Ameritopia debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The right embraced it. Why didn't anyone else?
Since late January, when news broke that talk radio host Mark Levin's latest book, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, would debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, movement conservatism has been abuzz about the release. In National Review Online, its author was described as a "methodical, eviscerative attorney whose command of the facts is unquestionable." Said Andrew McCarthy in The New Criterion, the book is "insightful, fact-driven, pulling no punches," and its author "characteristically declines to don rose-tinted glasses." On Amazon, where 1,500 plus reviewers combined to give the book four out of five stars, the praise is even more effusive, and the cover copy takes it a step farther: Ameritopia is "the most compelling defense of freedom for our time," Rush Limbaugh raves. But perusing the Web, you'll search in vain for a review in The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, or the Washington Post.
Conservatives aren't surprised, for it's long been their complaint that right-leaning books aren't given their due in academia or the left-leaning media. Their beef is legitimate. A politics, philosophy and economics curriculum ought to include F.A. Hayek. A masters in journalism ought to include exposure to William F. Buckley. They don't always. And neither do prominent book reviews always highlight worthy work from conservative authors who are publishing today.
Yet if neither academia nor the mainstream media's book reviews can be relied upon to highlight the best conservative titles, neither can movement conservatism's publications or personalities, especially when the author is a popular broadcaster. If Mark Levin praises a book on air, it could help it go viral or double the author's royalties. Imagine the temptation to say nice things about his book. Every ideological movement reviews the books of intellectually friendly authors with less rigor than is ideal. Conservatism is as rife with such acts of tribal loyalty as any other network.
The financial incentives skew matters even more.
The resulting discrepancy between how good a book is and how good conservative fellow travelers say it is was evident to me when I read Levin's last book, Liberty and Tyranny. A phenomenal commercial success, much of the right was seemingly blind to its glaring flaws. Foremost among them was the premise that America today is best understood as the scene of an epic struggle pitting champions of liberty against statists intent on tyranny. I'd go so far as to say that any book built on the thesis that America is engaged an epic struggle between x and y is overly simplistic nonsense. Talk to conservatives about John Edwards' "two Americas" conceit or Occupy Wall Street's "the 99 percent versus the 1 percent" frame and they're quick to recognize that hyperbolic dichotomies are more useful for propaganda than rigorously describing reality.
Or consider this passage: "For much of American history, the balance between government authority and individual liberty was understood and accepted," Levin wrote. But "in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the Statists successfully launched a counterrevolution that radically and fundamentally altered the nature of American society." Actually, the balance between government authority and individual liberty has been in flux throughout American history: think of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the treatment of Native Americans, the decades long struggle over slavery, the Civil War, the draft riots, Jim Crow, the women's suffrage movement, and the imposition of Prohibition. Why misinform readers by telling them that the relationship between government authority and individual liberty was mostly uncontested and unchanged until FDR started pushing the New Deal?
This dearth of rigor is one reason Liberty and Tyranny was ignored outside of the conservative movement. As Jim Manzi wrote at National Review Online, focusing on its climate change chapter (Manzi is perhaps best known as a staunch conservative opponent of both a carbon tax and cap and trade legislation, and has written against the liberal position on those topics many times):
I started to read Mark Levin's massive bestseller Liberty and Tyranny a number of months ago as debate swirled around it. I wasn't expecting a PhD thesis (and in fact had hoped to write a post supporting the book as a well-reasoned case for certain principles that upset academics just because it didn't employ a bunch of pseudo-intellectual tropes). But when I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that, while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points, it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions... I'm not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I've spent some time studying - global warming - in order to see how it treated a controversy in which I'm at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail. It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times - not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided...
I get that people often want comfort food when they read. Fair enough. But if you're someone who read this book in order to help you form an honest opinion about global warming, then you were suckered. Liberty and Tyranny does not present a reasoned overview of the global warming debate; it doesn't even present a reasoned argument for a specific point of view, other than that of willful ignorance.
Conservative authors are already at a disadvantage when they release a book. When they're also known for their bombastic shouted tirades on talk radio and a previous book that seemed more like "comfort food" for fellow travelers than a rigorous attempt at persuasion, they're easy to ignore. This is a huge problem for the right, which is good at producing content that sells to the shrinking base, but bad at reaching persuadable outsiders and converting them to conservatism.
What changed my mind and prompted me to invest the 15 hours required to read and review Ameritopia? Chapman University law professor and talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, who challenged me to do so. Since discovering him after his 2006 profile of Columbia's journalism school, I've followed the underappreciated newsmaker interviews that he posts in transcript form to his Web site. If Hewitt was urging a staffer at The Atlantic to read and review a conservative title, I reasoned, it must be a book that reflects well on the conservative movement, or at least one that he regards as reflecting well on it. At worst I'd see what so many American conservatives are reading. At best, I'd find that they're reading something enjoyable, the possibility of which I didn't discount, for I've enjoyed any number of titles that conservatives love: Friedrich Hayek's fantastic The Constitution of Liberty, Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative. So what about Ameritopia?
Its thesis: At the heart of what threatens America today is the ideology of utopianism. What follows are summaries of Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, Thomas Hobes's Leviathan, and Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. These are Levin's villains. In their ideas he finds the roots of our demise. Part II of the book is Levin's explanation of "Americanism." Again he sets forth a general definition, then delves into what he regards as its intellectual roots. Chapters are built around his heroes: John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, America's Founding Fathers, and Alexis de Tocqueville. In their times, they did their utmost to warn against utopianism, he argues, and while their ingenious framework succeeded, we've strayed so far from it that utopianism is now overtaking Americanism; we're no longer living in a constitutional republic, but a worrisome "Ameritopia;" and if we don't change course soon, all will be lost.