Thursday, 27 August 2009

“The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism”, by Valerio Volpi (University of America Press)


The Founding Fathers, the US Constitution and 200 Years of “Corporate Dictatorship”

Valerio Volpi’s intended aim with this book is to link the constitutional structure of the United States with the installation of the prerequisites for the rise of corporate supremacy. He hopes to show how this corporate supremacy has allowed big business to replace representative institutions ever since the birth of the Republic, shaping US public policy across the board – from environmental policy to the US’s many foreign interventions – regardless of the party in charge (of the White House or the Houses of Congress).

According to Volpi, the Constitution, from the very beginning, was meant to protect the propertied class and its interests:

“big business’s sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution are part of an organic whole, and the latter can be considered as ‘the new nation’s first successful attempt to rig the rules of government and democratic participation in favor of elites’.”

Also, on the method of government put into place by the Constitution:

“checks and balances were intended not so much to protect the powers and prerogatives of each constitutional branch of government, as to keep the people at bay while perpetuating the domination of the moneyed elite.”

Volpi does a very good job of explaining this and outlining his position, before showing how the land-owning class of the Founding Fathers has now been replaced, by first war profiteers, and now the monied business or corporate class, “consisting mostly of white, elderly Protestant graduate males, with a salary of $100,000 a year or more, that is, today’s replica of the Founding Fathers”.

Much of the book is about how corporations and business interests have taken over the wheels of governance – not through buying office, but through buying officials (according to the author, few ultra-rich Americans see the point in running for office, when they can just buy those who do). Many will see the book merely as an anti-corporate rant (not to mention anti-politics, and some might even think it’s anti-American) – which isn’t hard when you have a long description of the “elite consensus” that makes businessmen come across as only one degree removed from the Devil. Volpi has, however, put far more into his arguments and positions than people like John Pilger (who, let’s be honest, only has one story) and Noam Chomsky (who, as a linguist, doesn’t really have any business discussing politics or international relations – see Halper & Clarke’s The Silence of the Rational Centre, 2006, Ch.5). The author doesn’t look just at businesses or rich Americans, rather he looks at the whole of American politics and society: the role of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, the media (briefly), the elections money-culture, and so forth.

Volpi’s style is assured and he is clearly very confident in his thesis, which is both a boon and a hindrance to the impact of the book. At times, clear statements of fact are given greater force by the way he writes directly to the point. At other times, Volpi’s position, though stated with some evidence, comes across as stretched – conclusions are grander or more shocking than would appear to most others. In this way, he is somewhat like the aforementioned Chomsky (an oft-cited source for the book), which is a pity.

Overall, this is a very interesting book, and a relatively easy read. Volpi’s approach to the subject is unblinkered, lacking the mythologised preconceptions of the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary period that is all-too-common in books written by or for Americans – he discusses the academic consensus that says John Locke’s influence was considerable, while offering other possibilities (e.g. Machiavelli – one I agree with). Volpi, in fact, paints a distinctly dark picture of early American life, complete with all its biases and bigotries: to be female, Black or a Native American was a guarantee to suffering. Equally, the author is not star-struck by Obama, spending considerable time discussing the new president’s election’s corporate ties. While it sometimes feels as though Volpi wishes to knock down America (not sure if this is his intention, but it comes across a bit like it was written by what a Republican would call an “America basher” or “European America hater”), on the whole the author provides some valuable input into the current state of corporate dominance in the United States.

The one thing that is disappointing, given that this was his PhD thesis as well, is the evidence of balance in his argument. This is very focused on one thing (corporate influence cannot be a good thing), which seems to make him sometimes lose focus on the title of his thesis. For example, the penultimate chapter, “Corporations and World Domination”, has little-to-nothing to do with “World Domination” – it’s exclusively US-centric, which is disappointing; I was hoping for more on business’s impact on US foreign policy (which might have actually strengthened the overall argument). Volpi does make up for some of this shortfall by providing extensive factual evidence, providing lots of data (usually financial in some form or another) to support his arguments or at least complete the picture.

Not everyone will agree with his portrayal of America, of course (some will loudly oppose it, bemoaning conspiracy-theorists, etc.), but I would recommend it as a well-sourced, well-written opinion on US corporatism. I was not wholly convinced by his argument, but there was plenty in the book that made me rethink some things or at least look at certain issues from a new direction – which, ultimately, is what a book like this should do.

