American Politics, Then & Now

A New Volume of Essays by Renowned Scholar James Q. Wilson

"All of us who write about politics today know this: To be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson's era is to know how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra's era. We are all competing for the silver medal. Wilson has won the gold. These essays show why."

--George F. Will

"For over forty years, James Q. Wilson has been America's leading public intellectual--and perhaps the world's. Touching on almost every important aspect of our politics, public policy, national character, morality, and culture, these masterful essays draw together his own encyclopaedic command of the social facts, the imperishable wisdom of Aristotle, and the felicitous wit and concision of Dr. Johnson. They will reward thoughtful readers generations after today's pompous pundits are long forgotten."

--Peter H. Schuck, Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law, Yale University

"The publication of these essays--including the classic 'The Rediscovery of Character'--is an even to be celebrated. Whether you agree or disagree with his interpretation of American politics, James Q. Wilson never fails to illuminate and provoke."

--William A. Galston, senior fellow, the Brookings Institution


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For decades, James Q. Wilson has analyzed the changing political and cultural landscape with clarity and honesty, bringing his wisdom to bear on all facets of American government and society. American Politics, Then & Now (AEI Press, 2010) is a collection of fifteen of Wilson's most insightful essays--drawing on thirty years of his observations on religion, crime, the media, terrorism and extremism, and the old-fashioned notion of "character." Readers of every political persuasion will come away from this volume with a new understanding of how American politics and culture have evolved over the last half-century.

Wilson offers compelling insights on issues of central concern to Americans:

  • On big government: "Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do. Congressman try frantically to keep up with this growing workload by adding to their staffs, but of course a bigger staff does not lead to less work, it leads to more, and so the ideas, demands, and commitments presented daily to a legislator grow even faster."

  • On the role of policy "intellectuals": "At any given moment in history, an influential idea, and thus an influential intellectual, is one that provides a persuasive simplification of some policy question that is consistent with the particular mix of core values then held by the political elite. 'Regulation' and 'deregulation' have been such ideas; so also have 'balanced budgets' versus 'compensatory fiscal policy' and 'integration' versus 'affirmative action.' Clarifying and making persuasive those ideas is largely a matter of argument and the careful use of analogies; rarely . . . does this process involve matters of proof and evidence."

  • On public discourse: "There once was a time, lasting from 1789 to well into the 1950s, when the debate over almost any new proposal was about whether it was legitimate for the government to do this at all. These were certainly the terms in which Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, and government regulation of business were first addressed. By the 1960s, the debate was much different: how much should we spend (not, should we spend anything at all); how can a policy be made cost-effective (not, should we have such a policy in the first place). The character of public discourse changed and, I suspect, in ways that suggest a change in the nature of public character."

  • On religion: "American churches find themselves in a free market where their existence and growth depend entirely on their own efforts. They get no tax money and confront federal officials who are indifferent to any demands for support. The churches and synagogues that grow are the ones that offer people something of value . . . Privatizing religion has generated religious growth just as privatizing business has encouraged economic development."

  • On peace in the Middle East: "These countries today are about where England was in the eleventh century, lacking much in the way of a clear national history or stable government. To manage religion and freedom, they have yet to acquire regimes in which one set of leaders can be replaced in an orderly fashion with a new set, an accomplishment that in the West required almost a millennium."

These essays are not "the grumpy words of a conservative who can't be reconciled to the realities of contemporary American life," Wilson writes. Rather, they are straight talk from a painstaking empiricist and consummate social scientist who believes in American exceptionalism.

American Politics, Then & Now is a compelling portrait of a beloved nation.

James Q. Wilson is chairman of the Council of Academic Advisers of the American Enterprise Institute. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2003, received a lifetime achievement award from the American Political Science Association, and the Bradley Prize from the Bradley Foundation.

INTERVIEW REQUESTS: To arrange an interview, please contact Véronique Rodman at 202-862-4871 ([email protected]).

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