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Preface to the Ninth Edition

Donald Trump's surprising victory in the 2016 presidential elections was significant in a number of respects. It was, of course a victory only in the Electoral College – his rival Hillary Clinton actually polled almost 3 million more popular votes than her opponent. Nonetheless, it heralded a new period in American politics that was to be in stark contrast to the Obama years. With Republican control of both the presidency and Congress the stage was set for the implementation of a range of policies long proposed by the Republican right including deregulation, immigration and tax reform, the repeal of President Obama's health-care reforms, and a major change in the direction of American foreign and foreign economic policy. 2016 also brought into sharp relief the deep social and regional divisions in American politics. Ethnic and sexual minorities, educated women and the bulk of the population in the larger coastal cities continue to support the Democratic agenda, while working class whites and especially those in the South, the Midwest and rural areas were solid in their support for Republican candidates.

For eight years Barack Obama found it hard to achieve great legislative success or to project to the wider world the will of a unified nation. Instead, the polarization that had characterized American politics since the 1990s continued. While Donald Trump enjoys the advantages of unified government, the checks and balances in the American constitutional system, not to mentions divisions in the Republican Party, will continue to ensure that conflict over means and ends in both domestic policies such as government spending, health care and public morality, and over the American role abroad will persist. Democrats continue to favour multilateral solutions to international problems, while the Republicans support a more belligerently unilateral role on issues ranging from trade with China to climate change, to the Iranian nuclear programme and achieving peace in the Middle East. So, as the world looks to the US for leadership in economic and foreign policy, the pluralism and complexity that characterizes the American political system will continue to limit what presidents can do.

These problems are the unifying theme of the ninth edition of American Politics and Society. Both Americans and non-Americans continue to have high expectations of the world's most powerful government, but rarely are these expectations fulfilled. Instead, the system is increasingly characterized by adversarial politics, with one side constantly blaming the other for policy failures. As in earlier editions, these political conflicts are at all times both placed in careful institutional context and related to the broader historical environment – both domestic and international.

I would like to thank the Department of Government, University of Essex for their support over what is now 30 years since the first edition of this book appeared. I trust it is as fresh and stimulating now as it was then. Justin Vaughan and Liz Wingett of Wiley-Blackwell provided typically professional advice and direction throughout. Finally, thanks to my wife Sherri Singleton and to my daughter Isla Singleton-McKay for their always positive and encouraging support.

Mistley, Essex
February 2017

Chapter 1
Governing in a Polarized Society

A State divided into a small number of rich and a large number of poor will always develop a government manipulated by the rich to protect the amenities represented by their property.


The last edition of this book emphasized the political importance of growing income and wealth inequality in the United States. Since then this phenomenon has grown in importance. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has shown how this growing inequality is in stark contrast to the middle years of the twentieth century when America experienced what has been called a ‘Great Compression’ or incomes and wealth becoming more equally distributed. Since then, however, the rich have increased their share of income and wealth substantially, while the real incomes of poorer Americans have stagnated or even fallen.1 In addition, beginning in the 1980s and accelerating since the late 1990s, American politics has been increasingly characterized by ideological polarization on a wide range of non-economic issues ranging from foreign policy, immigration and the environment to moral issues such as abortion, prayers in public schools and sexual minorities’ rights. Today, the Republicans are consistently on the right on these issues while the Democrats are (slightly less consistently) on the left. The upshot has been the emergence of a much more confrontational and abrasive style of politics centred on the proper role of government in society. Interestingly these differences do not easily align with the ‘traditional’ position of Democrats and Republicans on the role of government. In particular, categorizing the Republican Party as the ‘hands off’ party is difficult to reconcile with the extraordinary appeal of Donald Trump in 2016, who argued for a greatly enhanced federal government role in foreign affairs, trade policy and immigration, as well calling for major reforms of federal taxation and health care. Meanwhile the Democrats remain active supporters of big government in social policy, the environment, many aspects of the economy and civil rights. There is, in fact, a deep paradox here, because for much of the history of the Republic, Americans have been suspicious of big government both in terms of its role in domestic affairs and in terms of its role in the wider world. Unlike the citizens of most West European states – and indeed of America’s immediate neighbours, Mexico and Canada – Americans have always mistrusted the very idea of big government. Low taxes and limited public spending have been populist rallying cries since the beginning of the Republic. Today, however, the US has, in absolute terms, by far the largest government of any country on earth, which provides for a vast array of social and economic programmes as well as military forces and commitments with global reach.

