Modern Political Analysis
Politics and Policies in State and Local Governments
In the past dozen years, Robert A. Dahl has made a substantial contribution to the study of politics. Still young, now a professor of political science at Yale, he has written on some of the most vexing problems in the field: the creation of American foreign policy, the connections between welfare economics and political democracy, the principles of democratic theory, and the structure of power in a small city (New Haven). He occupies a central place in his profession and is one of the most respected political scientists in the country.
It is therefore a matter of some importance that Dahl is now editing a series of eleven short books to serve as introductions to the various fields of political study; and that the most general of these books he has written himself. We would expect these books to be political science in the American sense; but we would also expect that Dahl’s editorial presence would impose restrictions of sanity and proportion on their authors.
It must be said at once that the first books in the series, by Herbert Kaufman and by Dahl, successfully abridge a large body of knowledge and make it accessible to amateurs. Moreover, they have refined as well as simplified: they will be instructive to professional students of politics. Kaufman’s book on state and local governments is especially admirable for the manner in which its author has taken a field that has traditionally attracted the dullest minds and, accordingly, the fewest students, and invested it with dignity. Kaufman’s book implied that though the state governments of this country are not full sovereignties and hence not miniatures of the national government, a study of them nevertheless involves the reader in many of the permanent problems of politics. Kaufman is explicit on the impact of our federal system on national politics: the basic unit of American politics is the state.
For some students, however, the real attraction of studying state (and local) governments may be that they offer politics on a more manageable scale than the national government does, and at a greater distance from the confusions of the emergency. Kaufman’s book exploits this potentiality. In his hands, lesser politics is rescued from pettiness and becomes a preparation for the study of high politics—the politics of lives and fortunes. It is ironical that in some ways Kaufman’s book is a more satisfactory introduction to the study of high politics than Dahl’s. Where Dahl’s subject is politics, Kaufman limits himself to state and local politics in the United States. But the truer sense of politics tout court is to be found, I think, in Kaufman’s book; it is easier to make the transition from it to all that is profound and terrible in political life.
For this is the chief difficulty with Dahl’s book, as it is with much American political science: it fails to convey a sense of the greatness of politics—its inherent tragedy, weight and moral complexity. This is not to say that Dahl’s analysis is…
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