What the Hell Is an “Anti-Textbook”?

I don’t really know, and regrettably, I can’t even take credit for the term.  That is, I thought of the term on my own, but then discovered it had already been used by Karen Mingst.  In her fine IR text, The Essentials of International Relations, she says that an editor for W. W. Norton suggested that we profs were “clamoring for smart, short textbooks with a clear sense of what’s essential and what’s not.”   If so, no one has done it yet for American government (so far as I am aware, and I get more unsolicited textbooks from publishers than I would like).

But even more than a “smart, short textbook,” I think of an anti-textbook as breaking with textbook style as completely as possible and aiming at the popular market.I have in mind a paperback book of around 300 pages, as opposed to the 600+ page hardback textbook I currently use; a book that might sell for, at most, in the $20 range, rather than for closer to $100; a book a reasonably intelligent student who only took American government to fulfill a gen-ed requirement might think was worth keeping on her bookshelf, rather than reselling at the end of the term; a book one could stick in a backpack to read on an airplane.  In short,  a book that is both intellectual and enjoyably readable.

Such a book needs, I think, the following guiding principles.

  1. A clear theoretical focus, provided by a set of generally applicable principles that underlie the whole work, providing both explanatory power and continuity between discrete topics.  These principles need to be descriptive, rather than normative, or the explanatory power is sacrificed.
  2. Clear examples of these principles at work in the form of both simple hypothetical examples and (inevitably more complex) true stories that demonstrate the principles’ explanatory power.  In other words, there needs to be empirical demonstration of the principles.
  3. “A clear sense of what’s essential and what’s not,” which means cutting down dramatically on the mass quantity of detail that fills the standard American government textbook, and both bores and overwhelms students.
  4. An appropriate use of images, sticking only to those that have real content value, like graphs, charts, and diagrams, and excluding photographic images such as presidents giving speeches, which generally lack content value but drive up costs due to copyright fees.

There’s a dearth of such popular political science books, which is odd given the public’s fascination with politics.  Go to any bookstore and the politics section will be comprised of current events screeds by popular media hacks and biographies by historians.   It’s very difficult to find anything written by a real live political scientist.

It’s hard to understand the reason for this, as economists and biologists have shown us that it’s possible to write smart, short, popular books about their subjects.  Economics is probably the supreme discipline, with Paul Krugman having published several excellent short books, Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics being hugely popular, and Tyler Cowen having written several exceptionally insightful and readable books on the economics of culture.  There are even two (at least) excellent books covering the great thinkers of the discipline, Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers and Todd Buchholz’s New Ideas from Dead Economists.

Biology has its share of outstanding popularizers, too, with Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould being the most notable.  But there has been a spate of popular literature on evolutionary theory lately, such as Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True.

Why political science lags behind is unclear, but there is one notable difference between my discipline and those of economics and biology which may account for our absence in the field of popular intellectualism–both of those disciplines have an established core set of theories about which there is little debate.  Political science, in contrast, has no core–either theoretically or substantively–so it is impossible to write a book on “what political scientists know” and have everyone in the discipline agree with its basic principles.

I don’t find that a wholly satisfactory answer, however.  There’s no reason we can’t publish such a book, using the principles agreed upon by our particular segment of the discipline.  In my case, those principles are the foundations of public choice theory, which has such principles as:

  1. Methodological individualism, which means that to understand group outcomes we must examine individual behavior;
  2. Political actors (whether politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists or voters) should be assumed to behave in fundamentally the same way in the political realm as they do in the economic realm;
  3. Institutional design matters;
  4. Politics is largely composed of collective action problems.

Principle 3 is probably non-controversial, but principles 1 and 2 can lead to some pretty serious academic fisticuffs (that is, snarking and snubbing, with a little bit of backbiting thrown in).  Principle 4 is probably nearly universally agreed to, but only grudgingly by many, for whom its unpleasantly unavoidable linkage to 1 and 2 is psychologically disturbing (but not disturbing enough to reconsider their opposition to 1 and 2).

I think these principles, along with some corollaries that I’ll leave for the book, are the best means by which to understand how politics really works.  Talking heads and political insiders like to boast that they, unlike we navel-gazing academics, really understand how politics works.  But lacking the appropriate theoretical background, they actually only can tell us what happened, and are perpetually unequipped to explain to us why it happened. If that sounds snobbish, I joyfully cop to the charge. I despise the nattering nabobs of nonsense who fill the airwaves, and I would like to educate citizens so they are capable of seeing farther, more clearly, and more deeply, than do they.


2 responses to “What the Hell Is an “Anti-Textbook”?

  1. Have you started to write this thing yet? How’s it going?

  2. I’ve started, but it’s going very slowly. When I get some chapters reasonably polished, I’m going to put them up for open commentary/feedback. Hopefully I’ll draw some from intelligent folks–say, people who teach history and pay close attention to American Government.

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