Books interview: Alan Wolfe

The political scientist and author of The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity on fictional fascinations, mature reflections and dancing to the music of Powell

October 18, 2018
Alan Wolfe

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

My father was a fan of the humour writer H. Allen Smith, and I still remember scenes from Low Man on a Totem Pole. Perhaps my sense of humour began there. I came across Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent: A Novel of Washington Politics when I was 17 and, from then to now, I have been fascinated by politics.

Your new book explores ‘petulance’ and ‘immaturity’ in today’s US. Which earlier books helped you get to grips with these somewhat nebulous concepts?

The term “maturity” is somewhat out of fashion these days; it just seems so dreadfully self-congratulatory. I decided to use its opposite anyway because it seemed so apt for Donald Trump and his supporters. To do so, I had to return to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan to remind myself that we really did once talk about maturity. My friend Howard Gardner has kept up a conversation with me for years. As for petulance, it just sounded so harmonious with politics that I naturally linked one with the other.

Which other books enabled you to put the Trump phenomenon in a broader context?

I view my book as an effort, among other things, to bring back to life the ideas of the great social thinkers of the 1950s and early 1960s: David Riesman, Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell and Reinhold Niebuhr, in particular. The best guide for understanding Trump is to reread what they had to say about Joe McCarthy.

Which general accounts of the present political moment would you recommend?

Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World helps us understand the economics of this moment, and Timothy Snyder puts Trump in comparative perspective. Because Trump is such a clear threat to American democracy, I have been reading about those societies we used to call “totalitarian”. My favourites are Ian Kershaw’s The End: ­Germany 1944­‑45 and Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. As for recent US politics, the work of George Packer and Mark Lilla presents ideas with which I am in sympathy.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

The first three volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I gave it to a friend whose children live in London and who wanted a better appreciation of the English. I am just one of those people hooked on Powell. We have a kind of secret society. There is another one for the historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps we can start one for Edward St Aubyn. And I haven’t even gotten around to American writers. They do not make for as chic a gift as the English (and Scottish) ones.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

Mark Leibovich’s Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, on the National Football League; Jill Lepore’s brand-new “history of the United States”, These Truths; and the Booker prizewinner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

Alan Wolfe is professor emeritus of political science at Boston College and the author, most recently, of The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity (University of Chicago Press).

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