Q&A with Linda Fowler, author of Watchdogs on the Hill

Fowler jacket

Linda Fowler is the author of the new release, Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations. Recently she answered some questions about the book’s contribution, her writing process, and why domestic influences in international affairs is such an important and overlooked topic.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LF: I worked on Capitol Hill right after graduating from college at a time when Congress was in disarray.  The country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, and lawmakers appeared helpless to deal with the upheaval.  Octogenarians dominated the leadership in both chambers, creating opportunities for President Nixon to push the bounds of the Constitution with seeming impunity.  Once I started graduate school I wanted to better understand how the world’s most powerful legislature had ended up in such a sorry state.  I was unimaginably fortunate that one of the nation’s most distinguished congressional scholars became my teacher and mentor.  Richard Fenno taught me to see the democratic possibilities in Congress, to take a longer view about its imperfections, and to focus on close observation of the people who shape it through their daily actions.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

LF: I learned that Congress had done a better job overseeing U.S. foreign policy since the start of the Cold War than most political observers acknowledged, but that since the mid-1990s, the institution has performed poorly in light of historical norms.  At first glance, this pattern seemed paradoxical:  why would lawmakers have been more effective monitoring the executive during a time when fears of nuclear war generated enormous pressures to defer to the White House regarding national security?  The answer eluded me until I began to focus on changes inside the Senate that devalued committee work.  When legislative craft and expertise mattered less to individual member’s success, they spent less time on committee hearings and thus diminished their capacity for oversight of the president.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

LF: The book demonstrates that the seemingly arcane business conducted by legislative committees matters a great deal in how well Congress fulfills its constitutional responsibilities in foreign affairs.  In an era in which commentators focus on the personality of the president and his conflicts with critics, the findings of the remind us why the framers put their faith in institutions, not individuals.  The unique research design of the study combines in-depth analysis of the content of committee hearings; lengthy time series from 1947-2008; investigation of both public and secret sessions; and detailed case studies.  Together, the different facets of the project enabled me to clearly identify trends and the reasons behind them, while grounding the analysis in real-world events.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LF: Early in my career, when I was struggling with my first book, someone told me to stop fussing over the introduction and go back to it once I had the individual pieces of the story.   It is advice I have followed ever since.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life? 

LF: I found it most challenging to create a coherent narrative that did justice to the complexity of the topic, the wide variety of historical data, and the use of both statistical and qualitative tools of analysis.

Why did you write this book? 

LF: In 2004, I had just finished a long stint in an administrative position at Dartmouth and was looking to reinvent myself as a scholar by undertaking a new project.  Several articles in the news that spring caught my attention because they quoted members of the House of Representatives publicly scolding two of the Senate’s most distinguished members, Foreign Relation’s chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Armed Services chairman John Warner (R-VA), for scheduling oversight hearings of President Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq. In the past, such pointed challenges would have been unthinkable, given the Senate’s prestige in foreign affairs.  I wanted to discover whether the Senate’s prime national security watchdogs had lost influence and, if so, what reasons lay behind the change.

Who do you see as the audience for this book? 

LF: Scholars have paid comparatively little attention to the subject of Congress and foreign policy: congressional experts focus primarily on lawmaking, while foreign policy specialists tend to overlook domestic influences in international affairs.  My objective was to redirect the attention of both camps by showing that oversight was an integral part of the legislative process and key to the rule of law and democratic accountability in war and peace.  Despite the scholarly focus, I wanted to make the book interesting to students, journalists, and people generally interested in American politics. So, I worked hard to make it accessible by using case studies to illustrate the main arguments, avoiding jargon, and burying the technical material in appendices.

How did you come up with the title or jacket? 

LF: A major theme of the book is that Congress needs to do better in overseeing U.S. foreign affairs, so I wanted a cover that conveyed both gravity and urgency.  The bold lettering of the title, the yellow color of the subtitle and the photograph of the famous hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by chairman William Fulbright (D-AR), during the Vietnam War convey those messages.

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson

Today marks the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president. Princeton University Press has been publishing The Papers of Thomas Jefferson since 1950.  To celebrate the birthday of this talented writer and politician who once said, “I cannot live without books”, we have compiled a political science book list.

