Gift Books for the Political Junkie in Your Life

By Sean Trende

Almost four years ago, economist Tyler Cowen started an interesting Internet meme: 10 books that influenced you.  In addition to being fun, it was useful, both for providing context to prominent writers (Ross Douthat makes more sense in light of his affection for Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites), as well as for discovering books that one might not have otherwise known about.

I was revisiting these during some downtime recently, and realized that no one had done something similar from the standpoint of an elections analyst. This is odd, given that journalists spend so much time on the horse-race aspect of elections (to the chagrin of some media critics). At the same time, the “influenced” moniker seems a bit off, especially when you’re in the more data-driven precincts of electoral analysis.  Some books aren’t influential so much as they are indispensible -- I wasn’t influenced by Walter Dean Burnham’s Voting in American Elections, as it doesn’t contain much in the way of analysis, but the raw data presented did impact my thinking.

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So with that in mind -- and just in time for Christmas -- here are 15 books that every elections junkie should own (or at least read: some are awfully expensive but can be found in your local university library).  To make sure the books have at least somewhat stood the test of time, I’ve excluded narrative books written in the past 10 years:

15.  Samuel Lubell, The Future of American Politics. What makes this work so useful is that it was published in 1952, just as the Republican Party was firmly emerging from the depths it experienced during the New Deal era.  It gives critical context to today’s politics.  Lubell, who conducted thousands of interviews in key precincts throughout the country, explores many political developments that were just in their infancy: the growth of the suburbs, the decline of ethnic enclaves in cities, and the changes in attitudes toward the Republican Party in the South.  Some of the predictions Lubell hints at are tragic in retrospect, including some he got wrong, such as the hopeful tone he strikes for the future of the African-American community in the north Bronx, as well as some he unfortunately got correct, such as his description of the embryonic signs of what would later be called “white flight,” which he encounters in Detroit. The book nevertheless gives a fascinating look at the state of American politics entering the modern era.

14. Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR. It’s a common misconception that African-Americans joined the Democratic Party because of its stance on Civil Rights in the 1960s.  But the big shift among blacks came in the mid-1930s, when the New Deal (inadvertently, and to the chagrin of some Southern Democrats who had supported it) lifted all boats. Blacks went from being an overwhelmingly Republican constituency in 1932 to being an overwhelmingly Democratic one in 1936. Even this wasn’t the whole story, though: Republicans had softened their support among African-Americans during the 1920s by effectively ignoring them.  Weiss tells this tale clearly and convincingly, delving into crucial details such as the class divide between African-Americans who voted for Republican nominee Alf Landon in 1936 and those who took a chance on FDR, as well as the age divide that was at work. This is the best, most accessible history of the second-most consequential political shift in the last 100 years.

13. Theodore White, The Making of the President, 1968. Really, the entire series could be put on this list.  But if you had to read one book from the man who defined the journalistic election narrative genre, this would be it. Seeing, in real time, the New Deal coalition collapse while Richard Nixon tries to create a stronger version of the Eisenhower coalition is invaluable. Because 1968 is so much more relevant to our modern politics than the other four elections White covers (1960, 1964 and 1972), this is the one to read.

12. D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Okay, so a four-volume set on American geographic history isn’t for everyone. But of all the contenders in this genre, this is the most thorough.  It’s well-written, and gives you the tools to understand nuances in U.S. politics that many such books miss (e.g., why was New Hampshire so contrarian for New England, even going back to the 1800s? Part of the answer has to do with the heavy, anomalous [for New England] Scots-Irish presence). There are really a wide variety of books that you should read along these lines (David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed and Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America come to mind), but none will lay as comprehensive a foundation for understanding political demography and geography as this one.  If nothing else, you’ll have riveting cocktail party conversation as you find yourself able to describe the reason for the founding, growth and political orientation of virtually every American city.

11. Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Ideology and Congress.  To understand elections, you have to understand ideology.  And there is no better method for determining the ideology of our representatives than Poole and Rosenthal’s DW-NOMINATE.  This may come as a surprise to some, since I’ve been critical of the methodology (see their riposte here).  But my complaint isn’t so much with the methodology as with what I see as a failure to appreciate fully the (very real) limitations of that methodology.  Still, it is far better (in the vast majority of circumstances) than the previously used interest group ratings (such as Americans for Democratic Action scorecards). For those who don’t want to learn the linear algebra needed to understand the “guts” of the technique, this book provides a useful primer along with a fascinating reinterpretation of American political history.

10. Kenneth Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress: 1789-1989.  This book is exactly what it sounds like: a complete set of drawings of congressional district maps going back to our first elections, color-coded by the party that won them.  The uses of this are so numerous that I don’t even know where to start, but most of those uses are so obvious that I’m not certain I even need to.

9. Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788-1997: The Official Results of the Elections of the 1st Through the 105th Congresses. If you look up Michael J. Dubin on Amazon.com, you’ll find an amazing assortment of collected data that are of use to an elections analyst.  Want to know how many Whigs were in the Kentucky legislature in 1850? Need to know the census data for New York’s 1st Congressional District in 1902? Dubin has collected that data for you in book form.

But this volume presents the most useful collection of data of the bunch.  There are other books that purport to present the same data, such as CQ’s two-volume Guide to United States Elections, but Dubin’s work is simply more complete, as it goes back to the 1st Congress and provides data for all run-off elections and third party candidates in each race (CQ tends to present major-party candidates only).

8. Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority.  Phillips was dismissed as a crank (and worse) when he wrote this book, but he’s now widely viewed as having gotten things mostly correct.  What makes it relevant as more than a historic artifact is the detailed demographic and historic account he gives of the country’s major regions and states. You can see why Orange County, Calif., and San Francisco’s suburbs have such different voting habits, or why western Wisconsin votes differently from eastern Wisconsin.  A book that has held up surprisingly well.

7. V.O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation. It would be a mistake to read this book merely as an account of the state of Southern politics in the late 1940s, although it is that.  Many of the cleavages that Key describes exist today: The map of the 1940 referendum on the ending of prohibition in South Carolina closely mirrors the McCain-Huckabee primary contest of 2008.  It is more than that, however: If you want to know why Arkansas was still reasonably Democratic until the past few years, or why South Carolina and Florida flipped to the Republican column so early, Key’s book gives you the tools to work out the answers, even if his book gives Southern Republicans perfunctory treatment at best.

6. Michael Barone, Our Country. Basic political narratives are a dime a dozen.  But a political narrative written from an electoral perspective, from someone who has accidentally forgotten more about elections than almost anyone else in the country has ever known? That is priceless, and that is precisely what Our Country is.  Barone’s book gives you a good foundation for understanding 20th-century politics. But if you read it, read it with the footnotes, which is where much of the data is housed.  You’ll learn how many white ethnic districts shifted toward Republican in 1938, or which districts flipped back-and-forth during the 1940s (which, if you’ve read this far down the list, I’m assuming you’ll find fascinating).

5. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority. People may be surprised I ranked this one so high, given that I’ve had extended back-and-forths with Teixeira about the future of American politics.  But I actually greatly respect this work, and consider it one of the best political books of the past 20 years.

To appreciate it fully, you need to understand that in the early 2000s, many observers viewed Bill Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996 as aberrations caused by H. Ross Perot, and assumed that Republicans would quickly reassemble the Reagan Coalition -- a view that was reinforced by the Republican victories in 2002 and 2004 (the latter year being the first time since 1952 that voters gave Republicans clear control of the presidency, House and Senate). Judis and Teixeira pointed out, correctly, that something deeper was going on within the Democratic coalition, and were among the first to do so. While I believe that they were far too optimistic about the potential for dominance of that coalition, downplaying the tradeoffs that it would create (as explained more fully in my book The Lost Majority), their analysis of political trends is still very much worth reading.

4. Walter Dean Burnham, et al., Voting in American Elections. Burnham’s book is so useful because it is a simplification of the Dubin work described above, but not to such a degree that you lose necessary granularity.  The fact is, as an elections analyst you are much more likely to use popular vote totals than individual race results.  Burnham presents this data, with appropriate geographic breakdowns, in an easy-to-use format. As with the Dubin and Martis books, there’s no analysis here, but the data are priceless. It’s also by far the least expensive of the “data books” I’ve described above, which is an added bonus.

3. David Mayhew, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre. If we were doing “books that influenced you,” this would be my number one.  This is one of the few books that blew my mind and reordered my thinking about politics. Almost every political science undergraduate learns the concept of periodic realignments in American politics -- the idea that every few decades our political orientation shifts, and something completely different results.  Mayhew exhaustively collected 15 claims made by proponents of realignment, and systematically demolishes each one.

What’s noteworthy about this book is that, like Key’s works, it is largely accessible to a mainstream reader who has at least a passing familiarity with the politics of the late 1800s and early 1900s (others may find they are making frequent trips to Wikipedia). Regardless, I think it’s difficult to read this book and not walk away with the idea that politics really are determined by short-term contingencies, rather than by some broad arc in history.

2. Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes. It’s hard to find something to say about this book, which inspired a generation of political writers, that hasn’t been said.  What’s perhaps most shocking about it is that the characters it portrays still occupy crucial roles in American politics (then-Sen. Joe Biden has a starring role). More importantly, it gives a great view of what motivated these men to run, how they put together campaigns, and how and why they were able to succeed.  In addition, it happens to be one of the best works of non-fiction ever written, and not just in the elections genre. It’s just that good.

1. Michael Barone, et al., The Almanac of American Politics.  This is the absolute bible of American politics. It contains complete descriptions of House districts, as well as of the members who represent them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I served as a co-author on the 2014 edition of this series.  But my love affair with the Almanac extends back to when I purchased my first copy as a recent college graduate in 1996. The intricacies and nuances that it revealed, both of American political geography and our party system, inspired me to buy a copy of every edition over the course of the years; there are very few books that could induce me to do this.  Probably 90 percent of everything I know about politics either comes from these books, or was inspired by a question raised while reading these books.  Jim Lehrer described it as the “single best reference there is for Congress and Washington specifically and the country generally.”  The description would have been as apt when the first edition was published following the 1970 elections as it is today.

 

 

My advice on reading them is two-fold.  First, you should buy (at least) one from each decade. You can find them on Amazon marketplace and EBay, although some older editions are rare and relatively expensive.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, although they are intended as reference works, you should read them like books.  It’s the only way you can see the connections that were present in the authors’ minds (who are usually writing the districts sequentially), but that don’t explicitly find their way into the text.  What’s more, if you do that for one book in each decade, you can see the changing face of American politics unfolding before your eyes, as certain areas of the country move from one party to the other, as rural districts become suburban and suburban districts become semi-urban, and as minorities in the early editions lose their distinctiveness (it took a while to appreciate that the “minorities” mentioned in the first edition are often Italians, Irish and Poles).  There’s simply no better way to understand the country than to spend some time wading through these rich sources of knowledge.

Sean Trende can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com.

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