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A Rare Textbook Find: California Politics With a Purpose
, September 22, 2002
For those who teach American politics and government, there are distressingly few good textbook choices available for national or state courses. A rare exception to the dismayingly dreary or tiresomely trendy tomes that abound is "Democracy in California: Politics and Government in the Golden State." Authors Brian P. Janiskee and Ken Masugi have combined the standard features (formal and informal institutions, demographics, historical vignettes, recent developments, political terminology, etc.) with a thoughtful historical and philosophical approach that places California within the broad scope of American experience and Western political thought.
As its title suggests, this distinctive text draws both high inspiration and practical wisdom specifically from Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study, "Democracy in America" (1835). But the book is more than high-minded or useful: it is dead-on timely too. Tocqueville observed America during the Age of Jackson, early in the pre-Civil War crisis (1830-60) which both preceded and shaped California government. Thus, California was founded at a time (1849-50) when, as Tocqueville knew, republican government was under severe attack from Southern slavemasters and European autocrats. To the extent that the influence of the American founding was not attenuated by these attacks, the new State of California was both representative and free. But having weathered those challenges, California (and the nation) have had to endure the various phases and consequences of the Prussian administrative state which was the questionable contribution of the Progressive movement in the decades since the State's admission to the Union by the Compromise of 1850.
California has been shaped for good or for ill by these competing forces and is necessarily presented in this work as a sort of hodge podge in which multiple offices, frequent elections and political cronyism (the Jacksonian contribution) overlap with direct democracy, anti-partyism and professional expertise (the Progressive contribution). The battle over slavery shaped the State's original identity as a free state in the midst of a bitter sectional dispute but also long tainted its politics with racism. California defied the odds against republican government but the rise of the administrative state and its seemingly boundless taxing and spending--and bureaucratic meddling--puts the future of that regime in serious question. Not everything could be included in this relatively short (160 pages) work but no salient fact is overlooked as it bears upon the future of democracy in the Golden State.
The authors are discerning students of political philsophy, best exemplified today by Harry V. Jaffa, who single-handedly rescued Abraham Lincoln and principled anti-slavery politics from the near-oblivion of the professional historians. Janiskee and Masugi in turn seek to rescue California politics (but not many of its leading politicians)from the academic dead end to which years of pseudo-scientific approaches have relegated it. "Democracy in California" makes the study of California government and politics a much more serious and rewarding enterprise than it has been for many years and will be, if this book is widely adopted, for many more. Extensive footnotes and excellent bibliography. Highest recommendation.