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It
Jason Weeden & Robert Kurzban

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind digs into how self-interest divides the public on hot-button issues.Weeden and Robert Kurzban explain to readers how people form political positions.”The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind is provocative and often persuasive…Weeden and Kurzban remind us that self-interest is a complicated concept.” –Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

Read Chapter 1

American Insecurity American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction
Adam Seth Levine

Adam Levine analyzes the reasoning behind how increasing threat to financial well-being leads to political inaction. He explains when people need money, those who care about the issues but are not personally affected get involved.”Levine provides evidence that financially anxious people respond to their stress not by grouping together for action but by becoming less generous with their checkbooks and personal time.” — Pacific Standard

Read Chapter 1

The Loneliness of the Black Republican The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

The Loneliness of the Black Republican looks at the ideas of black Republicans from the era of the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. The book serves to provide an understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party.”The Loneliness of the Black Republican is meticulous, well-crafted, and consistently astute about the fractious recent history of the Grand Old Party.” — Artur Davis, Weekly Standard

Read the Introduction

The Birth of Politics The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter
Melissa Lane

Melissa Lane introduces the reader to the foundations of Western political thought, from the Greeks, who invented democracy, to the Romans, who created a republic and then transformed it into an empire. The book brings to light that the birth of politics was a story as much of individuals as ideas.”The political ideas of the ancients still endure-and still propel us into debate and even more vigorous conflict…[T]he author successfully illuminates the political ideas that still perplex and divide us.” –Kirkus Reviews

Read the Introduction

k10373[1] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 41: 11 July to 15 November 1803
Thomas Jefferson
Edited by Barbara B. Oberg

This volume of Thomas Jefferson’s papers is about the Louisiana Purchase.

Browse Princeton’s series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

Read Chapter 1

The Shape of the New The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World
Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot

The Shape of the New looks at Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx as heirs of the Enlightenment. Montgomery & Chirot note that it is impossible to understand the political conflicts of our own time without digging into the history of our country.”The Shape of the New is an ambitious book and a joy to read. The scholarship is brilliant. In contextualizing the great ideas of modern history, Montgomery and Chrot provide a holistic framework with which to understand the process of social change and ideological conflict.” — Paul Froese, coauthor of America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God-and What That Says about Us

Read the Introduction

 Thinking about the Presidency Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power
William G. Howell
With David Milton Brent
With a new preface by the author

William Howell examines the key aspects of executive power-political and constitutional origins, philosophical underpinnings, manifestations in contemporary political life, implications for political reform, and looming influences over the standards to which we hold those individuals elected to America’s highest office. In a new preface, Howell reflects on presidential power during the presidency of Barack Obama.”As one who served in the White House, I know something about the demands and dimensions of the modern presidency. In Thinking about the Presidency, William Howell contributes new and valuable insights into how the role has evolved, and what it means for our country.” –David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama

Read Chapter 1

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

Michael Chwe explains common knowledge, and why it matters to Mark Zuckerberg

Michael Chwe for UCOMM - 130321Michael Chwe, whose book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge has, in his words, “made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi” to catch the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, had a terrific piece on the Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post explaining exactly what common knowledge is, and why it’s so important. According to Chwe, common knowledge is generated by large scale social media platforms like Facebook, and this matters because of the many ways it can be leveraged, among them, stopping violence against women, and helping to foster collective political action.

From his piece on the Washington Post:

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose my book “Rational Ritual” last week for his “A Year of Books” book club, I was surprised. “Rational Ritual” came out in 2001, and has somehow slowly made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi into the elevated spheres of technology companies. This is gratifying to me, because even though it is a scholarly book published by a university press, “Rational Ritual” is essentially a popularization.

“Rational Ritual” tries to popularize the concept of “common knowledge” as defined by the philosopher David Lewis and the sociologist Morris Friedell in 1969. A fact or event is common knowledge among a group of people if everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.

When I was a graduate student in economics in the late 1980s, most people considered common knowledge as an idea of only theoretical interest. People who thought about collective action (and its flip side, political repression) were mostly interested in the problem of free riding, rather than how people communicate. But social change isn’t just about tackling incentives to free ride – it’s also a problem of coordination.

Read the rest here.

Recently, Michael Chwe, a master of interdisciplinary applications for otherwise “rarified mathematical theories” has been particularly active in exploring how game theory can help curb sexual violence. Check out his piece on the topic on the PBS Newshour blog here. His recent Q&A with Facebook Books is up here.

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.


Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

Leah Wright Rigueur on the state of the Republican Party

Last Wednesday, the Republican National Committee Black Republican Trailblazers awards took place in Washington D.C.. The event honored black Republicans both past and present, and this year the awards celebrated the largest class of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction. Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican:Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power commented on the state of the Republican Party to All Things Considered. Read what Rigueur said and learn more about the awards, here.

Be sure to read the introduction to The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, here.

 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power

Leah Wright Rigueur

Q&A with Lily Geismer, author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Recently Princeton University Press had the opportunity to interview Lily Geismer about her book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Read the introduction for free, here.

Why did you write this book?

LG: The answer to that question changed the longer I worked on the project. I set out to add to and complicate the literature of political and urban history. However, the longer I worked on it I realized that my other goal has been to make readers, especially people who engage in knowledge-based work and who live in suburbs, develop a more comprehensive understanding of the role of policies in shaping their lives and choices. Hopefully, it will help all readers think more critically about their political outlook and decisions.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LG: I was always really interested in contemporary politics and policy and questions of inequality in the United States. I realized as an undergraduate that the best way to explore these contemporary questions came from studying recent American history. When I entered graduate school, I did not intend to study these issues in one particular place or at the local level. However, it became clear that my questions about national political realignment, racial inequality, economic restructuring and the contradictions and transformation of American liberalism were best suited to a study of one particular place and picked to focus on Boston where I am from. The more I worked on the project, I came to understand that many of my questions were unconsciously informed by my experience growing up in Boston and were issues that had interested me since I was a kid and thus were what had pushed me toward the study of history in the first place.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LG: The best piece of advice I received while I was writing the book came from Thomas Sugrue who told me to write the book as if the audience was my undergraduate students at the Claremont Colleges and I had to explain the concepts to them. This advice really helped me figure out to make the writing clearer and more accessible. The other advice that proved very influential came from the Author’s note at the beginning of by J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground about the three families he followed through the Boston busing crisis. Lukas explained, “At first, I thought I read clear moral geographies of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue. The realities of urban America when seen through the lives of actual city dwellers, proved far more complicated than I had imagined.” I found myself returning to this statement repeatedly as I sought to make sense of the politics and point of view of the suburban residents I study.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

LG: The title for the book is a variation on the famous bumper sticker declaring “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts,” which circulated after George McGovern won only the state of Massachusetts in the 1972 election against Richard Nixon and again around Watergate. I thought it provided a way to capture and explore the dimensions of individualist and exceptionalist attitudes of many people who live in Massachusetts. It also provided a point of departure for me to provide a new examination of the McGovern campaign and show how it was not the failure it is often depicted to be, but a precursor to types of campaigns Democratic candidates would increasingly come to run on in an effort to appeal to suburban knowledge workers.

The design for the book jacket is inspired by a highway sign from Route 128, the high-tech corridor outside of Boston on which the book focuses. I am indebted to the wonderful and creative jacket designer Chris Ferrante at Princeton University Press for the cover design, which far exceeded my expectations. I know that you are not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but, in this case, I hope people will!

What is your next project?

LG: My next project grew out of Don’t Blame Us, especially the final chapter on Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party’s pursuit of public-private partnerships and high-tech growth and I wanted to look at these questions more at the national level and into the 1990s. Although still at the very early stages, my new project examines the bi-partisan promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality and privatization of public policy from the Great Society to the Clinton Foundation. I am focusing on the network that emerged as individuals and ideas have increasingly moved between government, academia, and business and how this movement connected and contributed to the economic, health care, education, environmental, housing and urban policies that emerged in the Clinton administration as well the development of public-private, non-profit programs like Teach for America; the popularity of microfinance, both in foreign and domestic contexts; and, the decision of college graduates across the political spectrum to seek employment in the private sector and non-government organizations. The project aims to complicate and challenge prevailing ideas about neoliberalism and show how the Democratic Party and its allies both embody and have influenced the pervasiveness of individualist and entrepreneurial-focused ideology in American policy, culture, and society.

What are you reading right now?

LG: One of the best parts of the book’s release has been that it coincided with the publication of books of members of my graduate school cohort and friends in the field, many of which were also published by Princeton University Press. I just finished Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, 2014) and Nathan Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago, 2014). Next up are Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, 2015) and Kathryn Brownell’s Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (North Carolina, 2014). I have been hearing about these projects for years and it has been so exciting to read them in their finished form.


