Stylish, reliable runners

American Government - Politics USA. Second Edition - Contemporary America. Second Edition
November 24, 2006

In the preface to American Government , Theodore Lowi et al. assert that, like a novel, a good textbook should be written on two levels. The first is that of narrative, while the second relates to argument and characterisation. If that is the case, then American Government must surely rank as something of a modern classic. First published in 1990, it has now reached its eighth edition and has assumed the stately elegance of an authoritative exposition with an assured market share.

In the big business of American texts written of, for and by the American people, the frame of comparative reference is less that of narrative and more one of high-volume car production. Seen in this light, at more than 450 pages, American Government offers a solid chassis and dependable stability but also good visibility and sensitive steering. It comes with high-resolution boxes, figures and charts as well as sections on "Key terms" and a "Core of the analysis" insert in every chapter.

Impressive though it is for its range and coverage, American Government does look a little dated in its design and overall configuration. Its very success has incurred a continuity that appears to privilege cautious consolidation over disruptive innovation. The sober constraints of a classic marque are further underlined by the emergence of Politics USA , which has been upgraded to take on the genre of American texts in their own format. Produced by two British analysts, Philip Davies and Robert McKeever, Politics USA is evidently the result of a major investment by Pearson-Longman. It cannot compete directly with the scale of the American platform, with its profusion of external support systems (for example, a dedicated website offering chapter outlines, quizzes, vocabulary flash cards, role-playing simulations and a news service).

But what Politics USA may lack in heavy equipment, it more than makes up for in styling, proportion and focus. It not only succeeds in covering the structural, institutional, procedural and policymaking elements of the American system with exemplary elegance, but it is more savvy in its use of up-to-date citations and links to key websites. Furthermore, Politics USA is more prepared to linger longer in controversial areas, with entire chapters on race, abortion and the War on Terror.

American Government and Politics USA are big-ticket items that offer smooth rides and measured reflection.

Contemporary America , by contrast, is the hatchback of the group. It is small, feisty and roars through a prodigious number of subject areas (for example, geography, history, economy, culture, religion, politics and government). It is not designed for those who want to assimilate a narrower terrain in depth, but instead it is for those looking for a synoptic vision of the US that can take in social structure and foreign policy as easily as it includes entertainment and the American family. This second edition updates the previous chapters and has a new concluding section.

The three texts are effective in their separate ways, but all could do with more on the central role of ideas in the composition of American identity and in the organisation of social conflict and political discourse.

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

American Government: Freedom and Power. Eighth Edition

Author - Theodore J. Lowi, Benjamin Ginsberg and Kenneth A. Shepsle
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 454
Price - £31.50
ISBN - 0 393 92484 X

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