The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas | The Nation


The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas

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It is an ironic fact that in a society as culturally debased as ours, books can have a significant political and ideological impact precisely because they are not read. Book reviews and Op-Eds based on the reviews become the currency through which big ideas are traded in the ideological marketplace. Reviews, let it be remembered, are frequently written by people with considerably fewer qualifications than the writers themselves. In Wanniski's case, his magic potion of pain-free prosperity was sold and resold on the Wall Street Journal editorial page and in the columns of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Few economists paid much attention to Wanniski's work or the theory itself when it first appeared. The only scholarly journal to publish an article on the subject before the eighties was Kristol's Public Interest. Nevertheless, the book provided a prop for Kemp, Reagan and their allies to wave at voters, demonstrating that the theory upon which they were basing their policies was somehow intellectually legitimate.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The creation of the largest peacetime deficit in human history once supply-side was finally implemented demonstrates just how little its predictions corresponded to reality. Reagan budget director David Stockman all but admitted that the entire intellectual edifice was a carefully constructed hoax by conservatives to defund the welfare state. No matter. The right had seen the future of public discourse, and it worked.

The great book of the New Right's assault on traditional forms of knowledge was Charles Murray's antiwelfare tract Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (1984). Two years before his book became the handbook on handling welfare, Murray was living in obscurity in Iowa, having written nothing more than a few pamphlets. According to Michael Joyce, Murray sent an article to Kristol at Public Interest, whereupon Kristol immediately called Joyce, who was then running the Olin Foundation, and scared up the money necessary for Murray to turn his article into a book. William Hammett, then president of the Manhattan Institute, agreed to house Murray and soon decided that this horse had legs. As he explained in a memo to himself at the time: "Every generation produces a handful of books whose impact is lasting; books that change basic assumptions about the way the world works (or ought to work...). Charles Murray's Losing Ground could become such a book. And if it does it will alter the terms of debate over what is perhaps the most compelling political issue of our time: the modern welfare state."

The Manhattan Institute inaugurated an extraordinary campaign to sell Murray to the public. Once the book was published, Hammett sent 700 copies to journalists, politicians and academics and hired a PR expert to turn the unknown author into a media celebrity. He paid journalists $500 to $1,500 each to participate in a seminar on Murray and his thought. In addition, Hammett wrote, "any discretionary funds at our disposal for the next few months will go toward financing Murray's outreach activities." Once again the model worked flawlessly. The book itself proved to be the prototype of The Bell Curve: Murrayite ideology mixed with pseudoscience and killer public relations. Sociologist Christopher Jencks and economists like Robert Greenstein, Jared Bernstein and Nobel laureate James Tobin, who took the time to examine Murray's data, found the book contradictory, solipsistic, intentionally misleading and often wrong. Never mind that, said the larger culture. Welfare causes poor (read "black") people to breed like bunnies, and "we" would be doing everyone a favor if we just stopped encouraging "them." "We tried to provide more for the poor, and we created more poor instead," as Murray argued.

Murray's book proved an effective spearhead. It was not the only book written during a time when Americans were reassessing their feelings about federal welfare policy. But it was the first and the boldest and the one that gave the most generous permission to voice resentments that had hitherto been unspoken in polite society. The net result, following a decade of arguments and Clintonite compromises, was a "welfare reform" policy based on many of the false assumptions that Murray laid out in Losing Ground. A decade later, Murray would undertake an even grander mission on behalf of his sponsors. It would be to make racism scientifically respectable. Murray's research was considered so controversial that this time the Manhattan Institute refused to have anything to do with him, and he was shunted off to the American Enterprise Institute, where Kristol ruled the roost.

The AEI had already invested in respectable racism when it funded D'Souza during the writing of his apologia, The End of Racism, in which the author attributed racism, which he believed was vestigial, to a "civilization gap" between blacks and whites rather than to the fact that many powerful and influential white people think black people are inferior. These two arguments--that welfare caused laziness and black overbreeding, and that the blacks who were doing all the breeding were genetically inferior and, hence, hard-wired to rip you off, either through welfare payments, armed robbery or both--formed the unspoken foundation of the 1995-96 welfare debate. Perhaps the ultimate expression of Murray's influence can be found in the words of Gordon Lee Baum, chief executive of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has hosted as guest speakers the likes of Trent Lott and Bob Barr. "My personal belief is that the overwhelming, almost unanimous belief of the professionals, the academia, if you will, in the field, say that is the case that there's a difference between black and white intelligence," says Baum. "My personal inclination is to believe that The Bell Curve is not too far off the mark."

Should George W. Bush win the presidency, the next new thing in conservative counseling is likely to be Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion, an attack on government social-welfare policies. Published with Bradley and Heritage support in 1992, the book was quickly dismissed by many. One critic described it as the ravings of a "utopian crank," while other reviewers preferred to call it "romantic," "bizarre" and "shallow." Indeed, Olasky's background--a fanatical atheist/Communist Jew turned fanatical Christian conservative--did little to inspire faith among the skeptics. Picking up where Murray's Losing Ground left off, Olasky's call to dismantle the entire welfare system nevertheless caught fire on the Republican right. William Bennett termed it "the most important book on welfare and social policy in a decade." William Kristol used the word "thunderbolt." Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich thought it was so terrific that he had it delivered to the entire freshman class of Republicans, going so far as to speak of Olasky in the same breath as Alexis de Tocqueville. Now George W. Bush has apparently fallen under Olasky's spell as well, and the Texas Governor invites the onetime Brezhnevite down to Austin for frequent chats. If you want to know the meaning of "compassionate conservatism," including the source of Bush's enthusiasm for "faith-based" social-welfare programs, then do what Bush's aides do when they have a question: "Talk to Marvin" (or read his book).

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