 

bookjacket

Don’t Blame Us:
Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Lily Geismer

The Failure of Islamic Democracy, by John Owen, author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM: Six Lessons from the West’s Past — Op-Ed Original

The Failure of Islamic Democracy
By John M. Owen IV

The recent jihadist horrors in France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have lured our attention away from political conditions in the Middle East that indirectly helped produce them. In Turkey and Egypt “Islamic democracy” failed in 2014, and that failure will likely have long and deep repercussions for the entire region.

From northwest Africa to South Asia, majorities of Muslims routinely tell pollsters that they believe their country should either adopt literal Sharia, law derived from Islam’s holy texts, or at least follow the principles of those texts. The secularism that authoritarian Muslims imposed on their peoples from the 1920s through the 1970s is simply not popular over this vast region.

At the same time, the late Arab Spring made clear that Middle Eastern Muslims want governments that are accountable to them. The only resolution for most countries in the region, then, is some kind of Islamic democracy.

The very phrase “Islamic democracy” seems incoherent the Western ear, and indeed any Islamic democracy could not be liberal, in the individualist and secularist sense that we mean by that term today.

What, then, is Islamic democracy? Since it took power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party has invited the world to watch it build just such a system (although its leaders insist on the term “conservative democracy”). The early years of AK Party government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked promising, as the economy grew, negotiations with Kurdish separatists progressed, and Turkey even moved toward membership in the European Union. The AK Party fairly won several elections.

The unraveling began in 2013 with a crackdown on protests, and in 2014 it continued with corruption charges against Erdoğan allies, media censorship, politicization of the judiciary, and arrests of political rivals. Elected President in August after twelve years as Prime Minister, Erdoğan has made clear his determination to expand the powers of that office.

Then there is Egypt. Its stirring 2011 revolution ousted the authoritarian secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, and free elections in 2012 produced an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and an Islamist majority in parliament. Openly admiring of the Turkish model, the new Egypt was poised to exemplify an Arab Islamic democracy.

But in November 2012 Morsi assumed extraordinary powers. Mounting public protests against Morsi’s power grab were followed by his ouster by Egypt’s military in July 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2014 al-Sisi ran nearly unopposed for President, and while in office he has suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. Egypt appears where it was before 2011, only with a different former army general in charge.

Turkey’s Erdoğan has bested his opponents; Egypt’s Morsi was destroyed by his. But in both countries the experiment with Islamic democracy has failed. Each elected leader confronted powerful elites and large segments of the public who did not trust him to remain a democrat. Relations deteriorated, factions polarized, and both countries are settling into sultanism.

These depressing stories are not only about Turkey and Egypt. They are about the future of Islamic democracy itself. For nearly a century the entire Middle East has been passing through a legitimacy crisis, or a struggle over the best way to order society. The West and other regions have passed through legitimacy crises of their own in past centuries – most recently, the twentieth-century struggle between communism and liberal democracy. Prolonged spasms like these scramble political loyalties and generate unrest, revolution, and foreign interventions.

In the Muslims’ current crisis the original contenders in the struggle were secularism, pioneered by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic; and Islamism, formulated by thinkers such as the Sunni Hassan al-Banna and the Shia Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, journalists, and politicians lately have touted Islamic democracy as a hybrid solution to this long struggle.

Western history shows that long international ideological contests are played out in the policies and performances of real countries. And they end only when a large, influential state that exemplifies one contending ideology manifestly outperforms large states exemplifying the alternative ideologies.

Consider the Cold War, a struggle between the liberal democracy and communism that played out in the competition between the United States and Soviet Union. By the 1980s America’s economic, technological, and military superiority was clear. Societal elites the world over concluded that communism did not work after all. Country after country abandoned state socialism, and liberal democracy enjoyed a period of predominance over much of the globe.

In 2011 and 2012 it appeared that the Middle East was heading for a similar resolution, with Turkey showing the superiority of Islamic democracy, Egypt following its example, and elites in neighboring societies adopting this new hybrid regime as the wave of the future. As 2015 begins, things look nearly the opposite. Tunisia, which recently held fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, provides some hope. But if history is a good guide, Tunisia is too small and peripheral to be an exemplar or inspire imitation.

We can continue to argue over whether the retreat of Islamic democracy was inevitable or caused by other factors. We can argue over whether Islamic democracy’s time has passed, or not yet arrived. What is clear is that the Middle East’s legitimacy crisis continues, with an end no longer in sight.