The evidence he presents in the chapter about the Founding Fathers is particularly interesting and eye-opening (and refreshing), and is certainly one of the book’s main strengths. The lack of an international focus is disappointing, but for a negative view of the role of corporations, business and money in general in America and its politics, the book is a good place to start.

A “radical” approach to US politics and history, The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism is worth a look.

If you’re looking for a more scholarly Noam Chomsky or Greg Palast, then I think this book is for you.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

“The Accidental Billionaires”, by Ben Mezrich (William Heinemann/Random House)


They just wanted to meet girls…

In Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich (author of Bringing Down the House) tells us the story of Facebook – from its first steps all the way to world domination. It is the story of two guys at Harvard trying to improve their social standing, to meet girls – one, Eduardo Saverin, through “punching” a Final Club; the other, Mark Zuckerberg, by making a killer app.

From the first Harvard-based website Zuckerberg wrote – “Facemash”, a late-night reaction to a girl dumping him – to his limited work on a soon-to-be rival website, “HarvardConnection”, and on to Facebook’s incredible rise in the internet world, the story takes us through every step of Zuckerberg and Saverin’s journey – the highs, the lows, the betrayals and the attacks. Saverin was the businessman Zuckerberg turned to for help getting the site launched; arguably his best friend at Harvard. The story is also a refutation, in this age, of Saverin’s initial belief that “You didn’t get popular by writing computer code. A computer program couldn’t get you laid”. His partnership with Zuckerberg would change both of their lives forever, and make them far more popular and famous than they could have imagined.

Facemash had the unfortunate effect of crashing the university servers as 80% of Harvard students voted on who they believed was the hottest girl on campus (something that didn’t exactly endear its creator to the administration or feminists). Narrowly avoiding expulsion, Zuckerberg was approached by Divya Narendra and identical rowing twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss to help them with their own networking site (meant to make hooking up more time efficient). Zuckerberg agreed, but never really did any work for them, instead focusing on his own site, “”. The Winklevosses and Divya saw thefacebook as a theft of their idea, and they eventually filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, obviously not succeeding in their aim of shutting Facebook down, which instead spread like wildfire through campuses across America, and then beyond.

To Mark, “it’s likely that the cool thing [about Facebook] was the math that was going to go into it – the computer science of the task, the code at the heart of the Web-site idea.” Zuckerberg comes across as a strange character – a true hacker-geek, somewhat disinterested in money, more interested in the world online than out in the real world. His character develops and changes as thefacebook grows – at times he comes across as cold, even ruthless when countering accusations of plagiarism in the site; other times he appears disconnected from the world, or mischievous. His is clearly a personality that is difficult to nail down or decipher – bizarre for the person who has created the ultimate online socialising tool. Equally ironic, and tragic, is the fact that, while their creation brought hundreds of thousands of people closer, their rapid and unprecedented success ultimately tore their friendship apart as a simple disagreement spiraled out of control into out-and-out war.

This narrative account (which the author admits to taking a pinch of authorial license to create a proper chronological flow) was drawn from hundreds of interviews, emails and conversations with some of those involved – most remain anonymous, though Eduardo Saverin and Tyler Winklevoss seem to have been considerable sources, while Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for the book. The absence of Zuckerberg’s input is noticeable, and there’s no doubt that the book would have benefited from his perspective – especially with regards to the lawsuits, personal relationships, and those times when he was away from his colleagues and friends. Despite the bad blood between the Facebook founders, Saverin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg remains largely positive or neutral throughout the book – which is a good testament to Saverin’s character.

As well as the story of Facebook, Accidental Billionaires gives the reader an interesting window into Ivy League campus life and also the world of Harvard’s Final Clubs – the exclusive fraternities (with names like Phoenix and Porcellian), membership to which can change anyone’s life, both at college and after.

