“The time hath found us.”
— Thomas Paine
Common Sense, 1776
It’s the book that changed America.
And it isn’t often that a book — any book, even a popular, bestselling book like Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto — can be said to have changed the course of American politics and history. The phenomenon is rare, extremely rare, usually taking both the country and even the author by surprise.
Yet Levin’s book has done just that, saluted by Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in an exclusive talk with The American Spectator as “providing [the] intellectual balance and foundation” of the Tea Party movement. A movement that stands triumphant this week in the wake of the conservative landslide that Levin himself believes can revitalize the conservative cause that Ronald Reagan once led to the White House.
The results of the 2010 revolt against the Obama Era are staggering. The success of the Tea Party; the defeat of over 60 of Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats; the election of a half dozen U.S. senators, ten governors and almost 700 state legislators. What startles even more is that one campaign after another focused on the issues Levin featured in his book — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, statism, the dangers of a powerful central government.
Campaigns “motivated and inspired” specifically, says Bachmann, by Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny..
Levin himself emerged as an unlikely rock star in the cause of the Constitution, the author literally besieged at book signings as thousands waited hours for a seconds-long meeting and signed copy. This video posted by a Levin fan of a book signing at Tysons Corner, Virginia, outside a rainy Washington, D.C., illustrates a fraction of the Liberty and Tyranny phenomenon that was sweeping the country.
Liberty and Tyranny‘s red, white, and blue flag-and-flame cover bearing Levin’s bearded visage was waved aloft at Tea Party rallies. Bachmann marvels that “it’s difficult to educate a nation” but says Tea Partiers made a point to “take copies of the book to town hall meetings” to grill House and Senate members on their knowledge of the Constitution they had taken an oath to obey. The book’s cover itself appeared in poster form. One memorable photo captured former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin at a rally seated next to a soldier, the Levin book clearly visible in her lap. While the Palin photo was both real and un-staged, there was the inevitable humorous photo shopping. North Korea’s Communist dictator Kim Jong Il — aka “The Great Leader” — was pictured brandishing a copy of the book written by the man his friends and fans call “The Great One.” Another Liberty and Tyranny fan went to work mocking Obama’s famous 2008 campaign poster, replacing Obama’s image with an iconic rendering of Levin, the caption changed from “Hope and Change” to read simply: “The Great One.”
Inevitably, there was a bumper sticker with a simple message: Mark Levin: President 2012.
ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY the Liberty and Tyranny phenomenon is that rarest of occurrences — a book that actually changes the course of America. While other books have gained fame and bestseller status, arguably what occurred with Levin’s book has happened only three times in all of American history.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, first published anonymously in January of 1776, was actually a pamphlet. In bold language (and treasonous language in the eyes of the British government), Paine set forth the idea that “many strong and striking reasons” demanded “an open and determined declaration of independence” by the thirteen British colonies. The response was astounding. In numbers that are remarkable even today, Common Sense is said to have sold 120,000 copies in the first three months, and half a million copies by year’s end, going through 25 printings on its way to becoming the most successful publication in American history up until that date — and not coincidentally providing the intellectual grounding for the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence — the very idea ignited by Common Sense — was a historical fact less than seven months later, dramatically changing the course of America — and eventually the world — forever.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in 1852. An anti-slavery novel, the book and its characters — Eliza the slave risking death to win her freedom and that of her child, Simon Legree, the slave master who became one of the most hated characters in fiction, and Uncle Tom, the gentle old slave who died as freedom was within his grasp — set off a firestorm of debate. Within ten months it had sold 300,000 copies and eventually over a million copies in the next seven years. It is credited by historians with launching the Civil War. “If Uncle Tom’s Cabin had not been written, Abraham Lincoln could not have been elected President of the United States,” remarked anti-slavery U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts years later. The book is listed as the best selling novel of the entire 19th century, second only to the Bible in both sales and influence.
