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Undressing the Body Politic

Sunday, September 14, 2008

As the presidential race heats up, four new books stake provocative claims about what's going on in the economy, the electorate, religion and the national psyche. -- Alan Cooperman

THE PREDATOR STATE

How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too

By James K. Galbraith | Free Press. 221 pp. $25

James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas, may finally break out of the shadow of his father, John Kenneth Galbraith, with this iconoclastic book. He skewers conservatives for paying lip service to the free market while running up federal spending and deficits, handing out tax breaks to favored industries and making "free trade" agreements that are anything but free. But his goal is not to paint conservatives as hypocrites. It's to liberate liberals. He wants Americans to stop pretending that the government does not manipulate the economy and to start manipulating it for the public good. Contrary to classical economic gospel, Galbraith argues, a more equitable system (including higher minimum wages) would be more efficient. "You want higher wages? Raise them. You want more and better jobs? Create them. You want safer food, cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions? Pass laws and establish agencies to achieve this," he writes. "Politics may stand in the way, but economics does not. And there is nothing really to lose, except 'free-market' illusions."

RED STATE, BLUE STATE, RICH STATE, POOR STATE

Why Americans Vote The Way They Do

By Andrew Gelman | Princeton Univ. 233 pp. $27.95

Everyone has seen the electoral map: Blue states in the Northeast and the West Coast, which have higher average incomes, lean Democratic. Red states in the South and center of the country, where incomes are lower, lean Republican. "It is natural," Columbia University statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman writes, "to personify the states and assume that the Democrats also have the support of richer voters." But it's wrong. Commentators on both the left (Thomas Frank) and the right (David Brooks) have theorized about why working-class Kansas farmers and latte-sipping Maryland suburbanites vote against their economic interests. Gelman says, "Both sides on this argument are trying too hard to explain something that's simply not true." The real paradox, he says, is that while rich states lean Democratic, rich people generally vote Republican; while poor states lean Republican, poor people generally vote Democratic.

GOD AND RACE IN AMERICAN POLITICS

A Short History

By Mark A. Noll | Princeton Univ. 209 pp. $22.95

In recent decades, white evangelical Protestants have become a strong Republican constituency. White Catholics, once a solidly Democratic group, now split about evenly between the major parties. Mark A. Noll, a professor of history at Notre Dame, argues that these changes began in the 1960s and that "the wedge from which other things flowed was civil rights reform." Noll is careful not to portray evangelicals or Catholics as racists. By the late 1960s, he writes, "white evangelicals, even in the South, had mostly accepted the inevitability of civil rights for blacks." What alienated evangelicals from the Democratic Party, he says, was "not race directly" but a "federally sponsored intrusion of alien moral norms," first in desegregation, then in barring teacher-led prayers in public schools, legalizing abortion and meddling with "firmly settled gender traditions." Similarly, he argues, Catholics generally supported black voting rights. But when desegregation of schools and neighborhoods began, "it was another story."

WHY WE HATE US

American Discontent In the New Millennium

By Dick Meyer | Crown. 271 pp. $24.95

We live in an age of discontent. Polls show that Americans' trust in their institutions and leaders is at an historic low. Crankiness is everywhere, including in this book. Dick Meyer, a former CBS reporter now with NPR, sets out to explain why "Americans really don't hate one another. But they do hate 'us.' " His answer begins with the counterculture of the '60s and new information technology. "The simple equation is this," he writes. "Social change plus technology revolution equals American brain goes boom." The result, Meyer contends, is that we all belong to a counterculture now; we are all "battling a faceless, dominant prevailing culture that virtually no one ever takes credit for or defends." This juggernaut's most insidious instrument is "OmniMarketing," the bombardment by messages to us as consumers, not citizens. Yet Meyer does not place much stock in the so-called culture war: "There are culture warriors out there. But they are the political elite and a small slice of the whole. The rest of us are quite peaceful, thank you."

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