Public Income Redistribution” (Journal of Law & Economics, 1970, vol. 13, issue 1, pages 1-10). For some reason this essay is not online. Stigler demonstrates why the American system always leads to the middle class getting government benefits at the expense of the rich and the poor. This contradicts most popular thinking on the subject. I haven’t read it in 15 years and I should re-read it as I found it totally convincing and it has shaped my somewhat contrarian views ever since. Another fundamental piece is Hayek’s “The Uses of Knowledge in Society”. I know Hayek is a Libertarian poster-boy, but don’t be put off. This piece, and other early items in the collection Individualism and Economic Order, are brilliant and still pertinent 70 years later. Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action was absolutely fundamental in shaping my thinking about government and the limits of what it can reasonably do. I haven’t re-read it in years, but its arguments regarding the nature, conduct of interest groups are absolutely hardwired into my head at this point.
I bit my tongue when Tom recounted, in apparent agreement, his uncle’s theory that Ohio going for Bush in the last election had something to do with the fact that the Ku Klux Klan had once been strong in Ohio. I can only roll my eyes, as a conservative Republican, at the absolutely blunt way my liberal friends and neighbors and inlaws consider Republicans to be just a few inches to the left of Nazis, Klansmen, etc. It would be funny if it weren’t both sad and insulting. It would be funny too, to see what kind of reaction were elicited if I were to explain Gore taking New York, despite its Republican governor, by saying that there used to be lots of communists there, after all. To understand the process whereby rather large numbers of ordinary and unfascistic people came to be Republicans over the last 40 years would take a long time to explain. Michael Barone covers a lot of it , and there is a thriving body of recent scholarship on the “rise of the Right” after World War II . Some more intuitive insights can be gleaned from Peggy Noonan’s memoir about working for Reagan, What I Saw at the Revolution. Noonan came from a suburban, blue collar, democratic, northeastern, Irish, Catholic background much like my own — though my parents are actually more like impoverished intelligentsia. People on my block went 100% for Kennedy, certainly in 1960 . Twenty years later Massachusetts went for Reagan. Had these people all become fascists or Klansmen? Or were they, previously, smart enough to be Democrats, but then became too stupid to know what was good for them? I tend to think not. Noonan describes, in her usual overly-personal but engaging tone, how this happened, as well as providing insight into what Reagan tapped into. It wasn’t latent fascism. The political mechanics of all this are well-discussed in John B. Judis’s remarkably fair-minded biography William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.
One book I’m picking at now that may be of interest is Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization. It is an immense book. But the separate chapters function as stand-alone essays on various cities, and are good synopses of current history. The chapter on Memphis and the rise of rock’n'roll is very good. The chapters on Los Angeles and Detroit, which I skimmed, look good, too. (There is a chapter on Glasgow and the shipbuilding industry — which reminds me of one of my favorite volumes of wartime Anglophilia, Nicholas Montserrat’s The Cruel Sea . In the opening scene the anti-submarine corvette H.M.S. Compass Rose is fitting out in the Firth of the Clyde.)
On Black America, Tom mentioned W.E.B. DuBois, The Soul of Black Folk. I’d point to Ralph Ellison’s collected essays for another classic but somewhat different perspective. I’ll also mention the Civil War memoir by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment because it is so well-written and entertaining and fair-minded.
Finally, since my main interest is really military history, I’ll close by mentioning Geoffrey Perret’s book A Country Made By War, which is a good and very readable one-volume history of America’s wars and the impact of those wars on American society.
As I look this over, I see any number of other things I might add, but I’d better just stop.
You will not be quizzed on any of the foregoing.