Mezrich shows how, in many ways, Facebook is just an online distillation of what defines college life: sex. Regardless of your social standing, the author posits, there is nothing that can’t be linked with this drive. “Even at Harvard, the most exclusive school in the world, it was all really about sex. Getting it, or not getting it.” Thefacebook would have an “undercurrent of sex”, while not being as explicit about it as other, existing networking sites (e.g. The website’s “Looking For”, “Relationship Status” and “Interested Features” were basically “the résumé items that were at the heart of [the] college experience”.

Overall, Accidental Billionaires is a very well written, engaging book. Mezrich’s style is very accessible, conversational and manages to make the story of a website actually quite gripping. The book is a very fast read, Mezrich’s writing just pulls you along, with frequently funny and illuminating passages and anecdotes.

Mezrich has managed to write a book as addictively readable as its subject matter is usable. Accidental Billionaires is easily one of the most intriguing and enjoyable non-fiction books of the summer.

Highly recommended to all.

Also try: Scott Turow, One L (1997); Philip Delves-Broughton, What They Teach At Harvard Business School (2007); Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2005); John Battelle, The Search (2008)

By the Same Author: Bringing Down the House, Ugly Americans, Busting Vegas, Rigged (and others)

Monday, 17 August 2009

“Reset”, by Kurt Andersen (Random House)


How the current economic and social crisis can restore values and renew America

In Reset, journalist and writer Kurt Andersen offers “a blueprint for what can be a new way of seeing America as a land of opportunity and sound values”. In today’s economic and social climate, things need to change.

“Let’s be honest: we all saw this coming for a long, long time”, we just refused to do anything about it because things appeared to be going to well. The US (and the world as well) were enjoying the good times, without any concern for when the bottom fell out – which it must, every time, and also “no one wanted to be a buzz kill”.

Andersen outlines the gloomy state we’re in now – covering both social issues and economic ones, from the macro and the micro perspectives. He mentions the obvious greed and over-indulgence evident in American society – be it the increase in obesity (more than one third of Americans, up from 15% in 1970s), the increase in size and price of houses, and so forth. Economically, the author discusses how the auto industry’s been in trouble for years; house prices are slumping after many Americans paid huge sums to own ridiculous houses (Andersen rightly points out that, maybe not everyone should be a home-owner and we need to accept that we just might need to rent for a bit longer); savings rates have diminished to nearly zero (in 2007, less than 1%; whereas in 1982 the rate was about 11%).

Exponentially growing income inequality is another social catastrophe. In 2007, upon hearing about the stratospheric Wall Street bonuses being doled out, the author calculated, at one point, that “the revenues at just one of these money-minting firms, Goldman Sachs, were larger than the GNPs of tw-thirds of the countries on earth”. This made the author for the first time understand and agree with Lou Dobbs’s nightly hour of angry populism (one can only hope this agreement doesn’t extend to the Birther nonsense Dobbs has been spouting of late).

“Just as Republicans had for forty years depicted Democrats as insanely freewheeling social experimenters determined to lavish money on the undeserving poor, now the caricature has been reversed: the GOP became the party of arrogant, reckless risk takers determined to lavish money on the undeserving rich.”

None of this should have been a surprise, and Andersen blames America’s own ability to fool itself for the ‘shock’: “We saw what was happening, for decades, but we ignored it or shrugged it off, not quite believing that push would really, finally come to shove”.

“The (Chinese made) stuff we were all buying at Walmart and Costco and H&M stayed supercheap – as did money itself, which our new best friends, the Chinese, obligingly supplied to us by the low-interest-rate trillion.”

Instead of doing something, addressing the inequalities, addressing the gambling nature of the US economy and debt-lead way of life, America “punched the snooze button” after 9/11, the event that was supposed to change everything when really it was a mere bump in the road, the country returning to normal after Bush and Co. urged us all to return to the malls and go shopping.

Instead, we are faced with a stark truth: “The party is finally, definitely over.”

While Andersen is very blunt in his appraisal of the stupidity America has exhibited, he’s also very optimistic about the future and America’s ability to overcome. Referring back to what allowed the US overtake the UK in the 20th Century, the author makes it clear that those attributes will also allow it to overcome the current downturn: “fewer fetters on individual gumption, [and] a younger nation’s ability to make faster social and economic turns.” (Andersen does, however, allow for the possibility that China is the new up-and-comer; taking the place of the reigning superpower in much the same way that the US did.)

