Politics Books: The Fire This Time

Politics Books: The Fire This Time

Something similar is true of “Beautiful Country Burn Again” (Ecco, 433 pages, $27.99), Mr. Fountain’s series of rambling, denunciatory essays on the 2016 presidential campaign. Every assertion, every observation, is aflame with indignation. Take a passage on Ted Cruz, for example: “You’d think he gargles twice a day with a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil. His tone and cadence take after the saccharine blather of the great Christian pitchmen of radio and TV, the hucksters who mastered the catch in the throat, the tremulous quaver and gulp, because as every pro knows that’s where the money is.”

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The book’s title is taken from a line by American poet Robinson Jeffers, although there’s a suggestion in it, too, of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” (1963), a pair of essays on race in America. But whereas Baldwin pleaded for a renewal of thought and understanding, Mr. Fountain thinks that the time for understanding is over and it’s time for fire—although what he means by “fire” is unclear. For him, America has endured two conflagrations already: the Civil War, in which the country burned literally, and the New Deal, in which the country was, in Mr. Fountain’s view, reinvented. Each of these was a “redistribution of freedom, a radical reset of the values in the freedom-profits-plunder equation.” The book “may be read as the record of a developing crisis, one drastic enough to raise the possibility of a third reinvention, which, if attempted, will inevitably meet with vigorous, perhaps violent, resistance from stakeholders in the current order.”

Mr. Fountain, a Southerner by birth, is an old-school progressive and a revolutionary radical. Yet, like many of his fellow progressives, Mr. Fountain is also a nostalgist: He views midcentury America as a golden age of economic stability and fair distribution of wealth. He lashes centrist Democrats of the 1990s—he’s thinking mainly of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council—for abandoning “the New Deal and Great Society legacies that had dramatically transformed American life for the better.” Even granting the truth of that statement, the American economy of the 1950s and ’60s couldn’t be kept as it was in perpetuity. Thanks largely to Ronald Reagan, both Republicans and Democrats came to realize that an overregulated economy and high marginal tax rates couldn’t create sufficient growth to pay for all…

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