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US Politics Today - American Politics in Hollywood Film - US Elections Today
November 24, 2000

The appearance of three more books on American politics, all written by British-based authors and published by British publishers, is testimony to continuing enthusiasm for the field.

US Elections Today is a new edition of Elections USA (1992). Its author, Philip Davies, is chair of the British Association for American Studies. In a short space, yet at no cost to elegance or clarity of style, he covers everything from Hispanics to direct mail, paying heed not just to national issues, but to local elections affecting what he estimates to be America’s 86,000 local governments.

Davies sketches America’s evolving party systems and notes some continuities: "[s]ome of the most powerful techniques of the modern campaign are merely old campaigning methods redefined by a new technical reality." At the same time, he attempts to isolate discontinuities, notably the characteristics of the "sixth party system" that superseded the New Deal coalition in and after 1968.

To assist in this process, he integrates into his new edition evidence and theoretical insights from the 1990s. For example, he lists data for the period 1798-1998 that shows the unprecedented degree to which, in the modern era, the presidential party has been unable to control Congress.

That US Elections Today is a work of scholarly precision is illustrated in the author’s treatment of the "gender gap" factor in the 1984 election, when the Reagan camp targeted stay-at-home housewives with the scare story that a Democratic victory would mean higher prices. The targeted women were only 6 per cent of the electorate, but the inflation panic generated a swing sufficient to neutralise the Democratic gender gap advantage.

US Elections Today is a high-quality text suitable for use on undergraduate and masters-level courses. US Politics Today by Edward Ashbee and Nigel Ashford is designed as an introductory text for first-year higher education students. It deals sequentially with the institutions of government, parties, elections and interest groups, but opens with a section on "diversity and consensus", which asks what is tearing America apart and what is holding it together. Ashbee and Ashford deal with some old problems, for example the issue of whether the constitution is out of date, but also address more contemporary concerns, especially through a device they have borrowed from US textbooks: the boxed and shaded inset designed to educate the student in less time than it takes to switch channels on the television.

Some of these insets illuminate. Others lack precision, such as the one on race stating that slaves deported from Africa were "mostly destined for the southern states." In the Iran-Contra affair inset, Nicaragua is identified as "a small central American nation... aligned with Cuba and the Soviet bloc". Abortion is defined as "the forcible termination of a pregnancy". It is unclear whether these observations stem from an inability to label properly what may be paraphrases of the right’s viewpoint or from a sympathy with the right. If the problem is lack of precision, it extends, too, to the selection of websites, such as those created by journalists — surely the Washington Times does not merit inclusion as one of America’s top five newspapers? US Politics Today has some positive features, but it cannot compete with the best textbooks in the field.

American Politics in Hollywood Film is a good idea for a book, and its author, Ian Scott, is quite erudite in the field. He offers both chronological and thematic perspectives, and is instructive on topics as diverse as D. W. Griffith and the celluloid portrayal of prominent women in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the book is marred by uneven coverage, illiteracy and nonsense. If an author chooses to ignore so important a topic as the politics of Vietnam war movies, at least he should include a filmography to guide the interested reader, but there is none here. If Hollywood is "an active inculcate of cultural discourse", I missed the funeral of the verb transitive. It is to be hoped that students will be discouraged from emulating the prose of a lecturer who writes that "the historical origins of this discourse... stretches well back into the past" and that Robin Cook "remarried his secretary".

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is professor of American history, University of Edinburgh.


US Politics Today: First edition

Author - Edward Ashbee and Nigel Ashford
ISBN - 0 7190 5463 X and 5464 8
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00 and £8.99
Pages - 240

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