- How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles
California has a tradition of leading other states in developing novel environmental legislation. Policy entrepreneurship in the Golden State since the 1970s yielded incentives for renewable energy technologies and electric cars, for example, with the goals of reducing air pollution and limiting dependence on unappealing energy resources. But as San Diego State University professor Sarah Elkind reminds us in this book, innovative environmental policy in California has a longer history, stemming at least to the beginning of the twentieth century. Using case studies of environmental activism in the Los Angeles area (all of which have technological components), Elkind explores the origins of such policy. In the process, she also demonstrates how business-based civic organizations gained acceptance as representatives of the public and as opponents of the expansion of federal government power.
Los Angeles serves as a useful locus for case studies dealing with oil and [End Page 940] beach regulation, air pollution, flood control, electricity supply, and water policy—the meat of Elkind’s book. After all, the city’s wealth and general attraction drew partly from its glorious beaches (which brought in tourism dollars and raised the value of nearby real estate), its underground sources of oil (often drilled from rigs placed on the beaches), and its harbor and waterways that enabled commerce. The city’s environmental problems also emanated from natural systems: the Los Angeles basin traps air pollution in a way that made the city among the first to deal with what became known as smog. At the same time, the surrounding mountains directed water through floodprone streams. Population growth in the city produced demand for increased flood control and electricity, both managed from a great distance by construction of the Hoover Dam (originally named Boulder Dam).
As its major contribution, the book demonstrates how local organizations, which included the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Shoreline Planning Association, became viewed as legitimate voices of the public. While loudly trumpeting progressive-sounding ideals, such as making the city’s beachfront open for the benefit of all visitors (as long as they had light-colored skin), the groups also quietly protected business interests by ensuring that the fabled beaches continued to enhance commercial endeavors. Despite being supported and peopled by business representatives, these organizations demonstrated what appeared as the evenhanded virtues of cooperation with government and criticism of the most flagrant industrial practices. Ostensibly reform-seeking, the civic groups also remained conservative and committed to buttressing corporate interests. As an even more novel contribution, the author argues convincingly that these local bodies helped advance the notion that business served as a rightful buffer against federal influence in everyday life, even as politicians and members of the public occasionally lambasted individual companies and industries as enemies of the greater good. In enabling an investor-owned company serving the Los Angeles area to gain control of 80 percent of Hoover Dam’s generated electricity, for example, these organizations blunted the federal public-power movement that seemed on the ascendency during the New Deal period.
While providing valuable insights into the relationship between local organizations and federal policymaking, the book has a few minor problems. For example, while the case studies of beach regulations and air pollution go far to illustrate the rise of business-group influence of local policymaking bodies, readers may wonder how these cases contributed to creation of federal policy. Meanwhile, federal water policy after World War II clearly had an impact on cities such as Los Angeles, but the book doesn’t explain carefully the means by which local politics affected national policy. Indeed, the chapter on this subject contains only a few paragraphs focusing on Los Angeles at all.
These quibbles aside, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy helps historians [End Page 941] and students of policy appreciate the growth of corporate influence in American politics. Because of their clout, business...