Saturday, January 12, 2008

Alan Ehrenhalt's United States of Ambition

I recently read The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office which I found interesting. I thought that it was an interesting book -- he asks the question how did we get where we are today or more narrowly why do we elect the kinds of politicians that we do? The answer is to look at the supply of politicians rather than from voter behavior. There are some good arguments as to why politicians are a certain type - due to self selection -- for instance, for a long time politics was a part time job and in some localities did not pay well (if at all) and so attracted a certain kind of politician. These may be women who stayed home, businesses people who felt it was their duty to keep things well run, or religious leaders who intervened to protect their interests. He looks at elections at local, state and federal level and concentrates on how the incumbents were unseated as politics became professionalized and a full-time job.

The book provided several interesting case studies but I found it difficult to find a message to take away. I can't decide if professionalism is a good thing because it becomes dominated by big money and more and more my feeling is that politics today has shifted back to the days where successors were "annointed" by party leaders (or because of money, e.g. Bush/Bayh/Edwards/Kerry/Kennedy) and the barriers to entry are much higher now that when the book was written. I don't follow politics as much as I probably should so I don't know if there has been a successor to this book.

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