Primary Sources

Scott McLemee takes a sneak peek at some upcoming university press titles that are pertinent to the 2020 presidential contest.

September 20, 2019

"The election may still be hundreds of days away," it says at the top of The New York Times's useful election calendar, "but the 2020 primary process is already underway." That is quite an understatement. I've been trying to remember a time when it wasn't already underway, and drawing a blank. The first rally organized by the campaign to re-elect the president took place in February 2017 -- not even four whole weeks after the inauguration. By comparison, the Democratic challengers who have been holding debates for almost three months now look downright lackadaisical.

University presses are not hesitating to join the fray with titles more or less pertinent to the 2020 presidential contest. Here's a quick survey of the goods on offer. A few are already in print; the rest will be out in advance of the Iowa caucuses.

"It's the economy, stupid" remains the most trenchant piece of political analysis ever uttered during a presidential campaign. (The credit goes to Bill Clinton's strategist James Carville, in 1992.) One industry's fortunes in particular will be up for review in the months to come. The decline of coal as an energy source -- as traced by Thomas O. McGarity in Pollution, Politics and Power: The Struggle for Sustainable Electricity (Harvard University Press, November) -- reflects "the remarkable transformation of the electric power industry in the United States over the last four decades … from highly polluting regulated monopolies into competitive, deregulated businesses that generate, transmit and distribute cleaner electricity." (This quotation and others that follow are taken from university press catalogs.)

Many a devastated community welcomed the assurances by candidate Trump that he would reopen the coal mines and get coal-fired electrical plants on line again. But McGarity shows that the "administration’s efforts to revive the coal industry by scaling back environmental controls and reregulating electricity prices have had little effect on the coal industry’s decline." The author makes proposals "for building a more sustainable grid while easing the economic downsides of coal’s demise."

Given the likelihood of recession, some desperate West Wing scribe might want to sneak a few thoughts from Dietrich Vollrath's Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy Is a Sign of Success (University of Chicago Press, January 2020) into the State of the Union speech. Challenging the automatic equation between economic health and a growing gross domestic product, the author argues that capitalism "has already supplied so much of the necessary stuff of modern life -- brought us so much comfort, security and luxury -- that we have turned to new forms of production and consumption that increase our well-being but do not contribute to growth in GDP."

Changes such as "a decrease in the number of workers relative to the population, a shift from a goods-driven economy to a services-driven one, and a decline in geographic mobility" might be regarded as "sign[s] of success, even though they each act as a brake of GDP growth." Be that as it may, candidates might want to avoid making such claims in Appalachia.

The American scene is one focus (if not the central concern) of political theorist Nadia Urbinati's Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy (Harvard University Press, August). Populist figures "claim to speak to and for the people without the need for intermediaries -- in particular, political parties and independent media -- whom they blame for betraying the interests of the ordinary many." That stance is one thing in the course of public debate and something necessarily more worrisome as a mode of governance. While the author does not equate populist governments with fascism, "their dependence on the will of the leader, along with their willingness to exclude the interests of those deemed outside the bounds of the 'good' or 'right' people, stretches constitutional democracy to its limits and opens a pathway to authoritarianism."

But what looks like a stretching of norms to their breaking point might actually be evidence of long-term weaknesses in established institutions. In The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal (University Press of Kansas, November), Stephen F. Knott worries that the office has devolved from what the framers of Constitution had in mind -- "a source of national pride and unity, a check on the tyranny of the majority, and a neutral guarantor of the nation’s laws" -- into "the demagogic, partisan entity of our day." That deformation has been long underway as the consequence of majoritarian representation becoming "an unofficial constitutional principle" under Andrew Jackson.

In contrast, Cedric de Leon's Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule (Stanford University Press, October) focuses on two occasions when the two-party system underwent convulsions. "The first result[ed] in the demise of the Whig Party and secession of 11 southern states in 1861," while the second is "the present crisis splintering the Democratic and Republican Parties and leading to the election of Donald Trump." Each involved an exodus of politicians and voters from the established political structures "not only because people are suffering, but also because the party system itself is unable to absorb an existential challenge to its power."

Almost 60 years after Richard Nixon and John Kennedy debated on national television, it would be hard to find anyone who underestimates the medium as a factor in presidential campaigning. But Stephen Benedict Dyson pushes past this conventional wisdom in Imagining Politics: Interpretations in Political Science and Political Television (University of Michigan Press, July) by treating both "televised political fictions and political science theories [as] attempts at meaning-making, reflecting and shaping how a society thinks about its politics." Evidently he thinks the screenwriters have the advantage. Discussing programs such as The West Wing, Scandal and House of Cards, he finds them challenging "the assumptions that construct the discipline of political science itself."

This survey doesn't exhaust the list of new and forthcoming books relevant to the impending horse race. We'll look at others in the coming months. In the meantime, Martin Sheen and Tony Goldwyn might want to keep their eyes peeled for offers to be scholars in residence at the Kennedy School of Government. (Kevin Spacey probably shouldn't count on an invitation.)


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