Reflecting on the First Histories of the 2008 Election: 2 Books Worth a Read!

Historian Julian Zelizer has a very nice essay at The Nation about Game Change, pondering how much we can really learn from the Heilemann-Halperin bestseller nine months after its initial release. Unsurprisingly, Zelizer concludes that as juicy and gripping as character-driven election narratives can be, they shed little light on the actual end result of campaigning: governing. Election narratives "exaggerate the possibility of change that elections can bring without fundamental reforms in the way that our institutions work," he writes.

Amen. And this gives me a good opportunity to link to my American Prospect review of two 2008 campaign retrospectives that don't fall nearly as deeply into this trap: Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, by Rebecca Traister, and Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, by Ari Berman.

Traister and Berman each took nearly two years to sleep on the results of November 4, 2008 before publishing their deeply-reported books, and it shows. Big Girls Don't Cry is one of the best cultural analyses I've read of a political event; it is the first truly intersectional campaign chronicle, examining how race, sex, and class all shaped the debate–and boy, did they ever! One of my favorite things about this book is that although Traister identifies as a Hillary supporter, she totally eviscerates the argument that younger women who supported Obama were bad feminists. And she refuses to engage in Oppression Olympics, completely rejecting the reductionist argument that any ism–racism or sexism, in particular–is more morally outrageous than any other. (Warning: Prepare to take an emotional trip back to some of the most difficult inter-left debates of 07-08.)

Meanwhile, Herding Donkeys uses Howard Dean and his 50-state strategy as a lens through which to understand first, how Obama won, and second, why his popularity at the polls has not translated into a governing mandate to think big on progressive public policy, from economic justice to civil rights.

Both smart books, both by young authors you're going to hear a lot more about in coming years. And both will teach you WAY more about culture and politics in America than you'll learn dishing about Elizabeth Edwards yelling at her ex's campaign staffers. (No offense to Game Change. Like every other political journo, I read it and loved it even as I argued with it.)

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