In 1960 Barry Goldwater, then a rising spokesman of the fledgling modern conservative movement as the U.S. Senator from Arizona, wrote The Conscience of a Conservative. The book, adapted from Goldwater’s speeches by Brent Bozell, an editor at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review (and the father of today’s Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center), was an unexpected sensation. It explained what Goldwater called “the conservative philosophy” and “spelled out conservative principles in everyday language” — challenging head on the then-consensus view that the liberal agenda was a stellar political gift to mankind. Daring to ask questions that liberals of the day sought to portray as extremist and out of the mainstream — just as they still do today — the book had a first printing of a mere ten thousand. Eventually, it sold more than 4 million hardcover and paperback copies, helping to build the foundation for what became the modern conservative movement. It also helped Goldwater to the 1964 Republican presidential nomination while making possible Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election and the Reagan Revolution that followed.
When Mark Levin decided — in 2008 — that it was time to write a book about the importance of what he saw as “the modern liberal assault on Constitution-based values” no one, Levin included, could see what was coming.
LEVIN IS, FAMOUSLY, a considerable talk radio star, ranked number four in the nation with eight and a half million listeners. He is as well the longtime head of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation. A former Reagan aide, Justice Department lawyer (serving as chief of staff to Reagan attorney general Edwin Meese III, among other positions in the government) and conservative activist who began his march on liberalism as a precocious 13-year old, Levin is no recent entry into discussions of law, politics, or conservative principles. His friend Rush Limbaugh calls him “F. Lee Levin” in humorous reference to the great trial lawyer, but the humor alludes to Levin’s significant legal abilities that doubtless played a role in his ability to write a book that has stirred such consequence.
Skipping 12th grade to move on to Temple University, Levin graduated — at 19 — Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with membership in the university’s political science and history honor societies. By 22 he was already a lawyer, having graduated from Temple Law School — finding time along the way to get elected at 19 to his local suburban school board, making him the youngest elected school board member in the history of the state.
Says Bachmann simply: “Mark Levin is an intellectual powerhouse.”
While his talk radio show provides celebrity, there are talk show hosts aplenty with books that fall flat. And while his academic, foundation, and government work provides a solid intellectual base for a book, there are plenty of academic stars, foundation, and ex-government officials who write books that fail to sell. Combined, Levin’s assets could surely help sell a book, and in fact Levin has twice written New York Times bestsellers: Men in Black, a critique of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Rescuing Sprite, a heart-warming (and heart-rending) dog-lovers tale.
But Levin says he never saw Liberty and Tyranny as anything other than a simple defense of the Constitution, or as he would write on the very first page, a story of “fundamental truths, based on decades of observation, exploration, and experience, about conservatism and, conversely, non-conservatism — that is, liberty and tyranny in modern America.” Barack Obama was barely a blip on the political scene at the time Levin conceived the idea for his book — and in fact the President gets only three mentions in the book because it was mostly finished by the time of his election.
Would it sell? Probably. Mark Levin books sell. But a phenomenon? A book that would catapult Levin into the literary stratosphere inhabited by authors like Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Barry Goldwater? Books that literally changed America? The thought, Levin confesses to me, never entered his mind.
Perhaps tellingly, the book was completely ignored by the liberal media. The New York Times never reviewed the book — although it went out of its way to give a thumbs up review to a book that was laughably wrong in its premise — The Death of Conservatism by NYT Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. Nor was the Washington Post interested, in spite of the curious fact of those thousands lined up in its own backyard for the Tysons Corner book signing. Nor, but of course, were any of the old media broadcast networks interested — not a word from the Today Show or Good Morning America.
In yet another sign of old media irrelevance, however, none of this mattered.
Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, both Levin friends, stepped forward. (Here’s Limbaugh and Levin and here. Hannity interviews with Levin can be found here and here.) The two also appeared at a Levin book signing together on Long Island — drawing thousands, as was the case in Virginia.
The book was favorably reviewed in the Washington Times by former Reagan aide Tony Blankley, twice in The American Thinker here and here as well as at Pajamas Media — where prescient reviewer Bernard Chapin labeled it “the most important book of the year.”
There was a favorable look at National Review and I had reviewed it here at The American Spectator.
And, yes, as was true with Paine, Stowe and Goldwater’s books, Liberty and Tyranny drew critics, in this case a review in the Weekly Standard by Peter Berkowitz..
While Levin answered Berkowitz himself in the American Thinker, it is hard to resist summoning one particular line of logic from Berkowitz this week following the 2010 election results. In a review panning Liberty and Tyranny while making what Berkowitz said was the “compelling case” for moderation, Berkowitz said this:
Without a determined effort to reach out to independents, conservatives and Republicans are doomed to long-term minority status because the number of those identifying as Republicans has plunged while the number of those identifying as independents has surged.
