2020 Vision

Scott McLemee surveys upcoming university press books that, in anticipation of the coming year's presidential campaigns, focus on the White House or the road to it.

November 22, 2019
Istockphoto.com/Thomas Pajot

The presidential campaigns should achieve full-spectrum media dominance no later than the start of the spring semester. Not surprisingly, perhaps, university presses have a number of titles in the pipeline focusing on the White House or the road to it. Here are a few that have the potential to be timely or topical. (All publication dates below refer to 2020. Material in quotation marks is drawn from the presses' catalogs.)

Two of the last three presidents entered the office without winning the popular vote. It probably won't take a third time to generate interest in Alexander Keyssar's Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Harvard University Press, June). His assessment is counterintuitive on at least one point: "The most common explanation -- that small states have blocked reform for fear of losing influence -- has only occasionally been true."

Donald F. Kettl poses more questions about the electoral effect of legacy structures in The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work (Princeton University Press, March). "From health care and infrastructure to education and the environment, the quality of public services is ever more uneven," making it time to acknowledge, he writes, "the shortcomings of Madison’s marvel" and adopt the "possible solutions [found] in the writings of another founder: Alexander Hamilton."

Campaigns run on money and technology -- both of which are usually managed by specialists not much given to worrying about transparency. From time to time, demands for campaign-finance reform are heard, with an expectation that it will resonate with voters. But David M. Primo and Jeffrey D. Milyo take any expressions of approval with a large grain of salt in their book Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters (University of Chicago Press, June). The electorate, they suggest, is in fact, "skeptical that reform would successfully limit corruption, which Americans believe stains almost every fiber of the political system."

A more encouraging word comes from Philip N. Howard's Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy From Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives (Yale University Press, May). Despite the rise of weaponized data harvesting and social media's role in putting propaganda on steroids, the author sounds confident that a meaningful response is possible. This book promises "a way to identify and derail these 'lie machines.'"

Such an application is bound to need constant updating, I'd imagine. In any case, high-tech propaganda systems are only one of four factors that Richard L. Hasen finds generating considerable distrust about the fairness and validity of American elections. His book Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy (Yale University Press, February) identifies three more at work. Besides identifying voter suppression as "a Republican tool aimed to depress turnout of likely Democratic voters," he blames "pockets of incompetence in election administration, often in large cities controlled by Democrats, [that] have created an opening to claims of unfairness." A fourth factor is "rhetoric about 'stolen' elections [that] supercharges distrust among hardcore partisans." It sounds like the perfect vicious circle.

Several other university press books concern the current occupant of the White House. I do not want to shock anyone unduly, but it must be said: they are not going to be on sale at Trump rallies.

But that said, certain GOP leaders and White House operatives have been known to call themselves "the adults in the room," which means at least some of them might sneak a glance at Daniel W. Drezner's The Toddler-in-Chief: What Donald Trump Teaches Us About the Modern Presidency (University of Chicago Press, March). Anatomizing "the different dimensions of Trump’s infantile behavior, from temper tantrums to poor impulse control to the possibility that the President has had too much screen time," the author concludes that "sharing some of the traits of a toddler makes a person ill-suited to the presidency." Be that as it may, he also takes the last few years as evidence that "the winnowing away of presidential checks and balances" may be the longer-term problem.

Punning must be the lowest form of polemic, but sometimes it can't be helped. The one in the title of Sara Azari's Unprecedented: A Simple Guide to the Crimes of the Trump Campaign and Presidency (Potomac Books, distributed by University of Nebraska Press, March) is pretty well inescapable: whether or not any given action or statement by the nation’s chief executive is unpresidential, it's often unprecedented. Joshua Gunn's Political Perversion: Rhetorical Aberration in the Time of Trumpeteering (University of Chicago Press, June) reads the president's discourse "on a continuum with infantile and 'gotcha' forms of entertainment meant to engender provocation and sadistic enjoyment," which "dominate not only the political sphere but also our daily interactions with others, in person and online."

The absence from university press lists of any defense or celebration of the current administration seems conspicuous though not shocking. It’s an interesting mental exercise to imagine what a work of pro-Trump scholarship might look like: an analysis of him as eloquent, effective and fully precedented. I won’t say that the thing cannot be done: the man is known for generating surprise. But the publisher of such a monograph would become known as Trump University Press, which seems like a disincentive.


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