John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia and author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM.

Interview with Adam Levine, author of American Insecurity on MSNBC.com

Adam Levine talked with MSNBC co-host Krystall Ball on her popular vodcast Krystal Clear about his new book, American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction. Check out the first chapter of American Insecurity for free, here.


 

bookjacket American Insecurity:
Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction

Adam Seth Levine

Drumroll, please…. Introducing Princeton University Press’s best-selling books for 2014

With 2014 in the history books and the media already predicting which books will be big in 2015, we are happy to look back at our best-selling titles for the year. It is a list noticeable for diversity of subject (fairy tales, math, ancient history, and birds all make an appearance) and for what it says about the longevity of some of our older titles, (say hello to stalwart books like On Bullshit, The I Ching, and The Box). We hope you find something wonderful to read on this list and if you’ve already read any of these books, let us know in the comments section below.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes
Alan Turing: The Enigma, The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges
1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt
The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
The I Ching or Book of Changes edited by Hellmut Wilhelm
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by Jürgen Osterhammel
The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson
The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird
Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit by Charles W. Calomiris & Stephen H. Haber
The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City by William B. Helmreich
Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide by Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson & Sheila R. Colla
The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel at Calculus by Adrian Banner
Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better by Peter H. Schuck
The Soul of the World Roger Scruton
The Age of the Vikings Anders Winroth
Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion by Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke
Rare Birds of North America by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington & Will Russell

Q&A with Andrew Needham, author of POWER LINES: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest

In only four decades, Phoenix, Arizona, grew from a town of sixty-five thousand to the sixth largest city in America. But the air-conditioned subdivision homes that drew new residents from the East Coast and Midwest came at a price. As Phoenix grew, so did its reliance on electricity and resources from the neighboring territory of the Navajo Nation. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest explores the often untold story of Phoenix’s growth—a federally subsidized postwar boom that exploited the Navajo Nation and spurred the roots of the contemporary coal-fueled climate change crisis.

Princeton University Press catches up with Andrew Needham, author of Power Lines, to discuss his inspiration and the challenges of organizing this multifaceted story of Southwest growth.

Needham

PUP: Why did you write this book?

AN: I started thinking about the ideas in this book long before I started graduate school. We were driving from Albuquerque to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, crossing what I’ve come to know as the eastern portion of the Colorado Plateau, which is a really beautiful mesa country, lots of the stark buttes and redrock sandstone characteristic of the Southwest.

Somewhere in northwest New Mexico, I saw a giant smoke plume on the horizon, which I initially assumed was a forest fire, because the West was in the midst of fire season. When we came over a rise and I saw Four Corners Power Plant, which is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the US, I was outraged, primarily because it seemed to represent a violation of everything we were on vacation to do, go see Big Nature, get away from “civilization.” Of course, I probably used that electricity, unthinkingly, that night.

But that experience started me thinking about how the production of electricity has become largely hidden from contemporary life, even as its use, particularly for the consumer goods in the “post-industrial age,” continues to increase. And it led me to start thinking about patterns of metropolitan development and underdevelopment, which at the time I was writing were largely told as a story of non-white inner cities surrounded by suburbs that people since the 1960s have characterized as a white noose.

As I began researching the electrical power networks that I saw on that car trip, I started to think that we needed to rethink that map of metropolitan inequality to account for all the ways that the land and resources of the metropolitan periphery, that space beyond the suburban frontier, are used as the location for institutions like power plants and landfills. Those institutions serve the needs of predominantly metropolitan consumers but displace most of their negative effects over great spatial distance. So in part, I wrote this book to figure out and explain how these two spaces – in this case Phoenix and the Navajo Reservation – that seem so far apart are actually intimately connected.

PUP: What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

AN: The biggest challenge for me is that the book involves so many pieces that are so disparate. There’s municipal politics in Phoenix and federal oversight of public lands. It contains stories about home builders in Phoenix and stories about federal Indian policy. There’s environmental politics and Indian politics. Figuring out a narrative strategy to have all of these elements makes sense in the same story took a long time.