At the inception of the Republic, no question aroused as much passion as did the proper scope of the federal government in society. What the Founding Fathers decided on was an institutional structure that required the assent of several diverse constituencies (those electing the House, Senate and president) before a bill was passed. The presidential power of veto provided an additional check on government, as did the institution of federalism, which served further to fragment government in the new republic. These institutional features were both a product of and reinforced by a public philosophy of limited government. From the very beginning Americans accepted that government was a necessary evil and that essential services such as law and order, sanitation and education should be provided by state and local rather than the federal government. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) provided citizens with legal protection from a potentially intrusive central government. In particular, the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, assembly and religion were designed to act as bulwarks against the power of the state. Americans also mistrusted standing armies. Instead they placed their faith in a people’s militia or, later, in armies and navies that would be largely disbanded once a national emergency had passed.

What is remarkable about the ensuing 150 years of American history is just how powerful an influence this public philosophy was. For it was not until the 1930s and the 1940s that the federal government assumed a permanent and extensive role in social policy and defence. But many Americans remain deeply ambivalent about these new functions. Support for the particular benefits provided by a range of social programmes such as Medicare and social security is high, but, as the battles over federally mandated health care show, antipathy to the general notion of the federal government supporting those in need remains. Politicians preach the virtues of less government and lower taxes while promising to defend existing programmes. A similar tension exists in a range of conscience issues. Those who want to protect ‘family values’ are usually opponents of big government, yet the advance of their agenda would require government action to curb individual choice in such areas as abortion, stem cell research and the rights of sexual minorities. Politicians known to be tough on crime support an extension of the powers of government, including those of federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But these very same politicians often preach the virtues of limited government.

Nowhere is this tension more obvious than in foreign and defence policy. Public support for a major world role waxes and wanes according to the historical circumstances. It was high during and immediately after the Second World War, but fell dramatically in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam. Even so the need to balance the power of the Soviet Union required the Americans to retain large armed forces, including the nuclear deterrent, whether they liked it or not. With the demise of the old communist enemy most commentators expected the US to take on a different role aimed at least in part towards advancing a humanitarian agenda, as the interventions in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo showed. After 9/11 all this was to change. US interventions abroad became justified as part of the war on terrorism. By definition, this involved the sort of military role associated with big government and strong states. Following the difficulties involved in the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan the tide turned once again, but, as far as those on the political right were concerned, not against a strong American role over such issues as nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, so much as against messy, expensive – and ultimately unwinnable – ground wars in distant lands fighting elusive enemies such the Islamic State (ISIS).

Of course, the balance between limited government and an expanded federal role ebbs and flows as historical events such as recessions and wars change values and interests, but never has it taken on the form it has today, with both Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on the role of government, and with Republicans in particular unable to reconcile their traditional antipathy to government with the need for decisive federal government intervention in such areas as immigration, health care, trade policy and tax reform.

For an introductory textbook, ideological conflict in the context of deep ambiguity on the proper role of government provides a useful theme. It helps international comparison. In comparable countries – Britain, France, Italy, Japan and Germany there have also been signs of polarization – although not in the form of a simple binary choice that now dominates many aspects of American politics. Instead, mainstream parties have persisted although often at the expense of allowing extremist parties of the right and left to increase their voter appeal. Nor do these countries display the same level of uncertainty about the role of government or the ‘state’ as do Americans. Most citizens of France and Germany are perfectly happy to see the government provide for a wide range of services in welfare, transport and economic development. Americans, by way of contrast, often seem to resent the role of the government in these areas while at the same time expecting the government to play a prominent role, especially during times of emergency or economic dislocation. American Politics and Society constantly makes comparisons of this sort, so educating students on the importance of a set of uniquely American beliefs and values.

