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American Politics, Then and Now and Other Essays By James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson

Reviewed by:
On June 27, 2011
Last modified:October 4, 2012


The essays in this book by James Q. Wilson, were written over a thirty-year period and published in a variety of respected periodicals. It’s unfortunate that most politicians in Washington are unlikely to read it.

American Politics by James Q. WilsonJames Q. Wilson is a scholar, social scientist, and political commentator.  He combines a keen knowledge of history with social science data to produce illuminating insights about our beginnings as a nation, and the present. The essays in this book were written over a thirty-year period and published in a variety of respected periodicals. During that time, in Wilson’s words: “Familiar institutions have been weakened or destroyed, replaced by a commitment to ideas and ideologies the consequences of which we do not fully understand.” In these essays he explains how and why.

The book is divided in three sections.  The first discusses how politics have changed and the polarization of both Congress and electorate. The second reflects on religion and freedom with emphasis on Islam’s failure to reconcile the two. The third section explores the possible effects of heredity on politics.

In the first essay, (written in 1979), Wilson identifies the change in Congressional behavior from whence all other changes flow.  “Until rather recently, the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do anything at all.”  He cites as examples disputes over Social Security, welfare, Medicare, economic regulation and other departures from the past.

Once the legitimacy barrier fell, political conflict was transformed into “how much” or “what kind” but not “whether.” Legislative activity greatly increased, as did the size of the bureaucracies required to administer new programs. Congressional staffs grew fastest of all. By 1976, staff was three times larger than it was in 1956. (A search to determine how much congressional staff has grown since 1976 was unsuccessful. Does anyone know?)

“In Madison’s time, ”Wilson writes, “and for many decades thereafter, national politics was less a career than a hobby, the federal government played a minor role in human affairs; … Besides, who would stay in Washington during the summer before air conditioning had been invented?” This reviewer could not help but think that the nation would benefit enormously if the compressors were to fail.

In an essay about intellectuals Wilson points out that their greatest influence is not in drafting the fine points of legislation but in popularizing underlying assumptions. Intellectuals, being favorably disposed to growing government, define what constitutes a problem and how it should be solved. The MSM being of similar ideological bent, dutifully disseminate the received wisdom.

The language of the herd then becomes “everyone knows,” i.e., that greenhouse gases cause global warming; that poverty causes crime; that more money will improve education etc. As Wilson points out, what “everyone knows” is a substitute for empirical evidence to support their assertions.

Steps to transform (Obama’s word) this nation began within the first few months of his administration. This reviewer was struck by the failure of opponents to articulate opposing views, or to expose the false assumptions that underlie  efforts to “transform” America into a European style social democracy.

In another essay, “The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy,” published in 1985, Wilson asks why it is that large deficits, except in wartime, have been a feature of public finance only in the last few decades. He argues that morals impact choices and the erosion of moral precepts change the established functioning of economic and political institutions.

He cites economist James M. Buchanan who suggested that “public finance was once subject to moral restraint—namely the belief that it was right to pay as you go and accumulate capital, and wrong to borrow heavily and squander capital.” In Buchanan’s (and Wilson’s) view, “Victorian morality inhibited Anglo-American democracies from giving in to their selfish desire to beggar their children.” Or as Wilson concludes, “In the long run, the public interest depends upon private virtue.” The Founders would have agreed.

In an essay first published in 2006, Wilson presents more evidence of MSM bias, citing coverage of international conflicts. He presents disturbing examples of slanted, even purposely misleading reporting. “The mainstream media’s adversarial stance, both here and abroad, means that whenever a foreign enemy challenges us, he will know that his objective will be to win the battle not on some faraway bit of land but among the people who determine what we read and watch.”

In a 2009 essay, the author discusses religion and the difference between religious observance in America and Europe. He points out that the tie between church and state in Europe have no counterpart in America. “Countries that were never free or that retained a state-controlled church are religious in a very different way, it is either underground or radicalized or both. In these countries, either religion, and the deep human yearnings that sustain it, were never allowed to express themselves, or the state has made religion a divisive matter about which people vote.”

He also discusses religion as a polarizing force with religious conservatives an important part of the Republican Party and secular liberals an important Democratic Party constituency.  The great difficulty is the media’s one-sided coverage of the issues in contention.

In the final chapter the author sums up the case for American exceptionalism, noting that our religious traditions have made us the opposite of the Muslim world. “We value personal freedom and support religious faiths that have no room for jihad or terrorism. No presidential speech in Cairo can change that….”

American exceptionalism can be seen in every aspect of our lives. We have a limited government based on natural rights, not divine sanction, monarchical tradition, or a supreme parliament. When the government here tries to do too much, the people organize “tea parties” to protest these changes. By contrast, when the French government does too little, angry Frenchmen mount a strike and block the roads in and out of Paris.

It is not possible to do justice to a book that encompasses 15 wide-ranging essays.  The best this reviewer can do is to commend the book to readers, no matter their political persuasion.  It will deepen their understanding of America, what distinguishes her from the rest of the world, and the consequences of further political transformation.  It’s unfortunate that most politicians in Washington are not likely to read it.


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