Part One: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Books on Politics

Author and Professor Emeritus John Miller introduces the series of five Pulitzer Prize book talks, "The Role of Government in Americans' Lives as Depicted in Pulitzer Prize-winning Books." 

The Role of Government in Americans’ Lives as Depicted in Pulitzer Prize-winning Books

By John Miller

Tired of politics? Weary of political gridlock? Don’t feel alone.

Almost eight in ten Americans tell pollsters they’re dissatisfied or even angry at the way the federal government operates, and many people don’t feel that much better about their state and local public officials. The electorate is upset with both parties, with career politicians, and with Washington insiders who seem to put their own interests ahead of constituents’ interests. The 2016 campaign has jolted many out of complacency.

“Obnoxiousness,” writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, “is the new charisma.”  And again, “Our insane addiction to polls” is diverting our attention from serious matters and important issues.

To a degree it has been ever thus. You think that political rhetoric today is over-the-top? Just go back to 1896 and recall what Republicans were saying about the Popocrat, William Jennings Bryan and his backers: demagogues, repudiationists, blatherskites, rabble rousers, windbags, country hicks, Jacobins, nihilists, revolutionaries and so on.

In turn, recall what the Democrats and Populists were calling the Republicans: cukoos, goldbugs, yellow bellies, eastern elitists, city slickers, plutocrats, corporate moguls, Wall Street manipulators, and the list goes on.

Or, go back to 1860 and what the opposition said about Abraham Lincoln, or 1828 and the outbursts of the anti-Jackson crowd, or 1800 and the fulminations directed against that wild Jacobin, Thomas Jefferson. The third President of the United States, on the day of his first inauguration (he had been responsible for much of the preceding campaign’s heated rhetoric himself), made it a point to call for national unity, exhorting, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

He felt it necessary to warn his listeners that “having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”

The political regime established by the new nation in 1789 has operated under various names since then: democratic, republican, liberal, conservative, representative democracy, limited government, and so forth. Central to the effort to define the system is the notion of popular sovereignty — the principle that ultimate power resides in the hands of the people. All elected and otherwise designated officials are accountable to the populace.

The first rule of politics and the most dramatic historical working out of political disputes occurs when a large enough portion of the citizenry becomes disgusted enough to “throw the bums out.” Otherwise, the ship of state moves steadily along, enmeshed in the currents of time, responding to various challenges, opportunities, and crises as they occur, willing to change when necessary, able to maintain continuity when that is what is warranted.

It is altogether fitting and proper that in 2016 we should turn our minds to a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning books on the general subject of “The Role of Government in Americans’ Lives” in this, the centennial year of the granting of the Pulitzer Prize.

For those observers who are so turned off to politics that they have foresworn directing any further attention to the subject, we can only respond, “What other system of governance would you prefer?” and “Are you sure that neglect of self-rule is a wise thing to do in an environment where so many pressing challenges face the nation and, indeed, humankind: economic downsizing, stagnant middle-class and working-class wages, health care affordability, community breakdown, educational access, housing availability, energy concerns, and the list goes on and on?”

There are a large number of politically-oriented books in several categories — history, biography, general-nonfiction, and fiction — that have garnered Pulitzer Prizes over the years. A group of us has selected five of these volumes from among our favorite reads and are offering a series of programs on them open to the general public to be held at the Brookings Public Library in May, June, and July. Programs will o be held at 7 p.m. in the Orena Cooper Room of the Brookings Public Library

We are not a formal entity, but to the folks who frequent Taco Johns in Brookings for cheap tacos on Taco Tuesdays, we are recognizable as the “TJ Boys.”

The five of us — four retired emeritus faculty members from South Dakota State University and the former director of the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum on the SDSU campus — meet once a week, depending on who’s in town, and discuss major issues of the day: baseball, politics, personalities, family developments, goings-on-around-town, dumb jokes, brilliant ideas, the usual stuff (Our die-hard Chicago Cubs fan is currently riding high over our two St. Louis Cardinals fans, who are learning to tolerate his enthusiasm). All of us have some personal interest in political matters, and several of us devoted considerable attention to politics throughout our professional careers.