These values are, of course, articulated in the context of the institutional structure of American politics. This structure has been the subject of much criticism in recent years. Critiques have been based in part on specific institutional arrangements, and in particular the separation of powers. With one party often controlling the presidency and another Congress, governing has, so the argument runs, become more difficult than in the past. Underpinning this critique is the simple fact that the American public has an unusually high degree of access to their political institutions – whether at the local, state or national levels. Access is facilitated not only by the sheer number and variety of democratically accountable political institutions, from local school boards through to the US Congress, but also by the fact that Americans take their First Amendment rights to express their views very seriously. Thus, the many points of access for the expression of the democratic will are combined with a high expectation on the part of the public that their demands will be translated into policy.

The great paradox of the American arrangements is, of course, that open and free access to decision-makers does not always translate into the satisfaction of public demands. Often the very institutional complexity of the system cancels out competing demands and leads to no change or incremental rather than radical change. It is this dynamic that explains many of the policy problems of recent years, such as continuing battles over reform of the health-care system and immigration. Institutional arrangements thus facilitate the airing of sometimes-strident public demands while often limiting what governments can actually do. Given the deepening ideological divide which has accentuated the intensity of public demands, it is perhaps unsurprising that public frustration with political institutions has increased markedly over the past three decades.

These problems were more than amply illustrated during the 2016 presidential election campaign. On the left the eventual Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton had to fend off an often-close challenge from Senator Bernie Saunders, who as self-avowed socialist tapped into an unsatisfied demand among many Americans, and in particular the better educated young, for radical solutions to reduce wealth and income inequality. Meanwhile the Republican Party was in the midst of a political civil war between the far right represented by Ted Cruz, the moderate right represented by John Kasisch and the insurgent populism of 
Donald Trump, whose agenda included Draconian solutions to a wide range of issues, but in particular immigration, trade policy and tax reform. In the event Donald Trump’s populism prevailed and in a dramatic upset his brand of populism won him a narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in the ensuing general election. His success will no doubt serve to sharpen further the ideological divide in American politics.

Chapters to Come

The main purpose of this book is to lead the student through the main institutions of American federal government while at all times placing these institutions in a broader economic, social and comparative context.

Chapter 2 is devoted to a discussion of the role of beliefs and values in American politics and how these link into the broader society and economy. As such it places a special emphasis on the remarkable way in which the tension in American political thought between the philosophy of limited government and high public expectations of the democratic process has been accommodated within a uniquely American ideology. Chapters 3 to 15 cover the main institutions and processes of American government, with each designed to provide basic information and to discuss the relevance of historical trends as well as the relevance of recent research findings in political science. Special attention is paid to the relationship between, on the one hand, the institutional structure of government and, on the other, the public’s expectations of the performance of politicians and political processes. Chapters 16 to 20 are designed to add substance and perspective to earlier chapters by examining the policy process in five currently crucial areas: the regulation of public morality in such areas as civil rights; social policy; economic policy; the environment; and foreign policy. Chapter 21 attempts to assess the performance of American government over the past decade. Through the use of comparisons with other countries, the chapter makes an audit of the political system and provokes students critically to evaluate the government in terms of democratic responsiveness and public accountability. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which the US is now perceived from abroad, and whether or not we are entering a new era where American power and influence are on the wane.

The general orientation of this and earlier chapters reflects my conviction that the study of political institutions can be productive only when placed in the broader comparative and historical perspective. The alternative is to condemn the reader to an uninspired descriptive account, which is a fate I would not want to impose on any student of what is one of the most interesting subjects in social science.