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Why Books Are Still Central to Our Political Culture

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The re-emergence of Sarah Palin as a successful author should come as no surprise to anyone who recognizes the salience of books in public life. Her decision to write a book and her pre-pub sales demonstrate once more how books confer status in American political culture.

Palin's supporters (and those who may be purchasing her book, Going Rogue, in bulk) may or may not realize that by vaulting her to the top of the bestseller lists, they will validate her both personally and ideologically. Like many other books across the political spectrum, her book represents the latest episode in publishing as political and ideological warfare.

These pop bestsellers can serve to legitimize individuals as well as ideas, with consequences stretching beyond the immediate moment. The return of conservatives to the top of the lists this year is being touted as a sure sign of their movement's renewed vitality, despite the battered condition of the Republican minority.

Despite ongoing changes in technology, communications, and culture, books are consistently at the leading edge of new ideas, new social and political movements, new policy directions -- and the introduction of new leaders and new thinkers. When cable hosts and radio yakkers want to be taken seriously, they sit down to write more than a script. So do politicians, academics, and activists.

Ever since the founding of the republic, when Thomas Paine's Common Sense inspired mass support for the American Revolution, the printed word has played a critical role in American life. Indeed, the course of progress can be traced through the titles that guided and spurred nearly every important movement for change. Nearly a century after Paine's masterwork, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass galvanized the abolitionist movement.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the portrait of rapacious industry in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair gave rise to the reforms of the Progressive Era. Decades later, Michael Harrington's The Other America -- a searing expose of human deprivation amid plenty first published in 1962 and read by President John F. Kennedy -- sparked the War on Poverty and led directly to the establishment of Medicaid, Medicare, the food stamp program and the expansion of Social Security benefits.

The second wave of feminism arose directly from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, while the works of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Claude Brown, among others, encouraged African-American pride and determination. The modern environmental and consumer movements -- as well as the landmark legislation that they spawned -- grew directly from the publication of Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed. In our own time, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has drastically heightened perception of the dangers of climate change. Obama's books helped to build his historic candidacy for president -- just as Unfit for Command, the "swift-boating" screed of 2004, helped to wreck the candidacy of John Kerry.

Conservatives have long understood the power of books, not only as smear bombs but as weapons of ideological domination. Mounting their counter-offensive over the past three decades, they placed books at the center of their plans for promoting right-wing ideology. So a quarter-century after The Other America came Charles Murray's Losing Ground, a broadside attack on government action against poverty and discrimination. The Murray tome represented a deliberate plan by executives at the Olin, Bradley and Smith Richardson foundations, who knew that money invested in creating, publicizing and distributing books would have an explosive impact in the war of ideas.

Publication between hard covers lends validity to ideas and thinkers like no other medium, even for the most outlandish proposals and ideologues. The late Michael Joyce, who headed both the Bradley and Olin Foundations and was known as the "godfather" of modern right-wing philanthropy, once explained: "Books are the way that authors put forth more substantial, more coherent arguments. It follows that if you want to have an influence on the world of ideas, books are where you want to put your money." The same principle applies at the grassroots, where consumers vote with their book-buying dollars to promote politicians and pundits as well as their ideological preference.

That is why progressive consumers and organizations must become just as avid as conservatives in buying and supporting their favorites. Books represent a critical front in the war of ideas and a means to ensure that we keep progressive ideas and values at the center of the national debate.