The worst thing the author believes we can do is “start behaving now like overcautious, unambitious scaredy-cats”. While banking, the auto industry and so forth might be experiencing a tightening or restructuring, “for entrepreneurs… this great dying off and impending void present vast opportunity.”

Andersen locates the current dire situation in a detailed (though not unwieldy, and still brief) historical context. By doing so, he is able to ‘support’ his optimistic outlook by pointing to the cyclical nature of American history and economics (according to the Schlesinger model, the US is in its 15th cycle).

Commenting on doomsayers and Rush Limbaugh’s ilk, the author agrees that “This is the end of the world as we’ve known it”, before adding, “But it isn’t the end of the world.” To Andersen, it is simply time “to be more artisan/enterpriser and less prospector/speculator, more heroic greatest generation and less self-indulgent baby-boomer, to return from Oz to Kansas, to become fully reality-based once again.”

Making use of the AA’s Twelve Steps approach, Andersen offers his own “streamlined, secularized” seven-step program to fixing the damage created by a national addiction to debt and fossil fuels. The use of addiction tropes is apt, in many ways, and the author continues it to make his point: “The new America must be about financial temperance, not abstinence.”

The book is rather expensive, given its length ($15 in-store), which is likely to turn many people off; though they might just read it in bookstore coffee-shops (fabulous development, by the way). What any reader will find, though, is that in a mere 74 pages, Andersen has written a short, punchy explanation of how he sees America and where it should go from here. The shortness doesn’t impact his argument much, which is a testament to the economy of his prose and the surety of his arguments, lending an air of brevity to a field frequently beset by bloviating and tautology.

If you are interested or invested in the state of the US economy (or the global economy as a whole), I would strongly recommend you read this. Interesting, well-written, pleasantly optimistic, and easily digestible, Reset is a great little book.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

“Renegade”, by Richard Wolffe (Crown)


“The Making of a President”

The first in the second wave of books chronicling the 2008 presidential election, Renegade is based on a number of exclusive interviews with and access to the president and also considerable access to the candidate and his staff during the whole campaign. Now that the furore of election season has calmed down a bit and Obama has started to govern, it’s interesting to see what more time has done to the story of Obama’s incredible campaign. The 2008 Presidential Election, in Wolffe’s words, was an “outlandish, extraordinary spectacle that veered from inspiration to exasperation, from the mundane to the faintly insane.”

The president (then candidate) liked to describe his “journey from freshman senator to presidential front-runner as an improbable one,” and his closest aides and friends didn’t know whether or not he could survive the “trial by fire of a presidential campaign” – Axelrod, for example, wondered if Obama really had the “burning desire” to become president needed to really survive the “inhuman pace and pressures” of a campaign. Wolffe points out that, at least in the judgement of the “greatest political minds in the nation’s capital”, Obama’s run was also “preposterous and quixotic”. That being said, these great minds (and also many of the top journalists) also got a lot wrong during the campaign, underestimating both the candidate and the electorate.

Renegade is the story of how an “untested, unforged” freshman senator from Illinois navigated the crazy, turbulent waters of a presidential election, and how his young, skilled campaign team steered him to an impressive, improbable win.

Wolffe opens the book with a chapter about election night; Obama’s reaction to the death of his grandmother, who passed away the day before Election Day; the stressful-followed-by-euphoric atmosphere of the campaign on the day; Obama’s acceptance speech, and so forth. This chapter was a little long, and left me wondering (just a little) what would be the point in reading the rest of the book? Why start at the end? The chapter was good (if prone to hyperbole), but could have benefitted from being shorter.

Before getting to the campaign, Wolffe spends quite some time describing Obama’s upbringing, his relationship with his parents (his absent father and “adored and idealized” mother), and also a bit of biographical detail for his parents. In some ways, this feels like the author is just retreading the ground covered by Obama’s own memoir, Dreams from My Father. Wolffe also describes how Obama met and married Michelle (along with some more biographical info for Michelle), and then gives us a quick run-down of Obama’s political life, including his time in the Senate – how he was “surprised at the slow pace” there, and how he was disappointed how in the Chicago state legislature perhaps 100 bills could be passed in one session, whereas in the Senate the number was usually only 20.

