Wait, was there an election?

L. Sandy Maisel, American Political Parties and Elections, A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007

The key question [about politics] has always revolved around the locus of power (72).

Pr. Maisel has worked at Colby College in political science for over forty years and has also been a candidate for the United States Congress. Maisel’s contribution to the very short introduction series from Oxford University Press, while somewhat repetitive in spots, is a valuable tool for interested citizens as well as teachers of American government.

As befits these books, Maisel writes clearly and concisely. He emphasizes how it is difficult in such a book to make decisions about essential versus interesting, whether complex concepts are understood by readers, and the difficulty in choosing general descriptives versus contemporary, familiar examples to explain political process (xi). Equally important for Maisel is stating why it is important that people understand how elections work. He argues that the electoral process is a connection between people and government and as such, the people need to understand whether their will is reflected in political leadership. Maisel is, in his words, “a passionate believer in American democracy, but…also an ardent critic” (xii). I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment, particularly as he stresses that these two ideas are not incompatible.

Each chapter follows a useful formula that makes the material come together for the reader. Maisel outlines, at times with a simple introductory example, a series of points he will cover, the body of the chapter follows, and a summary concludes, giving readers an even shorter introduction (should they choose) to a very short introduction. In the opening three chapters this is quite helpful as Maisel explains the context in which we should try to understand American politics and government, the origins of the election process itself, and why political parties came to be, along with their organizational models and evolutions (1-76). Along the way, readers are exposed to debates over the Constitution, definitions galore of important political terms, origins of the American party system, and the esoteric nature of the Electoral College.

At times, this organizational structure and some use of specific examples results in some repetition of points. Also, the text works current political examples into the book yet I wonder whether that shortens the shelf life. Already, some of the questions Maisel asks about campaigns and the. Impact of Howard Dean as Democratic National Committee chair for example have bee answered, so the speculations within fall a bit flat.

Nevertheless, Maisel has created a strong introductory text addressing questions of American political power, its origins and locations. Use of this book in an introductory political science course or a survey level United States history course would prove as informative as it would useful. Of particular use for class or section discussions, and perhaps short paper topics, would be Maisel’s final chapter in which he reminds readers of five essential questions and concerns:

  • Level of Participation
  • The Presidential nominating and election process
  • The cost of democracy
  • Lack of competition
  • Campaign Discourse
  • Each one of these concerns is accompanied by explanations and reminders as to what Maisel has said earlier in the text along with subsections for each. As I stated, the possibility for specific papers or class discussion is strongly aided by this chapter. Finally, Maisel returns to an important point that Americans (politicians and citizens alike) seem to miss frequently. Our government and electoral process is not for all. “One cannot export culture and traditions. One should not claim perfection for a system that even in the present context has apparent flaws” (147). In short, we can hold up our model to the world if we like, but we cannot force it on others – also, we must explore, question, praise, and reform our system to move this version of democracy forward. Maisel offers us a useful context and history, a blueprint for more discussion, and faith that we can demonstrate true leadership within our nation.

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