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Journal of Policy History 12.4 (2000) 541-544



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Book Review

The Irony of American Politics

Larry G. Gerber


Morton Keller and R. Shep Melnick, editors. Taking Stock: American Government in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. x, 330. $17.95.

Taking Stock is a collection of essays about the growth of government in the last century by some of the nation's most prominent policy analysts and historians. The authors examine five significant areas of government policy: trade and tariffs, immigration, conservation and environmentalism, civil rights, and social welfare, summarizing and elaborating on ideas they have explored elsewhere at greater length. The book's format does not allow for a comprehensive review of all aspects of American government in the twentieth century, but the eleven essays combine elements of an introductory approach with specialist insights into specific policies, so the book should be of interest to experts in policy history as well as to beginning students.

Morton Keller and David Vogel examine trade and tariff policy. Keller offers a broad historical overview, while Vogel concentrates on the contemporary context of policymaking. They agree that American policy since the Civil War can be divided into two distinct eras, with protectionism the dominant theme prior to the Great Depression and free trade prevailing as the governing ideal since the 1930s. Although trade policy remains an important government concern, both scholars contend that the issue has much less political salience today than in the late nineteenth century, when the tariff was one of the few means by which the federal government directly influenced the economy and represented a defining partisan issue. Keller and Vogel concur that without the occurrence of a major economic crisis, the present free-trade orientation of American policy is unlikely to end. [End Page 541]

Reed Ueda and Peter Skerry focus on immigration. Both authors claim that race and ethnic self-consciousness have come to shape virtually all discussions of this issue. Although Skerry concentrates on current debates, while Ueda offers a diffuse historical survey of immigration issues, they both bemoan what they see as an increasing tendency in recent years for right-wing critics of immigration, as well as left-wing advocates of a racialized model of ethnic identity, to reject the prospect of assimilation. Consequently, both scholars see hard-line advocates of multiculturalism and xenophobic critics of continued immigration distorting the current debate over immigration policy by mutually reinforcing each other's arguments as to the impossibility of fully integrating new immigrant groups into American society.

The section on conservation and environmental policy also includes one essay (by Donald Pisani) that offers a broad if somewhat unfocused historical overview and one essay (by R. Shep Melnick) that provides a more in-depth analysis of recent developments. A common theme emerges from the two essays, however. Both authors see a historic shift from the natural-resources-based conservationism of the early twentieth century to the public-health-oriented environmentalism of today, but they agree that it is impossible to single out any one factor as the key to the development of government policy or to generalize readily about the impact of government action. Environmental policy, they conclude, has been driven by a variety of concerns and has been influenced by a wide array of particular interests.

In their discussions of civil rights, Hugh Davis Graham and Jennifer Hochschild concentrate on policy developments since 1964. Both scholars attempt to weigh the successes and failures of the civil rights movement, contending that it would be misleading to highlight the dramatic transformation that has occurred in the legal and political status of African Americans without also acknowledging the seemingly intractable economic and social problems that affect many urban blacks today. Echoing his previous work on the subject, Graham points to a shift after 1964 from an approach emphasizing the elimination of current forms of discrimination to one that relies on affirmative action to redress the adverse impact of previous discrimination. Graham argues that the shift has resulted in government policies that have in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 541-544
Launched on MUSE
2000-10-01
Open Access
No
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