American Politics: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP USA, Mar 28, 2013 - Political Science - 136 pages
American politics seems to grow more contentious and complicated by the day, and whether American democracy works well is hotly debated. Amidst all this roiling partisan argument and confusing claims and counterclaims, there has never been a greater need for an impartial primer on the basics of the American political system.

This Very Short Introduction gives readers a concise, accessible, and sophisticated overview of the vital elements of American democracy, emphasizing both how these elements function, their historical origins, and how they have evolved into their present forms. Richard Valelly covers all facets of America's political system: the bicameral Congress and the place of the filibuster, the legislative-executive process, the role of the Supreme Court, political parties and democratic choice, bureaucracy, the partisan revival, and the political economy. He offers as well an original analysis of the evolution of the American presidency and a fascinating chapter on the effects of public polling on political decision-making and voter representation. Valelly shows that the American political system is, and always has been, very much a work in progress--unfolding within, and also constantly updating, an eighteenth-century constitutional framework. In a refreshingly balanced and judicious assessment, he explores the strengths of American democracy while candidly acknowledging both gaps in representation and the increasing income inequality have sparked protest and intense public discussion. Finally, Valelly considers the remarkable persistence, for more than two centuries, of the basic constitutional forms established in 1787, despite the dramatic social changes that have reshaped virtually all aspects of American life.

For anyone wishing to understand the nuts and bolts of how our political system works--and sometimes fails to work--this Very Short Introduction is the very best place to start.

About the Series:

Oxford's Very Short Introductions series offers concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects--from Islam to Sociology, Politics to Classics, Literary Theory to History, and Archaeology to the Bible. Not simply a textbook of definitions, each volume in this series provides trenchant and provocative--yet always balanced and complete--discussions of the central issues in a given discipline or field. Every Very Short Introduction gives a readable evolution of the subject in question, demonstrating how the subject has developed and how it has influenced society. Eventually, the series will encompass every major academic discipline, offering all students an accessible and abundant reference library. Whatever the area of study that one deems important or appealing, whatever the topic that fascinates the general reader, the Very Short Introductions series has a handy and affordable guide that will likely prove indispensable.

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Politics is, quite frankly, one of my passions. Aside from my own political leanings, values and interests, I have an overarching interest in the entirety of the political process in its own right. I always try to read well-informed and as far as possible objective accounts of the “big picture” of what makes any particular political system tick and what makes it special and idiosyncratic. My expectations of this very short introduction to the American politics were along those lines, unfortunately this book falls far short of my expectations.
Even though the author aims to give an overarching introduction to the American politics as a whole, the book reads more like a hodgepodge of various topics and themes in American politics. Some are reasonably well informative (such as the topic on the elections), while others left me scratching my head. The chapter on the office of presidency was almost entirely devoted to the history of 20th century presidential public addresses, while the chapter on Senate spent inordinate amount of space on Filibuster. These are all interesting topics to be sure, but in my mind they are far from representative of what the most important characteristics of those two political institutions are. In an extremely short introduction as this one, such a choice of topics is inexcusable.
As bad as the choice and treatment of topics are, those flaws pail in comparison with my biggest issue with this book: its unapologetic and in-your-face left-wing bias. Every single Republican political issue has been thoroughly criticized, oftentimes beyond what is objectively warranted, while the Democratic decisions are either not remarked upon or praised. The virtues and the flaws of the entirety of the US political system are judged along the lines of the left-wing issues. The concluding chapter in its entirety is dedicated to “income inequality” and its effects on democracy.
Let’s present the extent of the bias of this book in terms of its illustrations. Out of ten pictures in the book four are of Democratic politicians (Woodrow Wilson, Nancy Pelosi, Elena Kagan and Allen Ellender), three relate to liberal causes (minority voters, union protesters, and Occupy Wall Street protester), two are more or less neutral (a department of agriculture worker and George Gallup), and only one has anything to do with Republicans – an old 1874 cartoon of the GOP elephant. I can’t think of a more unbalanced set of illustrations for a book of this kind.
This book should be the exhibit A in the case against the ideological indoctrination of the American college professors. They are clearly unable to see their own biases, and continue the fiction of presenting themselves as impartial intellectuals. Generations of American college students have been fed a steady diet of books of this type. Fortunately, more and more of them are starting to learn about the real nature of the American political process from the alternative media and educational resources.


Chapter 1 Elements of American democracy
Chapter 2 The presidency
Chapter 3 Congress and its bicameralism
Chapter 4 The legislativeexecutive process
Chapter 5 The Supreme Court
Chapter 6 Bureaucracy
Chapter 7 Public opinion and its influence
Chapter 8 Political parties and democratic choice
Chapter 9 The partisan revival
Chapter 10 Politics in the new Gilded Age
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About the author (2013)

Richard Valelly is Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College.
His publications include Princeton Readings in American Politics (2009), The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (2004), which won several prizes, and Radicalism in the States: The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy (1989).