The author then (finally) takes us back to the campaign; how, on Obama’s Christmas break in 2006, “there was a looping conversation – often with his friends but mostly in his head – about his relentless ambition, the cost to his family, the tugging gravity of history, the fleeting moment of opportunity”.

Wolffe uses some pretty grandiose vocabulary and phrases in the book. Some will find this grating (especially those who didn’t vote for Obama, but also some who did support him), as it illustrates the incredibly pedestal that President Obama has been placed upon by his own supporters, and just a bit of the hero-worship Obama can elicit in his fans. For example, Wolffe dramatises Obama’s choice to run by adding that he had “promised to clear his head and decide his future – and perhaps the course of a nation”. The extra reference to the nation is unnecessary.

This biography is well written, interesting and has the benefit of temporal-distance and hindsight to make it a more well-rounded and in-depth account of the 2008 election campaign. The distance from Election Day has also allowed the author to look more at Obama’s character, and how it wasn’t always cool and collected: “he could be cocky and grumpy, impatient and withdrawn. He was often an inscrutable character.” The general themes of the book are, of course, not particularly new given the intense media attention the 2008 election received all over the world. The author enjoyed very good access to the candidate and his staff, which certainly helped create a better book. However, the extra background details in chapter two gives the book a very slow start, which is probably its main weakness. Once the campaign starts, the book becomes a lot more interesting and in many instances riveting, even though the reader will already know the outcome. Wolffe provides plenty of background information and context, too, which is great, even if it does have a tendency to slow the pace of the book. For this attention to detail and context, Wolffe should be applauded – he has made this well-tread story feel fresh and new again.

That being said, the increased amount of depth is a welcome addition to the narrative. For me, the best content was that involving Obama’s decision to run – something that hasn’t really been covered before, whereas the campaign itself has. I can’t, however, see many people rushing to buy this if they’ve read even one of the first-wave of election books. This is a real pity, as Wolffe has done a fantastic job of pulling back the curtain on Obama’s election campaign, as well as offering a more detailed portrait of the candidate, making for a hefty, satisfying read.

The best election book so far, Renegade is an up-close, insightful, engaging, and revealing account of the 2008 election and the man who is now President of the United States.

Also try: Evan Thomas et al, A Long Time Coming (2009); David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (2009); Haynes Johnson, The Battle for America 2008 (2009); Chuck Todd, How Barack Obama Won (2009); Larry J. Sabato, The Year of Obama (2009)

Renegade is published by Virgin Books in the UK

Review posted from Lima, Peru

Thursday, 6 August 2009

“Big Man on Campus”, by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster)

Trachtenberg-BigManOnCampusA former university professor speaks out on Higher Education in the United States

Currently the President Emeritus of George Washington University (after 19 years serving as its president), Trachtenberg takes a look back on his years at universities in the US: George Washington, the University of Hartford (president for 11 years), and also Boston University. Big Man on Campus is his memoir and a collection of his opinions on the big issues facing universities today. A rather unorthodox academic (he was very young when he started ascending the ranks), this is not the sort of book one might imagine. “I have not written a textbook. This is not my style and probably not what you’d enjoy reading anyway.”

One of the main reasons for writing this book, the author states, is that while Americans revere and support (often rabidly) university sports teams, they know very little about what goes on, especially at the administrative level, inside these “fascinating institutions, which contribute a great deal to society and also seek a great deal from it.”

To assess the current state of higher education, each chapter of the book focuses on a different subject. These include, among others: town-gown relations, fundraising, the rules of an effective university president, and the internal university politics (including the bizarre presidential selection battles at Gallaudet, the only deaf university in the US).

In a grounded, inviting tone, and embellished with a wealth of personal anecdotes, Big Man on Campus is a surprisingly interesting read. I was expecting something a lot drier and, perhaps stereotyping a little too much, stuffier from this career academic. Much of the work does concern the most important issues currently facing further education in the US – for example, how best to create comprehensive study options and curricula. An example the author gives is how “It makes little sense to learn about another culture while remaining ignorant about one’s own.”

