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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 330-331

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Book Review

Presidents, Parties, and the State:
A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884-1936

Presidents, Parties, and the State: A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884-1936. By Scott C. James (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 307pp. $59.95

James proposes a "party system perspective" on the history of regulation in the United States. Effective historical analysis of policy formation, he argues, must take into account the goals and actions of party leaders operating in specific institutional and political contexts. This sensitivity to contingency makes James' study excellent history as well as important political science.

This emphasis on party leadership refines both group-based and institutionalist models of policy formation. Interest-group power is not measured simply through resource endowment, but also by political circumstance. A weak organization or small set of voters can serve as a swing group in a state possessing key electoral votes. Party bosses often bend to the wishes of such interests, even at the risk of offending their core constituencies, in order to win the presidency. James parts company with new institutionalism's focus on Congress and the decentralized character of the American polity by giving greater weight to this nationally oriented agenda of party leaders.

James focuses on Democratic party policy choices, arguing that its leaders overrode the desires of their party's dominant interests in formulating regulatory legislation to pursue the swing group support necessary to win the Presidency. This strategy, he contends, explains why the anti-statist, and anti-monopoly Democrats spearheaded the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, the Federal Trade Commission of 1914, and the Public Utilities Holding Act of 1935--three key steps in the development of regulated corporate capitalism in the United States. James also suggests that these tactics explain how the laissez-faire Democratic party of the nineteenth century became the party of the active state in the twentieth.

The book supports these arguments with three detailed case studies, each weaving together roll-call analysis, institutional history, and traditional narrative. The first describes how the pursuit of "business mugwumps" led Democratic leaders in Congress to create the Interstate Commerce Commission, even as calls for more stringent restrictions on railroads emanated from most Democratic precincts. The second details [End Page 330] how President Wilson and a disciplined Democratic caucus wooed Progressives by fashioning the Federal Trade Commission, a development that signaled the triumph of corporate capitalism, despite the hostility to large-scale business displayed by the party's rank and file. The final case considers how President Franklin Roosevelt broke with most of his party to push a strongly anticorporate version of the Public Utilities Holding Act through Congress, a step aimed at winning progressive Republican support for the 1936 election.

The collective result is an advance in our understanding of regulatory history and the role of party leadership in shaping it. James' "party system perspective" provides a subtle approach that refines and improves existing models of policy formation. His flexible analytic framework takes into account shifts in the character of presidential leadership and Congressional culture, electoral college considerations, interest-group demands, and the different electoral strategies of Democrats and Republicans. It is this careful attention to historical context and individual action that makes this fresh "perspective" on policy history so valuable in comparison with more rigid institutionalist and rational-choice approaches to the subject.


James J. Connolly
Ball State University



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