Why have seventeen out of twenty-two US presidential candidates* written books in the past five years?
I’ve read Scott Walker’s Unintimidated, Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, Jeb Bush’s Immigration Wars, Ben Carson’s One Nation, and Bernie Sanders’ The Speech. In the next few months, I plan to read the rest of the field’s literary offerings, provided they were written in the past five years (this comes out to seventeen books, if there are no more surprise entries). The fact that such a majority of candidates have written books in the run-up to this election suggests that rather than works of literature, these books are political tools.
But tools to do what? So far, there is already a huge variety of models:
- Sanders’ book is the transcript of his eight-and-a-half-hour 2010 filibuster on economic inequality.
- Clinton’s book is a memoir of her career as Secretary of State.
- Bush’s book is a policy proposal for immigration reform, with bonus chapters on education.
- Walker’s book is a dramatization of his efforts to pass legislation restricting public-sector collective bargaining.
- Carson’s book is a Christian-based self-help book outlining ways for readers to ‘save America’s future’.
However different they may all be, the existence of these books points to a level of fundamental unity in how candidates approach campaigns: that no matter how politically different they all are, how much they’re leveraging ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status, apparently each campaign team starts the process by getting the candidate to sit down, maybe with a bunch of other writers, and write a book. To the contrary of voices saying that American literacy is declining, this says that for a candidate, it would not do to be seen without a literary presence.
On the other hand, placing these books in comparison brings out how much this is a box-ticking exercise. There are certain issues and pieces of rhetoric that a candidate will apparently not enter the race without:
- All candidates at some point declare why they wanted to write the book, and it’s never “because I wanted to run for President.”
- All candidates acknowledge at some point in the book they did not write alone, although how prominent these acknowledgements are and how extensive is quite varied.
- All candidates make some kind of noises about how America needs to be returned to a bygone greatness.
- All candidates engage with American history, although you wouldn’t always know they’re talking about the same country.
- All candidates discuss religion in some capacity.
- All candidates except Jeb Bush quote their past speeches at length, culminating in Bernie Sanders, whose book is a re-publication of his eight-and-a-half-hour filibuster on the Senate floor in 2010.
- All candidates except Scott Walker talk about how important young people are.
- All three Republican candidates make strong arguments for Courage, diss unions, and argue for the free market.
It is my feeling at this point in the project that these points might be the would-be emperor’s new clothes. While I appreciate candidates attempting to be authentic and honest, or engaging with the institutions and values of American public life, I am mistrustful of a kind of dream-like America vision in which we can ‘return’ to bygone greatness, if we return to American character and values and cooperate under strong leadership and whatnot. I think I’m cynical. But I stand ready to revise that opinion if someone can convince me otherwise.
Until the next election, I’ll be using this space to discuss moving through the rest of these books, and explore what these books say and mean for the American political system. I’m curious how the way they’re written reveals how candidates’ strategies for engaging with the American people. I’m curious how candidates justify what they include and what they leave out. I’m curious how candidates break up and organize their ideas, present policies, deal with the past, and approach their competition. I’m curious how they represent themselves as people and as potential presidents, and where that balance lies. The economist in me chimes in that these are all inextricable from other questions surrounding the political publishing industry, ghostwriting, and media coverage. While I’ll also be tackling these as they arise, my focus is on candidates’ self-presentation, and representations of America. Additionally, most of what I write here will be comparative, although I may write on individual books if something is especially interesting.
Onward, friends. And head over to the ‘About the Project’ page for contact information if you’re curious or have something to say.
*Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, and Martin O’Malley have not written books; George Pataki’s autobiography was published in 1998.