Pumped-up polemics dominate bestseller lists

The titles come as blasts from flame-throwers.

There's "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," just out from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. And Glenn Beck's "Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government."

Not even out yet — but already topping Amazon.com's list of political bestsellers — is "The Manchurian President: Barack Obama's Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists" by Aaron Klein and Brenda J. Elliott, which echoes the 1962 classic film in which Chinese communists try to hypnotize their way into the White House.

The scorching isn't just from the right. Remember Al Franken's pre-Senate "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot"? And then there's Keith Olbermann's forthcoming "Hall of Shame: The Worst of the Worst, from Beck, Bill, and Bush to Palin and Other Posturing Republicans."

The contents of these books are just as confrontational as their titles, and while President Obama might have lamented the "coarsening of our political dialogue" during a "60 Minutes" interview last year, experts say the tough language and name-calling falls directly in the arc of American political tradition.

In other words, we've always been a democracy of schoolyard taunts and gossipy innuendo. It's just that more of us now seem to be buying books about it.

"Most people today buy political information because they like to hear it and they agree with it," says David Perlmutter, a political communications specialist at the University of Iowa, where he watches as the quadrennial presidential caucuses play out with varying degrees of venom. "People tend to read blogs that support their existing beliefs, left and right. So it's no surprise that they buy books that basically tell them what they want to hear. … People feel good about hearing their own anger and excitement articulated by someone else."

Whether that's good for the democracy is up for debate.

"We live in an argument-driven world," says Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books, which publishes more even-tempered titles such as "Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future."

And the volume has gone up, he says, beginning with the political right's early grasp of the power of talk radio after the Federal Communications Commission relaxed the "fairness doctrine" doctrine in 1987 and cleared the airwaves for one-sided broadcast programs.

In a sense, the free-wheeling world of all-sports talk radio spread to politics.

"The megaphone effect has been magnified by talk radio, first, and in the last 10 years or so, by the blogging culture," Osnos says. "Books of right-wing invective have done especially well because the Glenn Beck-Ann Coulter vehemence tends to be more aggressive than books on the other side."

Such efforts, he adds, aren't designed to add to the synthesis of public policy. They're designed to sell.

"Reason is not an ally in attack arguments," Osnos says. "Publishers have always been drawn to polemic, but the size of the market for these books was expanded in the Clinton years and has been active again with Obama in the White House."

Publishers tend to guard sales information like the National Security Agency guards details on wiretapping, so it's hard to get a sense of the scope of the political-invective market. But a look at the bestselling political books at Amazon.com suggests that people would just as soon fight as reason.

Of the top 20 ranked books in politics at the start of this week, three were polemical books by Klein-Elliott, Beck and Sean Hannity.

Three were more even-handed titles: Jonathan Alter's "The Promise: President Obama, Year One"; "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime" by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin; and Sarah Palin's forthcoming "America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag," due out in November.

The rest were historical books or multiple formats of the same book.

"It's not a surprise because in a very opinionated marketplace, strongly worded opinions stand out," says Raphael Sagalyn, a Washington-based literary agent who represents a number of journalists and policy analysts. "When it comes to books about topical issues of the day, the volume is turned up high."

Yet Perlmutter says democracy has always been a boisterous affair.

"You can go back to ancient Rome and see people printed scrolls and pamphlets and gave speeches attacking their enemies," he says. "That drew big crowds and got them elected to political power."

The early years of the United States saw a resurgence of scathing political bromides by the press, which was financed not by advertising — the crumbling modern model — but through subscriptions by supporters and the largesse of political organizations, Perlmutter says.

"They were tied to political parties," Perlmutter explains, "and the only way you sold 1,000 copies of a newspaper was to have 1,000 people who agreed with you to buy it. So they tended to be very partisan."

The nasty tenor of political discourse has ebbed and flowed ever since, with some of the most vocal bashing during the Great Depression and again during the Vietnam War, says Osnos. Yet the caustic nature of some books, he notes, isn't necessarily bad for finding consensus in political debate.

"It doesn't detract especially, but it shapes the tone, which we'd all agree is vitriolic," he says. "More than in the past? The '60s, the '30s were angry decades also."

But others think it does erode the caliber of our public conversation by driving away less rancorous voices dismayed by the hyperbole from the left and the right.

Remember those pictures from the "tea party" gatherings of Obama with horns? What political junkies might see as spectator sport, others view as unsavory behavior, driving a wedge between policymaking and the people in whose name the policies are being made.

"Demonization has become so common it's almost lost the power of the original word," Perlmutter says. That pointed verb-to-verb combat might entertain the political classes, but "I still believe the vast majority of American people don't get much out of that, and I don't think it's real helpful for the country."

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