Independents responded to the moderate Republican 2008 nominee John McCain by giving him a moderate 43% of the independent vote. In 2010, with what Berkowitz faulted as Levin’s “fierce polemic” being literally waved in the streets, independents gave 55% of their vote to Republicans.
And, surprisingly, there was an amazingly bad piece at National Review by Jim Manzi, that was positively shredded by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute.
Clearly, as with Paine, Stowe and Goldwater before him, Levin had struck a very American nerve. While the book manifested all the usual best seller symptoms (it was #1 on the New York Times list for three months, #1 on Amazon for all books for several months as well as #2 for all of 2009 on the Amazon hardcover non-fiction list etc.), there was obviously something else going on.
A very, very big something else.
IT’S REASONABLE TO ASK after all of this — why all the fuss over a book that defends the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence? What is it that drives over 1.2 million books to sell like glasses of cold lemonade in the Sahara Desert? What kind of book gets over 2,000 reviews on Amazon, the book rated with five stars by all but a handful of readers? What kind of book sends Americans into the streets waving copies as if they’d uncovered the Holy Grail?
Congresswoman Bachmann thinks she knows the answer. The book, she says simply, was a “gift to our nation.”
In a manner that Levin could not possibly have foreseen, his arguments defending individual freedoms and liberty from what Alexis de Tocqueville called “soft tyranny” — the supremacy of the state suddenly took on a vivid, personal meaning for Americans. As the new Obama administration and its allies on Capitol Hill began rapidly expanding the size and scope of the federal government almost exponentially, jamming a government takeover of health care through a Congress besieged by constituents shouting — sometimes literally — not to do this, millions of Americans were provoked from stunned amazement to outrage. On top of a staggering so-called stimulus plan that cost almost $1 trillion plus government takeovers and bailouts of everything from car companies to financial institutions, the realization dawned on many Americans that Levin was right: the long march of collectivism had suddenly turned into a sprint.
Word of Levin’s book spread like wildfire..
His use of a once-forgotten old word quickly made its way into the 21st century American vocabulary. The term “statist” began tripping from angry lips, Levin having used it to characterize the “Modern Liberal.” As Americans realized they were going to be forced by the government to buy health care, as they watched the President smoothly — chillingly — tell a woman in one televised exchange that the government would have to have “rules” for deciding end-of-life care, Levin’s writings that the “Founders understood the greatest threat to liberty is an all-powerful central government” resonated.
Those who had never gotten closer to the Declaration of Independence than a Fourth of July picnic were now gobbling up a book that devoted its opening chapter to the philosophical history behind the first of the two founding documents creating the United States of America. For many it was a first time tutorial in the connection between Natural Law and individual rights. Writing clearly and concisely, Levin had taken care to present the basics of the ideas that had resulted in the country’s founding. Philosophers from Adam Smith to Charles Montesquieu, John Locke and Edmund Burke were getting the spotlight treatment along with their thoughts on the free market, separation of powers, natural rights and, specifically, what Levin cited as Burke’s “interconnection of liberty, free markets, religion, tradition, and authority.”
Entire chapters were devoted to explaining those issues in relation to the United States Constitution. Over and over and over again Levin illustrated that the central, driving core of statism — the supremacy of the state — was the reality behind a host of issues ranging from environmentalism to immigration to the economy to religious expression, the welfare state, and more.
As the Tea Party burst onto the political scene, as the Obama administration raced forward with an agenda that quickly became identified with the authoritarian (if not totalitarian) state, the Constitution — at the very core of Levin’s book — began showing up as a quite specific issue. Angrily confronted in a health-care town meeting by a camera-wielding constituent as to the importance of following the Constitution, one Illinois Congressman, Democrat Phil Hare, snapped, “I don’t worry about the Constitution on this.” Responded the constituent: “Jackpot brother.” The video rocketed into political notoriety — and on November 2nd Hare lost his seat to Republican Bobby Schilling, the Tea Party-backed owner of a pizzeria.
When a reporter asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi where in the Constitution there was authority to force health care on American citizens, she replied with the classic arrogance Levin had fixed as part of the standard statist repertoire: “Are you kidding? Are you kidding?” Thus providing a jaw-dropping illustration from one of the highest officials in the land of the statist contempt for the nation’s founding documents as noted — a year ahead of time — in Liberty and Tyranny.
