John B. Judis is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of Grand Illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992). He first wrote for Mother Jones in January 1978, profiling President Jimmy Carter. His choices, listed chronologically:
1978 The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks & Changing American Institutions, by William Julius Wilson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Wilson’s thesis was as simple as it was provocative: While many middle-class blacks had joined the suburban mainstream, poor blacks suffered primarily from economic dislocation rather than from racial discrimination. Wilson has backed away from his own thesis, but he got it right the first time.
1979 The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch (New York: W.W. Norton). This might not be Lasch’s best book, but it was the first clear indictment (from the left rather than the right) of the counterculture’s anarchic individualism. He should be read for his articulation of problems, not his often contradictory solutions.
1980 The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler (New York: William Morrow). If I were listing the most important books of the last 25 years, I’d cite Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973). Instead, in the shorter span, Toffler’s book is the most penetrating analysis of how the silicon chip is transforming America and the world.
1982 MITI and the Japanese Miracle, by Chalmers Johnson (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press). This was the first book to shatter the myth that Japan’s capitalism is just like ours.
1983 The Economics of Feasible Socialism, by Alec Nove (London: Routledge). Nove wrested socialism, and me, from the grips of dogmatic Marxism. He showed that “market socialism” was not an oxymoron. His ideas are relevant to Eastern Europe and may one day provide the basis for a renewal of socialist thought in the United States.
1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy (New York: Random House). Kennedy revived the 18th century view of world history as the rise and fall of empires. It is one important way to understand what is happening to America.
1988 Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism: 1890-1916, by Martin J. Sklar (New York: Cambridge University Press). It’s heavy going (Sklar used to say that he demanded “militant readers”), but this book shows how the fundamental assumptions that shape our understanding of state, society, and economy were born in the Progressive Era.
1990 The Politics of Rich and Poor, by Kevin Phillips (New York: Random House). None of Phillips’ books are particularly outstanding, but together they establish him as the most perceptive political commentator of our generation. This book remains the most telling indictment of the Reagan-Bush years.
1991 The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon S. Wood (New York: Knopf). Wood’s book is the best ever on how Americans came to understand they are “created equal.” It makes clear why a conservatism that exalts class and status can never catch on here. Like Sklar’s history of progressivism, it’s entirely relevant to political debate today.
1992 Reinventing Government, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley). Not the best-written book but, like Wilson’s, it propounds an astonishingly simple but brilliant thesis: Governments should “steer, not row.”
What books would you choose for your 1976-96 political syllabus? E-mail your suggestions to email@example.com