The first chapter was the hardest to write, because I basically had to narrate the story of a region that didn’t yet exist cohesively, I call it “a region of fragments.” It covers a huge swath of time, from the formation of coal 100 million years ago to the eve of World War II, just to put the story in motion. I think it was worthwhile doing, though, because the pre-history that’s contained in that chapter is really important to the broader story. Phoenix doesn’t grow just because of air conditioning or particularly savvy public officials, it also grows because it’s located near these rich coal supplies that are not developed for reasons having to do with the region’s fragmentation. But I probably went through 30 drafts of that chapter, with many parts that got thrown out because they were interesting but peripheral.


I did not set out to write a book that tells the underlying history of climate change, but I think I accidentally stumbled into writing that book. And I think that lesson, about how our daily actions of turning light switches has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the social and natural worlds we live in, are lessons that many Americans are ready to think hard about. They need to be.


PUP: What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

AN: I think there are three contributions the book makes to the way we understand American life in the past 60 or so years. The first is just how dramatically electrical consumption grew over that time period. Between 1945 and 1970, Phoenix sees on the order of a 7500 percent increase in electrical consumption. Phoenix is somewhat anomalous, in that its population grows so much, but even if you break down the per capita consumption, the growth is really stark. The average home in Phoenix in 1945 uses about 1500 kilowatt hours annually. By 1970, that number is above 12,000. And it’s not just air conditioning. The Federal Housing Administration’s underwriting guidelines in the late 1930s ensure that even inexpensive houses will use much more electricity than they did previously, and a lot of local businessmen are deeply involved in promoting (and benefiting from) the growth of Arizona Public Service, the main private utility based in Phoenix.

The second contribution is the story of how the people who lived on these energy lands responded to these dramatic changes. And it surprised me, because it was a far more complicated story than I expected that disrupted many of the stories that told about Indians in modern America. I discovered deep divisions among Navajos responding to these rapid changes: from great hopes that the Navajo Tribe could harness this development to replicate the kinds of things Phoenix had done to attract high tech industry and to enjoy consumer modernity — a dream of “two light bulbs in every Hogan” in the words of one tribal official — to beliefs that the tribe could nationalize their energy holdings and become part of “an Indian OPEC,” to arguments that tribal leaders had misused their authority and had betrayed people at the grass roots by negotiating with energy companies.

I think I discovered two really important things in exploring those arguments. The first was that organized political action had surprising efficacy in contesting the ability of energy companies to claim resources as long as it happened before infrastructure was built. Once there was infrastructural investment made, in the form of coal mines, power plants, and transmission lines, however, political challenges proved much more difficult. The second, more simply, was that Navajos, and other people living near this new landscape of energy production, have grappled far longer with questions about where electricity comes from and what damages its production does than metropolitan Americans, who are just beginning to think about these questions in relation to the current crisis of climate change.

Finally, the book tells how coal became the fuel that powers modern America. Coal seems to symbolize the 19th century, railroads and steel production, not the 21st, but it’s coal-fired power, power whose production is “hidden” on the periphery of metropolitan America, that’s created “post-industrial” society. When people think of electricity in the Southwest, they think of the dams on the Colorado River. And these did allow a vision of modernity powered by, as Lewis Mumford wrote when the first of those dams were going up, “clean, flowing energy.” But the other side of that was ever-rising consumption. Water’s energy was limited, both by the capacity of the falling water in the Colorado River and by politics, which rendered new dams both overly costly and environmentally destructive by the early 1960s. Coal served as a convenient alternative, both for environmentalists who sought to save “the living river” and for private utility executives who sought to avoid the federal control involved with the dams. And this story was replicated, in different local forms, across the nation between 1970 and today, when 594 new coal burning power plants were built.

PUP: Who do you see as the audience for this book?

AN: Like all authors, I think everyone would benefit from reading my book. Particularly the editorial boards of the New York Times and NPR. But seriously, I think, beyond its core academic readerships of urban, western, American Indian and environmental historians, it has interesting lessons for people interested in how the built environment of the past half-century, the built environment of suburbia has reshaped both human society and the natural world. I did not set out to write a book that tells the underlying history of climate change, but I think I accidentally stumbled into writing that book. And I think that lesson, about how our daily actions of turning light switches has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the social and natural worlds we live in, are lessons that many Americans are ready to think hard about. They need to be.

Check out the introduction of Power Lines here. For more on Andrew Needham’s work, hop over to KPCC, Southern California Public Radio — Andrew was interviewed earlier this fall. During the interview, he discusses the background behind this fall’s historic settlement between the US government and the Navajo Nation regarding misuse of land.