May 17 – The Metaphysical Club

05 16 2016 metaphysical club John Miller blog.jpgLarry Rogers, historian and professor of education emeritus, leads off our series on Tuesday, May 17. Larry, who is an inveterate and eclectic reader, not surprisingly chose for his lecture the book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2002, history) by Louis Menand.

The author, a professor of English at the City University of New York, has taken an imposing subject — the origins of philosophical pragmatism in America — and turned it into a thriller and a page turner by focusing upon the short-lived Metaphysical Club of Cambridge, Mass., which met for only about nine months during the early 1870s. Out of it, however, emerged what has been called the United States’ most significant contribution to philosophy and what is recognized as “the most distinctively American philosophy”—pragmatism.

While we commonly render the term simply as “practicality,” readers will have to read the book in order to learn about its various definitions and variations, as well as its implications for national politics. In addition, the development helped change thought processes in American law, science, religion, and other areas.

The Metaphysical Club’s core membership provided a vivid illustration of the intellectual firepower of this little now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t group of men.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to become one of the longest-serving and most influential Supreme Court justices in American history, was a member. Also involved was William James, who proceeded, while a Harvard professor, to write the first major psychology textbook in the United States before turning full-time to philosophy and being most responsible for the early spread of the pragmatic approach to the truth.

The most controversial and tragic, as well as simply brilliant, participant in the group was the polymath Charles Sanders Peirce, who had a hard time holding on to academic jobs because of his unconventional moral behavior but who may also have possessed the most rarefied mind in American history. He was so protective of his own particular approach to pragmatism that he concocted a collateral term for it that he was sure no one else would want to appropriate—“pragmaticism” — and he was right about that.

It was left to another supremely talented philosopher — but also an educational reformer, social investigator, and political reformer — John Dewey to be the one who most effectively applied pragmatism to practical politics in America. A supreme joiner — his name embellished mulitple “do-good” organizations’ letterheads for several decades — as well as indefatigable book and magazine writer, Dewey seemed to be involved in every educational controversy for well over half a century right up until his death in 1952.

As a close friend of the settlement house worker Jane Addams while he was a professor at the University of Chicago, Dewey joined with countless other prominent individuals in organizing and advocating for progressive, and later liberal, organizations and causes, ranging from civil liberties and civil rights to shorter hours for workers, social security, and factory safety legislation. He was a prime example of the profound impact that ideas can have on the American political system.


May 24 – Original Meanings

05 16 2016 original meanings John Miller blog.jpgOn May 24, Bob Burns, distinguished professor of political science emeritus, will discuss Jack N. Rakove’s meditation on Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1997, history). It is a perfect fit for someone who had hundreds of students come through his constitutional law classes at SDSU.

The recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a reminder of the increasing attention being paid during the past several decades to a theory of constitutional interpretation that relies upon ascertaining the original meaning of the Constitution. This involves the effort to determine what intent the authors of that document had in mind when they were first constructing and then voting on it (on September 17, 1787, the final tally was 39 who were willing to sign it and three who weren’t).

Rather than trying to probe the minds of the original authors of the Constitution or, for that matter, of federal or state legislation, Justice Scalia was more inclined to ask what the generally accepted interpretation of the words of the constitutional clauses or legislative passages was at the times that they were promulgated or enacted. Either way, the challenge is imposing, but advocates of original meaning would counter, “What else is more reliable than the words and thoughts of the originators? Talking about a ‘living Constitution’ or trying to pigeonhole the meaning of a constantly evolving document at any particular time is a task that lacks certain criteria and necessarily makes the outcome too political in nature.” 

Rakove, a historian at Stanford University, has written a book on “original meanings,” but that does not necessarily make him an “originalist.” Rather, the general thrust of his book is to set forth of all the imponderables, the contradictions, the confusions, and the ambiguities of historical context and to argue that lower court judges and Supreme Court justices must necessarily exercise discretion and judgment in making their decisions, while simultaneously adhering to precedent and taking into account the many elements of social, economic, and political implication that figure into the equation.


John Miller, professor of history emeritus, will continue this introduction of the programs in a future post. 

All programs start at 7 pm in the library’s Cooper Room. Talks are scheduled for Tuesday, May 17 with Larry Rogers; Tuesday, May 24 with Bob Burns; Thursday, June 16 with Nels Granholm; Tuesday, June 21 with Mac Harris; and Tuesday, July 5 with John Miller.