Inside the mind of Uncle Sam

Understanding American Government and Politics - Contemporary America - Governing America - America Embattled
November 28, 2003

Writing, or rather managing, a textbook on the theme of US government and politics is the most difficult of all assignments in the field of political publishing. This is for three main reasons. First, the US political system is notorious for its triumphant complexity that confuses even its most attentive citizens. Second, political analysis in the US is big business. An immense volume of political information is generated by mass-produced "civics" courses, 24-hour news cycles, multiplying journals and a culture of Washington "Kremlinology". A book search for "US politics" on Amazon, for example, affords a current choice of 32,000 publications. Third, the advanced level of specialisation within the American political science profession has created tribal patterns of settlement in which proliferating segmentation provides the main modus operandi for professional development.

In confronting this extraordinary diversity, the textbook writer attempts to devise an overview that will make some holistic sense of the excess of information. It can be argued that it is only textbook authors who attempt such feats of compression. In Understanding American Government and Politics , Duncan Watts is guided in his task by the specifications of the current A-level syllabus (AQA, Edexcel, OCR). The book is the first in a new series designed to meet the requirements of A2-level students in the field of political study. The pedigree is impressive, combining as it does the textbook experience of Manchester University Press with the clarity of the Politics Association's Resource Centre.

This is a project that has intimate knowledge of its target audience. As a result, the material is well presented and maintains its chosen level. Each chapter is broken down into sections. The inclusion of boxes, checklists, definitions and miniature panels keeps the pace brisk and ensures that diversions are contained within the parameters of the book itself. The design also encompasses a series of boxes devoted to pertinent US-UK comparisons.

As a teaching device, Understanding American Government and Politics has considerable virtues. Each chapter opens with points to consider and ends with sample questions and additional reading in the form of suggested websites. The information presented is up to date, informed and reliable.

Notwithstanding its merits, the book suffers from excessive fragmentation: there are too many font changes, bullet points, subdivisions, white and black boxes and (most visually arduous of all) dark grey boxes that almost invariably run over the page. All textbooks are compromises between coverage and depth. In Watts' commentary, the machinery of government and elections is given priority over issues and policy-making, almost to the point of exclusion. So far as the pedagogy goes, the main difficulty is that many of the sample questions appear to be weightier than the supporting text.

Contemporary America represents an altogether different genre. This is a broad sweep through the US that moves beyond government and politics to include geography, history, culture, the economy, social services and religion. Russell Duncan and Joseph Goddard write well and cover a great deal of ground in a text with high production values and a clear design.

The volume is also part of a series. In contrast to MUP's series Understanding Politics, Palgrave's Contemporary States and Societies is an established brand with an evident organisational template. Nonetheless, it is not entirely clear at whom such a series is directed. The publishers claim that it is geared to the "needs of today's students" but it is not specified what these students might be studying. Contemporary America has the feel of Lonely Planet meets the Economist Intelligence Unit. It tells you all manner of things you ought to know, interspersed with an eclectic series of digressions that act as outings to the main journey. Photographs (for example, a stealth bomber, a gated community, Elvis and Nixon in the White House) and tables (for example, the top ten causes of death, the most popular prime-time television shows) supplement the lively pace of a cultural tour guide whose enthusiasm for broad themes and intriguing minutiae remains gloriously undiminished over 300 pages.

Governing America: The Politics of a Divided Democracy is a well-conceived and superbly designed introductory text for university and college students. It is broken into four main sections: historical and theoretical foundations; institutions and intermediary organisations; public policy; and issues and controversies. Each section has individual chapters written by established scholars. The text is complemented by reading guides, information boxes, definitions, summaries of key debates, questions, further reading and web links. The book manages to combine a stream of access points with the virtue of an organising theme, that of divided democracy.

In contrast to many competing texts, Governing America gives political issues and conflict equal status with the structures and processes of institutions and organisations. The list of controversies is impressive and spans social fields such as abortion, capital punishment, environmental protection, gender politics, gun control, social provision and gay rights as well as economic and foreign policy issues, including a review of the US position and global significance following the trauma of September 11 2001.

The outcome is one in which the animating properties of political dispute and the contested direction of policy are woven into the fabric of government rather than treated as loose threads. Editor Robert Singh's exemplary management has succeeded in providing a tightly controlled excursion into all the main features of the subject. Students will appreciate the outstanding mix of lucid information and authoritative interpretation for many years to come.

Richard Crockatt's America Embattled is not a textbook in the conventional sense. It is more an elegant set of interconnected essays on the theme of the US position in the world. The attacks of September 11 are both the occasion and the rationale of a study that seeks to locate present events within an enriched understanding of their historical context and political implications.

Given the enormity of current shifts in international politics and the difference between US perceptions and the rest of the world's, Crockatt's book provides an important corrective to mainstream texts whose remits cannot include the indigestible present. Crockatt asserts that his study represents a "provisional map of the territory that will be filled in greater detail as time goes on".

His achievement lies in demonstrating how such a map should be constructed. He dispenses with the clean lines of a governing conceptual architecture. Instead he opts for a genuinely multidimensional approach that incorporates the plural properties of anti-Americanism, the rise of political Islam, the interplay of nations and the international system, the paradoxes and imbalances of American power, and the historical impulses of the Bush administration.

The author is particularly insightful about the way that American isolationism forces US presidents to emphasise the nation's insecurity and its vulnerability to attack, to mobilise public and political support for an active foreign policy. Crockatt's intelligent use of mindsets leads to a host of trenchant observations and arresting conclusions. For example, he concludes that the threat posed by "9/11" was "consistent with long-established patterns in the way that America perceived its relations with the outside world". As a result, the reaction in the form of the war on terrorism was a deeply conservative response because "it reinforced a native unilateralism and a tendency to define global problems in terms of American national needs".

Confronting Donald Rumsfeld's view of war's "untidiness" head on, Crockatt sets a course of stringent analysis through the the trade winds of simplifying accounts.

Michael Foley is professor of international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Understanding American Government and Politics: First edition

Author - Duncan Watts
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 6
Price - £45.00 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 7190 6269 1 and 6074 5

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