The difficulty in picking four books that have affected the political discussion in the United States is in limiting the list to just four. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books that have, to a greater or lesser extent, affected the political discussion. For some, the impact was short lived, even if it might have been intense for a time. For others, the impact has been more enduring. The four books I picked all fall into the latter category, though they are balanced in other ways.
The oldest book I picked is F.A., Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” which was first published in the United States in 1944. The book is considered a classic of political philosophy and a must read by most conservatives and libertarians. The essence of the book is an examination of the rise of totalitarianism in the last century and how collectivism (in its various forms) is a threat to classic liberal notions of limited government and free markets.
“The Road to Serfdom” was heavily criticized by the intelligentsia at the time of its publication, but its ideas have endured. Those writing to celebrate the 25th and then the 50th anniversaries of its publication noted the book’s enduring influence. This has not changed as we approach the book’s 70th anniversary. In fact, the principles examined in the book may be more relevant than ever given the focus on the size of government and other economic matters in the current presidential election.
William F. Buckley Jr.’s “God and Man at Yale” was first published in 1951. As a 25-year-old Yale graduate, this was Buckley’s first book. The book itself is considered a stinging indictment of how Yale (and more generally academia) undermined students’ faith and promoted economic collectivism. More than 50 years on we are still debating the extent to which universities have a liberal bias.
The main impact of the book was how it thrust Buckley into the national spotlight and empowered him to forge an alliance with like-minded individuals. In 1955 he founded National Review, which many consider the flagship magazine of conservative thought. Although there are now many other outlets for conservative writers and pundits, the author of an introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of the book may have summed it up best: “Without ‘God and Man at Yale,’ one could fairly say, the conservative movement would not exist today.”
A self-described liberal author researching a biography of Buckley noted that iconic conservative literature tends to focus on ideology, whereas influential liberal literature is more often about policy issues. I was not previously aware of the author’s comment, but the two conservative books I selected seem to fit that pattern. So, too, do the next two liberal books.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) was an examination of how pesticides were harming both the environment and the people and animals living in it. Although some have questioned the accuracy of the science underlying Carson’s work, there’s no denying that it was the catalyst for the environmental movement.
The environmental movement has expanded well beyond concerns over pesticides, but not without fierce debate. Liberals often present a doom and gloom portrait of our future unless we follow their environmental prescriptions. Conservatives, on the other hand, are quick to point out the excesses of the movement. Nevertheless, even conservatives have recognized the impact of the book as National Review listed it as number 78 on its list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th Century.
Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” (1965) detailed how automobile manufacturers resisted design changes to improve safety. Some have argued that Nader’s book was the beginning of the consumer protection movement. Like the environmental movement, the debate over consumer protection is less about whether we need it and more about the extent of government regulation.
Like Buckley’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed” thrust Nader into the public spotlight. He became, and remained, a leading voice for consumer protection. As important as that movement continues to be, Nader had a more direct effect on American politics. In 2000 he was the Green Party nominee for president of the United States. Although Nader only received 2.74 percent of the national vote, the 97 thousand votes he received in Florida kept Al Gore from winning the state and in turn the presidency.
Tim Hagle is is a Political Science professor at the University of Iowa. Follow him on Twitter at @ProfHagle