Trachtenberg also addresses those issues that are more visible in the public eye – university politics and also the politics of universities and education. For example, the public (but also many students’) insistence on viewing the university presidents as the living embodiment of that institution, and therefore responsible for all that goes on within his or her demesne – which is, of course, ridiculous, as how can a president (or any single member of faculty) know about everything that happens all the time? (The author uses Larry Summers’s expulsion from Harvard and the Duke Lacrosse team incidents as exemplars of how not to do things.)

“Money is the biggest challenge facing the modern university president”, and a university’s funding and endowments are also of great interest to the public. This is especially true when, like Harvard, institutional endowments start to reach into the tens of billions ($35 billion, in Harvard’s case). With such high sums, Trachtenberg says, why does Harvard still raise tuition? (He answers this in the book, very well.)

“When is enough enough? When does a university have the resources it needs? Surely Harvard is aware that its endowment is larger than the Gross Domestic Product of some countries.”

The impact of 9/11 and government tightening of immigration effected universities considerably; university presidents spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince the authorities to not bar international students from studying there – if they didn’t bring their tuition money to the US, they would just take it elsewhere to Canada, the UK, and the rest of Europe, while also helping ferment bad feelings towards the United States.

“A campus is a place to embrace diversity, to witness passions, to delve into history. Alas, now and again, grown-ups intrude… We don’t want to keep international young people from meeting our young people and learning about us.”

As someone currently in higher education in the UK, but wishing to make the transition to the United States, this book was of particular interest to me. Trachtenberg writes in a refreshingly honest and conversational tone; whether he is tackling the changes he's seen in university students over the years, or the his own influences (his parents, other professors and colleagues).

I’m not sure this will have quite as wide appeal as some reviewers have suggested, but it’s certainly an enjoyable, interesting (and different) read to what many might be used to. The character of the author definitely comes through, and it’s easy to see why he was a popular president and personality around campus. His fondness for George Washington University, especially, comes through – the only slight negative result being at times he comes across as if he were writing a long-form prospectus for the university. A minor quibble, for sure, it has made me consider GW as a possible destination for my post-doctoral career (assuming they’ll ever take me…). Trachtenberg’s writing throughout is funny and engaging, while remaining eloquent and intelligent, and never flippant.

Essential reading for anyone studying in, or considering studying in the United States, Big Man on Campus will also probably be of interest to anyone involved in any university – be it on the students’ or teachers’ side of the fence. I really enjoyed reading this.

Review posted from Lima, Peru

Monday, 3 August 2009

“How to Rig an Election”, by Allen Raymond & Ian Spiegelman (Simon & Schuster)


An insider look into the Republican electioneering apparatus

It would be easy to dismiss this book as the work of a disgruntled former insider; Raymond rose through the ranks of Republican electioneering quickly, moving from local to national elections in just five years. Usually victorious, he came a cropper when he was asked to do something that was borderline illegal (jamming Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire). After helping elect many Republicans, his lack of ideological purity (he’s a North Eastern moderate) meant that, “When the shit hit the fan, my political party and my former colleagues not only threw me under the bus but then blamed me for getting run over.”

One might consider that the man has a considerable axe to grind, considering his string of GOP election successes. However, while it is clear that Raymond still holds a grudge against the Republican Party machine-operators, this is more a memoir of his experiences and observations from the frontlines of American elections and his time in the RLC (which opposed the RNC) and as a leading partner in Equally, given the betrayal by his colleagues – his co-conspirator received about $3million towards his defence from the GOP, Raymond received none – it’s not surprising that Raymond decided to help prosecutors and the DA in uncovering and shining a light on the tactics the GOP uses.

Raymond starts with a short introduction about his background, before diving straight in to his political upbringing. Starting as a grass-roots operative for the Bush/Quayle 1992 election, before moving on to simple, local New Jersey politics, he rose to New Jersey congressional elections, and then starting shifting his base around the country. He worked for Ellen Harley in Pennsylvania, in an attempt to take advantage of the Clinton 1993 tax-hike on the wealthy to create a Republican victory of the House and Senate (only not Harvey’s). He then moved up to be in charge of the Northeast region elections for the RNC, under the mentorship of Haley Barbour.

