New Part Three - July 24:
Part Two - July 12:
Part One - July 3:
Kevin Phillips is a contributing columnist to the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to National Public Radio. Phillips was the chief political analyst for the 1968 Republican presidential campaign, and in 1969 published his landmark book The Emerging Republican Majority. His bestseller The Politics of Rich and Poor was described as a "founding document" of the 1992 presidential election.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit jamesfallows.com.
Atlantic Unbound | July 24, 2002
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Kevin Phillips
Subject: The silent crash - Part Three
Thanks for the elaboration of your argument. Before moving on to a last round of questions, I'd like to say something more about the role and possible influence of your book.
Authors send their books into the world with something like the mixture of hope and vulnerability with which they send off their children. But for books, the infant-mortality rate is appallingly high. Most are never noticed at all. Only a handful are remembered or discussed beyond the moment in which they are published.
Naturally, every author hopes that his new book will be among that fortunate minority. Naturally, too, writers think about the traits that allow books to survive. This question has come up in past installments of these online discussions. My hypothesis is that for a nonfiction book to have a lasting effect, it must have one or more distinctive qualities.
It can be a memorable story—like Tim Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, from the 1970s, or Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, from the 1990s. It can mark a before-and-after change in public discussion of an issue. Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed did this in the 1960s, as did Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Eric Schlosser's recent Fast Food Nation may be on its way to doing so. Much of our thinking about bioterrorism is affected by Richard Preston's The Hot Zone. A book can last because it gives people a new way of thinking about a familiar issue. Vance Packard's The Status Seekers had that effect in the Eisenhower era. Robert Frank's The Winner-Take-All Society is a more recent (if less famous) example—and Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and Its Discontents may fall into this category as well, largely because of his prestige from the Nobel award. (There is no "Nobel prize" given in economics, only a "Nobel memorial medal," but that's a subject for another day.) Environmental discussions in the West are all shaped by Marc Reisner's book Cadillac Desert. A book's influence can last because it presents a bracing argument which, whether it is judged right or wrong with the passing years, shapes debate in its time. Charles Murray's Losing Ground and Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers are illustrations from the 1980s; Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man are more recent examples.
And then there are books people keep referring to because of the depth of their evidence and analysis. In a field we're both familiar with, Japan studies, there are obvious examples: Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Chalmers Johnson's MITI and the Japanese Miracle, and Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power. This is the potential role for Wealth and Democracy, I think. You really do marshal a lot of evidence; you place it in historical context; and you draw provocative conclusions. I can imagine readers referring to this argument for a long time to come—as they still do with your Emerging Republican Majority.
But enough in this vein! For a final round of questions, I would like to combine the evidence you have laid out in the book with your longer-standing background in political analysis. Obviously this book itself is political in a deep sense. But for now I mean "politics" in its operational connotations—how people present arguments, appeal to interest groups, win elections, and carry out their plans. I have spent the last few days in "role-playing" and "scenario" exercises involving the Pentagon, as part of research I'm doing for an article in The Atlantic. In that spirit I'd like you to imagine yourself in three different roles, and tell us—based on the argument in your book—what you would do or say.
First: you're the head strategist for a presidential campaign. Let's assume there is a set of circumstances giving your candidate a bona fide chance against Bush in 2004. (I would start listing the scenarios—maybe Dick Cheney has had to resign, for either health or Halliburton reasons, and then... but I realize this would confuse the issue.) The point is that you have a live campaign to manage, and you and the candidate have decided that inequality, injustice, and the distortion of democracy are your main platform points. How do you campaign? Can you give us a paragraph or two from your candidate's announcement speech?
Second: you are a citizen. You've just read a stimulating book about the mounting trend of economic inequality. It may be the last book you read for a while, since you're cutting back on your expenses as your investment holdings shrink by the day. You're appalled by what you've seen of corporate chicanery. You decide to do something.
But what? If readers take the time to go through your book, and are convinced by its findings, what specifically should they do to address the problems that you raise?
Third: you're God. Or, short of God, you're the most influential advisor in a new Administration. It turns out that your presidential campaign was victorious, and that your candidate's emphasis on small-d democracy in America brought her a majority in both houses of Congress. For at least the next two years, the President has as much leeway as FDR did with the New Deal. You've been sent off, like a New Deal brains-truster, to draft an action plan.
What is it? What are the four or five big changes in laws and rules that would address the problems you have raised?
The author as God... I think we've reached the natural ending point for this discussion. Thanks for joining us and for the work that went into your book.
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