Not a Book to be Thrown Aside Lightly,

but rather thrown with great force.* That’s an appropriate one-line review of Michael Barone’s Hard America, Soft America, which is sad really, because Michael Barone is one this nation’s better political commentators. His knowledge of the American political landscape is encyclopedic, as evidenced by his annual Almanac of American Politics (a sort of dungeon master’s guide for political science nerds like me), and from his appearances on Fox News we know he’s not a rabble-rousing showman, but rather intellectual in manner. More George Will than Ann Coulter.

Which is probably why I found Hard America, Soft America so disappointing. Barone’s encyclopedic mind is apparent in full force here, but it serves an incredibly simplistic thesis. Hard America, Soft America asks, “why does America continue to produce incompetent 18-year-olds but remarkably competent 30-year-olds?” The answer is the dichotomy between the Soft world of education and the Hard world of business (“Hard” and “Soft” are always capitalized). Soft worlds are worlds free of competition and accountability, where failure is tolerated, understood, and dealt with in a compassionate manner. Education theories are the best example of a Softness in America today. Hard worlds are worlds of accountability, punishment for wrongdoing, risk and reward; the world of the entrepreneur. Barone shows how law enforcement, big business, and the military went from Soft to Hard over the past generation, and hopes that education will do the same.

So this book is about another book about “two Americas”– conservative and liberal, red and blue, Hard and Soft. Barone is smart enough to recognize that both Hard and Soft environments are necessary for the country to survive (which I suppose puts him above most of his colleagues), but the whole thing is rather simplistic and, for my money, the labels “Hard” and “Soft” have too much of a David Brooks-like cuteness to them (I think Brooks would have come up with better labels than Hard and Soft though. “Bobos” is rather clever). In the end, Hard America, Soft America is book of pop sociology from a guy who is capable of far more.

*Dorothy Parker, I belive.


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