Don Davison. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Reading Room

With the election fast approaching, we asked Professor of Political Science Don Davison to recommend five books every voting person should read. Here are his selections:

Boiling Mad

Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America

Kate Zernicke, Times Books 2010

Zernicke, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, describes the origins and development of the Tea Party movement as well as its philosophical underpinnings. The Tea Party emerges from an eclectic group of grass-roots activists unified by their alarm at the direction of the country and the election of the first African-American president of the United States. Boiling Mad offers an interesting view of the powerful influence of the Internet and social media on campaigns and elections for both parties. Despite Tea “partiers” being relatively better educated and enjoying slightly higher household income compared to the national median, they are deeply pessimistic about the economy and the future of the country. As the Tea Party develops, however, it is less a coherent political organization and more a diverse collection of disaffected citizens mobilized by their interpretation of the Constitution and how the national government has over-reached into areas of the economy and society. Zernicke’s research also illustrates the deeply conservative strands of thought which include a healthy suspicion of governmental power that is ever-present in American society. These ideas have the potential to cut across diverse portions of society.

Kate Zernicke is a national reporter for the New York Times. She won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize with two colleagues for explanatory reporting.

The Broken Branch

The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Oxford University Press 2008

Mann and Ornstein—one a liberal and the other a conservative—explain the sources of Congressional decay and why many scholars now consider Congress “dysfunctional.” The current maladies afflicting Congress are the result of historical processes. Democratic Party dominance for 40 years produced a system where work was conducted in specialized committees and decision-making was decentralized, often excluding members of the minority. Republican control beginning in 1995 replaced the sometimes fragmented system with a party-controlled model where the substantive expertise of committees and seniority are sacrificed for loyalty to the party leadership. Ideology wins over substantive policy making that was formerly focused in the committee and sub-committee system. Consequently, Congress has abdicated many of its oversight responsibilities to the presidency and compromised its deliberative decision-making processes. The outcome often is poor policy.

Thomas Mann holds the W. Averell Harriman Chair and is the senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Both are celebrated scholars of Congress and American political institutions.

Echo Chamber

Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment

Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Oxford University Press 2008

“Echo Chamber” is a term used in a classic work from the 1960s which examines the rationality of American public opinion. The author, V.O. Key, argued that citizens’ opinions and voting choices are echoes of the quality of information provided to them by American political parties. If the quality of information offered is poor, then the public’s opinions and voting choices can appear ignorant or even silly. Jamieson and Cappella borrow this important idea when analyzing the influence of the contemporary media establishment on public opinion and the outcome of elections. While focusing on the integration of Fox News, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, and the Wall Street Journal their conclusions are broadly applicable to the left. Broad cross-sections of the public are exposed to reinforcing messages from an integrated media establishment leading many citizens to “echo” back those ideas. Such appeals as Newt Gingrich’s attack on the “liberal media elite” during the South Carolina primary illustrate the potential power of these messages. The integration of the media reduces the opportunity for citizens to be exposed to contrary viewpoints, diminishes deliberative democratic discourse, and can contribute to polarization among the citizenry.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the director of the Annenberg Pubic Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She is considered the nation’s preeminent expert in political communications and the media and politics. Joseph Cappella holds the Gerald R. Miller Chair at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and has co-authored several books with Jamieson.

Reading Obama

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

James T. Kloppenberg, Princeton University Press 2011

Barack Obama is an enigma in contemporary American politics. Conservatives believe he is a liberal intent on bringing socialism to the United States, while many members of his own party believe he is insufficiently committed to their principles and too willing to compromise. These characterizations perhaps describe better the current state of politics and less the thinking of Barack Obama. Kloppenberg, an intellectual historian at Harvard, believes Obama is best understood as being committed to democratic deliberation and political pragmatism. According to Kloppenberg, Obama is the product of many intellectual traditions across the ideological spectrum, and therefore defies labeling. An intellectual, Obama is best understood as having a deep commitment to democratic deliberation as the only viable method for a democracy to deal with difference and conflict. Ultimately, he lands with the philosophical pragmatists such as Madison, Lincoln, William James, and John Dewey. (The latter’s thinking strongly influenced the educational mission of Rollins College.) Kloppenberg’s insights and predictions about Obama are prescient. It is especially interesting to consider how Obama has evolved after being president for three years.

James Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and the chairperson of the history department at Harvard University.

Winner-Take-All Politics

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Simon and Schuster 2010

Hacker and Pierson tackle the explosive issue of the growing economic inequality in the United States. They find that the average after-tax income of the wealthiest one percent of households increased from $337,000 a year in 1979 to more than $1.2 million in 2006, or an increase of almost 260 percent. Conversely, the after-tax income of the poorest 20 percent of households rose from $14,900 to $16,500 per year, or just 10 percent; the middle class experienced an increase of 21 percent. Why are the rates of increases so disparate? The authors consider the effects of larger macro-economic forces such as globalization, the technology advantage (or disadvantage), and the demand for increased education by the workforce—all of which contribute to the disparity. Significantly, they argue changes in the American political system beginning in the 1970s led both political parties to turn away from a politics of broadly shared prosperity which benefitted most citizens.

Jacob Hacker is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale University and is the author of several books on public policy and political economy. Paul Pierson is the John Gross Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley. He is one of the nation’s experts on social policy.