Sex, lies and recent US history

Developments in American Politics 3 - Practising American Politics - Government and Politics of the United States

June 18, 1999

One of the more welcome, though inadvertent legacies of President Clinton's recent "inappropriate behaviour" has been to reinforce the perennial popularity of American politics courses in British universities and schools. However, course tutors remain hard-pressed to find a single textbook, pitched at an appropriate level, that provides an adequate combination of contemporary focus and historic context, and also combines coverage of governing institutions with current issues and controversies.

This largely reflects the structural difficulty of conveying the full complexity of US politics in a concise volume and the divergent responses of American and British authors and publishers to this problem.

American academics, such as David Edwards and Alessandra Lippucci, typically opt for comprehensive coverage over concision. Well-suited to specialised and semesterised US university courses, these are often ill-suited to more abbreviated British ones, especially where the US forms only part of a broader comparative analysis. Unaccustomed to such bulky tomes, these texts also appear intimidating and (crucially) expensive to British students. The Edwards/ Lippucci book is no exception. Impressively detailed, its strong pedagogical emphasis (website addresses abound) has become as conventional in the States as it remains exceptional here.

British authors typically prefer prose over pedagogy, omitting lengthy discussion in favour of a more concise approach. Since its first publication in 1993, I have used the excellent textbook by Nigel Bowles as the primary text for my US government courses. The second edition of Bowles represents a welcome, updated volume that maintains the high standards of the first and is supplemented by a timely chapter on city politics. Centred on the institutions of the federal government, the revised book places contemporary US politics in its historical context in a clear, comprehensive and impressively erudite fashion. It remains the most rounded and authoritative British text currently on the market for undergraduates.

By contrast, the Developments text illustrates the problems of an "Atlanticised" approach. Aiming to bring together American and British scholars, this edition falls between two stools. The healthy community of Americanists in Britain (the largest outside the US) is strangely neglected in both chapters and references (although one contributor selflessly cites himself ten times within the first 11 pages of his chapter). The highly regarded and recently published scholarly work by, for example, Alan Ware on parties, Desmond King on race and Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones on the CIA certainly deserves inclusion in this volume. Instead, the traditional strengths of the Developments series - breadth of scope and specialist essays - also provide its main weakness here: lack of coherence. The quality of the chapters varies more dramatically than in prior editions, with many short in both length and analytic insight. Glaring omissions from the politics of the 1990s (readers will find no mention of "redistricting", gun control, citizen militias or Louis Farrakhan in the index, for example) and basic factual errors, such as incorrect dates (one editor cites the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1993, not 1990), suggest a lax editorial approach, especially for a book that students will invariably treat as canonical truth.

Where Bowles and Edwards/ Lippucci suffer from the surfeit of competition that characterises the US textbook market, the Peele volume remains a staple of university reading lists in the UK, more for its lack of competition than for its scholarly contribution.

Robert S. Singh is lecturer in politics, University of Edinburgh.

Developments in American Politics 3

Editor - Gillian Peele, Christopher J. Bailey, Bruce Cain and B. Guy. Peters
ISBN - 0 333 66016 1 and 66017 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 419

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