All Tomorrow's Partisans

The culture war after the 2004 election.


Five days before the election, it was almost impossible to conceive of a world in which John Kerry and George Bush were no longer running for president. A week seemed like forever, a month like eternity.

But these days there's a growing demand for ever-timelier responses to political events, and some products–especially documentary films, DVDs, and books–have extraordinarily long lead times: six months or more. So booksellers and publishers were looking not just five days ahead; they'd been plotting out post-election scenarios for months. What did they expect?

Well, first, that on November 3 many Americans will begin trundling down to the used bookstore to offload some of the millions of anti-Bush tomes that have flooded the market since the summer of 2003.

"Oh, absolutely," says Gerry Donaghy, backlist inventory supervisor of the famous Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon, a new and used bookstore so big they hand you a map at the front door. "I'm waiting to see what the used-book buyers' 'no buy' list is going to look like after Tuesday. Eventually what's going to happen is that someone's going to have their shelf filled with Michael Moore and Richard Clarke, and they're going to be like, 'Oh man, I'm just so sick of looking at this.'"

What as-yet-unwritten titles will take their place?

"It's either going to be What the Democrats Did Right to Win the Election or What the Republicans Did Wrong to Steal the Election," Donaghy says. "I suspect that there are probably some savvy writers right now who are waiting to hear back from their editors for a green light on their projects on Wednesday, for which book they're going to do."

There's some truth to that. The PublicAffairs publishing house, for example, was waiting on November 2 to find out whether its Election 2004 book, written by a team of four Newsweek reporters embedded in the two major-party campaigns, will be subtitled How Kerry Won and What You Can Expect in the Future or How Bush Won and What You Can Expect in the Future. Two separate covers were displayed in winter catalogs for prospective buyers, leading to a brief brouhaha when the New York papers caught wind of the bet hedging in late October and right-wing weblogs followed up with heavy-breathing speculation that the Kerry version proved "liberal bias."

Gene Taft, director of publicity for PublicAffairs, says that "almost certainly we'll do something to reflect the election–it's inevitable," but that even if the president is re-elected you shouldn't expect another wave of books like Bushworld and Bush's Brain and Bush Must Go. "I'm not sure that it's time," Taft says. "There are so many anti-Bush books, people seem to be ganging up. And I don't think their sales picked up at all in the run-up to the election."

A week before November 2, the New York Times bestseller list was as politically divided and obsessed as the country: Liberal comedian Jon Stewart beat out conservative polemicist Ann Coulter for the top spot, followed at numbers 6, 7, 8, and 10 by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sensation Unfit for Command, published by the conservative house Regnery; Regnery's pro-Bush Shadow War; Michael Moore's Will They Ever Trust Us Again? (Simon & Schuster); and Kitty Kelley's Bush-clan bash The Family (Doubleday).

But with the media circus winding to a close and Christmas around the corner, the biggest publishing wave to hit immediately after the election may be the release of heavily anticipated novels, including new books by James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark. "We're looking through catalogs for books that are going to be released starting in January," says Donaghy. "And there's hardly any political books in there, and most of those just tend to be sort of general political theory and less culture-warish titles. Or like, The Electoral College: Is It Important?"

Events can always outrun expectations, of course, and publishers were ready for another Florida-style debacle of recounts and lawsuits. "Instant books" have long been a part of the literary world, but compared to even four years ago, publishers are able to print and move product exponentially faster. "Richard Clarke…peddled the proposal for his book last summer," Publisher's Weekly Book News Editor Charlotte Abbot told CNN in July. "It was ready to become a book last January, and was on the shelves by March. That's unprecedented. That is very, very fast."

Because of improvements in technology, the 9/11 Commission Report, recently nominated for a National Book Award, was in reviewers' hands even before the committee's final findings had been made public. PublicAffairs was able to wait until the Democratic primaries played out before pulling the trigger on John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best; the Iowa caucuses were held on January 19, and the book hit the stores in April.

Partly because of the consecutive news-making events of the Florida recount, the September 11 massacre, two wars, and a contentious presidential campaign, current affairs publishing has been riding a sustained boom. Barnes & Noble has reported double-digit growth in political books for four years running; Donaghy of Powell's says current affairs has been driving store sales. "Our politics and history section is now as big as our lit section," he says.

And it's not just books. DVDs of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 have been flying off the shelves, and to a lesser extent so have anti?Michael Moore DVDs such as Fahrenhype 9/11 and Celsius 41.11, in addition to the limited-release documentaries Michael Moore Hates America and Michael and Me. Political books, especially sharper-edged partisan attacks from smaller presses, are gaining new life and bringing in new revenue as DVDs.

But surely it matters who will be residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January, especially to publishers who have carved out a specific ideological niche in opposition to whoever controls the White House. Circulation of The Nation, the country's oldest progressive magazine, "has grown by about 70 percent the last four or five years," to roughly 170,000, says Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. "Every time Bush opens his mouth our circulation goes up," adds one of her assistants.

While not all of the increase is attributable to politics (vanden Heuvel gives credit to "the best business staff we've ever had"), The Nation and left-leaning publishers such as Metropolitan Books found themselves planning for the perverse (if ultimately unmaterialized) possibility that political success might undermine profitability. Although she acknowledges that circulation took a dip after Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, vanden Heuvel says the magazine has learned valuable lessons about "holding a Democratic administration accountable."

Sara Bershtel–publisher of Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt that publishes Noam Chomsky and Thomas Frank (author of What's the Matter With Kansas)–maintains that the success of her company's American Empire Project is due in part to a long-term political reawakening that transcends political candidates. "There's a different climate now," she says. "I think that there has been a general mobilization of readers, demonstrators, and people who have a very active concern about the direction of the country."

Larger current events houses, meanwhile, will continue to hedge their bets. "At the end of the day, no matter what you think about publishers' political leanings, they know what side their bread's buttered on," Donaghy of Powell's City of Books says. "Right now the publishing cash cow is Bush bashing, but that's pretty much on the way out."

Book lovers can expect a well-deserved post-election breather from campaign politics. At least for a week or two. "No matter who wins," PublicAffairs' Taft tells me a week before the election, "at this point we're more concerned with moving existing product." He pauses a moment. "Though if Bush wins, I'm certain we could do another quick George Soros book…."?