After the electoral sweep, the GOP and its operatives “spent the next eight years giving the truth such a beating every time it showed its face that it eventually just stopped coming around altogether.” Equally, the adherence to ideological purity was something that seems to have put Raymond off, though (he makes clear) not enough to actually switch sides or try too hard to change things. This GOP ideological focus even ran to opposing likely winners if they happened to be pro-choice, just as Ellen Harley was: “The mouth-breathers who decide GOP primaries might allow people who steal their money and send their children to impossible wars get away with anything, but they’ll cut no such slack for baby-killers.” All Republicans became subordinate to the Southern Strategy, even if their platform had nothing to do with Republican victories (as in the Northeast, where it likely would have hindered GOP candidates); they didn’t want your membership unless you behaved the way they wanted you to behave. This was a problem, as Raymond points out that,

“No offense to the true believers, but it’s hard to get any serious business done with someone from the God Squad twisting your ear about the evils of stem cell research while an NRA lifer demands your assurance that the black helicopters won’t be swooping down to deprive him of his twin-mounted .50-caliber Brownings.”

Raymond is very good at both highlighting the skill with which the party apparatus can spin issues and convince others, while also showing the absurdity of voters’ weaknesses in falling for these underhand tactics time and again. For example, voters were so offended that the GOP “stole the presidency” that “they actually voted to maintain [the Republican] congressional majority in the 2002 election” as well as give the White House to Bush again in 2004. Equally,

“Who would have thought that we could convince so many blue-collar workers that raising taxes primarily on white-collar workers was intrinsically wicked that they and other voters should give [the Republicans] both the House and the Senate?”

Raymond describes the Republican approach to politics as being very simple: “using polls to find – or, better yet, create – the negative issue that turns off the right segment of voters”, to gain the slight edge needed to tip any given election. Wedge issues, in other words. And in America, politics is wedge issues. As for how to achieve this? “Was the tactic dirty? Was it clean? Meaningless. It was victorious.” When it came to the Lewinsky scandal, it’s clear that Raymond believed the Contract with America Republicans (also known as the Southern Strategy, or Gingrich Republicans) went too far: the Lewinsky “stuff was interesting as gossip when it started, but when the guys in the House began calling for Clinton’s impeachment I thought they’d all gone nuts.” He also didn’t see why those in the House would want to have Clinton step down, only to have Gore become president, and therefore the incumbent in 2000 (according to Raymond, in politics, incumbents have a 95% chance of winning – this statistic I think is for House and Senate, but even presidential incumbents have a tendency to win).

How to Rig an Election is also a portrait of a party that self-destructed and, given what we see happening in the political environment in the US at the moment, a party that is still self-destructing. In 2002, Raymond explains, “just about every Republican operative was so dizzy with power”, and their continued successes meant that “it seemed preposterous that anything you did to win an election could be considered a crime.” But, by 2005, things were changing dramatically: “Everywhere you turned so many Republicans were screwing up so outrageously that even the press wasn’t afraid of them anymore.”

Raymond doesn’t have much to say about the Republican Party establishment that is positive or complimentary. He refers to them as “knuckle-draggers”, hypocrites and greedy (Rove is held in particularly low esteem). As for the Republican religiosity, it’s a sham: referring to the “WWJD” bracelets popular among the GOP leadership, the author says,

“I would come to learn that none of the top men or women in the RNC ever asked themselves what Jesus would do until after they got caught doing things he would never have done.”

How To Rig An Election will act as an “I told you so!” text for the many who believe the Republican Party will do anything, say anything, and bribe anyone just to win elections. While the book also highlights instances when Democrats used underhand and devious (dishonest) tactics to tip the electoral scales in their favour, this remains a book primarily targeting the Republican Party.

Honestly and openly written, Raymond’s style is conversational and welcoming, with a knack for interesting turns of phrase, making this book an easy and enjoyable read. Filled with interesting anecdotes, opinion, and insider observation, the book is well worth reading if you have any interest in the American political process. Highly recommended.

Also try: Stephen Marks, Confessions of a Political Hitman (2008); Mike Loew, Thanks for the Memories, George (2009); Sidney Blumenthal, The Curious Death of the Republican Party (2007); Al Franken, The Truth With Jokes (2006); Andrew Gumbel, Steal This Vote (2005); Andras Szanto, What Orwell Didn’t Know (2007); Robert Shrum, No Excuses (2007)

Review posted from Lima, Peru