Substance without glamour

American Politics and Society. Fifth edition - Controversies in American Politics and Society. First edition
November 29, 2002

David McKay's American Politics and Society remains an excellent introductory guide to US politics. Written for an undergraduate audience, McKay guides readers ably from an examination of public participation in US politics, through the traditional institutions of government, to consideration of social, economic and foreign policy-making.

Blackwell has clearly decided not to compete directly with the glossier efforts of US publishers, instead recognising the imperatives of student income by making the text available more cheaply. The result is not necessarily glamorous, but the delivery more than outweighs the presentational shortcomings.

The book strongly reflects the social science approach associated with McKay's Essex University department. Students are presented with a wealth of statistical data to introduce them to the field's main arguments, and are given early access to much influential Stateside research.

However, the dry style typical of many social-science texts is alleviated by an engaging comparative approach. McKay's work stands apart from US texts in its frequent references to UK and European politics to aid understanding. The text is also strengthened by its single authorship: many competing volumes suffer from degrees of fragmentation not present here.

The new edition benefits from a thorough updating. It includes commentary on the 2000 election controversy and the early phases of the Bush presidency. Following a precedent set by many US texts, the book has a new chapter on government regulation of morality, focusing on civil rights and civil liberties. Blackwell has also provided a website to support the text, promising updates on the text's statistical material.

The new "Controversies" sections represent a further change in format. In these, McKay provides occasional one-page guides to a particular aspect of US debate, such as gun control or the problem of non-voting. Deftly delivered, but ultimately disappointing, the boxes are so occasional as to disrupt the book's flow, and the short format leaves little opportunity to investigate the issues raised.

However, many of these issues are revisited in the companion volume, Controversies in American Politics and Society . This proves a mixed bag. The first half consists of disparate chapters, some addressing academic controversies, such as those in the areas of voting behaviour and divided government, while others consider recent institutional developments. Some are excellent: the absorbing section on direct democracy highlights a shortcoming of most other volumes in the field. However, in such a context, the chapters on institutions seem a little leaden and better suited to the core text.

In contrast, the second half of Controversies delivers a series of short, direct chapters on specific issue debates. Most are excellent first introductions to their subjects; sections on capital punishment and gun control stand out especially. The attempt to resolve social science's discomfort with the emotional voices aroused by many issues is notable. The authors' willingness to adopt these voices as an explanatory tool is both refreshing and engaging.

One hopes that the authors will pursue their promise to extend the range of issues addressed in future editions, perhaps considering federal-state relations and environmental issues.

Jon Herbert is lecturer in US politics, Keele University.

American Politics and Society. Fifth edition

Author - David McKay
ISBN - 0 631 22415 7 and 22416 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
Pages - 364

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