AS THIS SCENARIO UNFOLDED, Levin the author and radio host decided there was something else he would do. Levin had been present at the creation of the Reagan battles with the intellectually listless but still-powerful Republican Establishment in 1976, the year the former California governor took on the sitting President Gerald Ford in a battle royal for both the presidential nomination — and the heart and soul of Abraham Lincoln’s party. Levin, an enthusiastic young Reaganite who had taken on the Ford-run Pennsylvania GOP on Reagan’s behalf, watched as Ford won the battle while Reagan captured the party’s heart and soul.
If Mark Levin learned nothing else in 1976 he learned from Reagan’s example. “Lay me down and bleed a while. Though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again,” Reagan had memorably quoted a Scottish ballad after losing to Ford. After Ford (repeatedly touted by the GOP Establishment as a winner because he was a “moderate” Republican) lost the general election to Jimmy Carter, Reagan chastised the Establishment GOP for running the party as a “fraternal order” as opposed to a party “bound together by shared principles.” In a headline-grabbing interview with the New York Times, Reagan said the Republican Party needed to “save itself by declaring its conservative beliefs.”
So Mark Levin began scouting the land for serious conservatives running for office in 2010. Amazingly, he found signs that the Reagan-Ford fight of old still haunted in certain precincts. In Florida he came across an unknown ex-state legislator named Marco Rubio, the young son of Cuban refugees. Rubio was challenging the GOP Establishment’s favorite, Governor Charlie Crist. The National Republican Senatorial Committee had endorsed Crist. There were calls for Rubio, wonking along at a mere 8% in the polls, to abandon the race. Rubio refused. Levin, inviting Rubio on his show, was impressed. Very. And following Reagan’s advice in 1976 that the Republican Party should be about conservative principles rather than a fraternal order, Levin kept putting Rubio on the air — which meant the unknown Rubio was getting air time to explain himself in major radio markets all over Florida.
He did this very Reaganesque thing all over the country — zeroing in on conservative candidates being pilloried by the state’s Ford-like GOP Establishments. From Kentucky’s Rand Paul to Utah’s Mike Lee to Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Alaska’s Joe Miller and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell. Over and over again, Levin was connecting the dots between the intellectual arguments of Liberty and Tyranny — and the practical politics, the who, what, why, and where — the knowledge that conservative voters across the country needed to begin making sure candidates who knew something about the Constitution were actually being nominated for office.
Taking a page from Reagan’s playbook Levin wasn’t interested in the “fraternal order” party which Reagan himself had to fight. That’s not the way to build a conservative movement, Levin told me. Understanding full well that both the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been in this same place once before — as moderates like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and ex-Bush speechwriters turned commentators and authors Michael Gerson and David Frum have argued. (It is of interest — or should be — that the combined book sales of those making the moderation argument or that conservatism has already died — people with names like Frum, Douthat, Brooks, Gerson and Tanenhaus — have a collective book sale number for their arguments in the mid 100,000 range. Far, far behind the passion surrounding Levin’s 1.2 million street-waving number.)
One question: where is the Fox TV series on Levin’s book? One would have to believe, under these circumstances, it would be a ratings winner.
Mark Levin will surely write another book. And it will take awhile. As Michele Bachman notes approvingly, a committee of writers “didn’t ghostwrite” Liberty and Tyranny. It is pure Levin, from first to last. And while whatever he has coming next will doubtless sell, even Paine, Stowe, and Goldwater never replicated their stand-alone history-changing contributions.
Is there a lesson in all of this?
My friend Mark Levin tells me there are several. Reagan had it right, he says. The so-called moderation argument, which Reagan specifically rejected, deriding it as substituting a “fraternal order” for principle, has been proved wrong yet again. While the 2010 election cycle has brought enormous progress — the battle will continue. The usual suspects — carrying the Ford-Establishment mindset — will continue to contest and lose elections. And those that win will continue to abandon conservative principles if elected. And that’s before the Obama left is confronted — which it must be on grounds of principle.
Says the man himself, pondering the overwhelming response to the book that changed America:
“Liberty is never safe from tyranny.”
And he’s right.