Carrying the Torch For a Classic Political Science Text

It’s commonplace, and probably natural, to think of the most recent successes when parceling out awards. This next Academy Awards ceremony, for example, will honor movies from this year, and not, say, Casablanca or Lawrence of Arabia. And yet, it’s fair to say, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia will continue to exert more influence on the films of tomorrow than whatever does get an Oscar in February.

The realization that achievement over time may be more meaningful than quick initial recognition lies behind the Mac Jewell Enduring Contribution Book Award handed out every three years by the State Politics and Policy Section of the American Political Science Association.  Named for the late Malcolm Edwin “Mac” Jewell, who spent more than three decades as a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, the award goes to “those classic works frequently assigned in graduate seminars, typically found on the bookshelves of state politics scholars, and that have been crucial in setting the direction of scholarship the field since their publication.”

State Politics book
‘Politics in the American States’ is now in its 11th edition

The recipient this year is Politics in the American States: A Comparative Analysis, Eleventh Edition, edited by Virginia Gray of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Russell L. Hanson of Indiana University; and Thad Kousser of the University of California, San Diego. As Gray explains below, the book itself has a fine lineage of political scientists as editors since it first hit the shelf in 1963 – two years before its current publisher, SAGE Publishing through its CQ Press imprint, even existed.

We asked Gray, the Robert Watson Winston Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UNC, about what it takes to nourish a cherished franchise in academic communications, preserving the best bits from the past while ensuring it’s pertinent today. And since the Jewell Award is focused on state politics, we also asked her about the reception that more regionally focused scholarship gets in a time when all eyes seem glued to Washington D.C.

This is the 11th edition of what started (if I’m not mistaken) as Herbert Jacob’s and Kenneth Vines’ Politics in the American States. What’s it like taking the reins of what is already a successful franchise? How do you balance reverence for what’s gone before (and respect for classic contributors) with your own idea of how the new edition should proceed?

Yes, this book began in 1963 with Ken Vines and Herb Jacob as editors. I joined the enterprise in 1983 for the fourth edition when Ken Vines dropped out due to age and ill health and Herb did not want to edit the book alone. Herb and I edited the book together for three editions during which time I learned a lot from him about the editorial process for this book. Herb died in 1996 and I invited Russ Hanson to join me as co-editor. Russ was a faculty member at Indiana University, where he specialized in political theory, political methodology, and intergovernmental relations. The seventh edition in 1999 was our first, though it also included Herb’s name as well. Russ brought new ideas for the book and a new network of contributors when we needed to find new chapter authors.

In 2013 Thad Kousser from the University of California, San Diego joined our editorial team for the 10th and subsequent editions. Thad is an expert in governors and state legislatures. Russ and I were looking toward the future with Thad for we saw him as someone who could edit the book following our retirements. Again Thad infused new blood into the book and new ideas for additional chapters.

One cardinal principle we have always used in the book is that when someone retires from his/her university, that person is also retired from the book. This is one important way we keep new blood flowing into the collective enterprise. Pursuant to that policy, the current 11th edition will be the last one for Russ and me as we will retire from our positions before the 12th edition is produced.

The new edition has new/revised tables, figures and maps, but apart from such clearly update-able material, what foundational-level changes have you made in the latest edition?

We have added a new chapter in inequality to reflect the widespread scholarly and journalistic interest in the level of inequality in the US, its growth over time, and variation across the 50 states. Another new chapter is on the bureaucracy, one that was in older editions of the book and was brought back by popular demand of our readers. We also have new authors for the existing chapters on corrections policy, welfare and health policy, and economic development policy. Each of these authors takes a considerably different perspective than did his or her predecessor.

Could you describe the process that you, Russell L. Hanson and Thad Kousser used in editing this book? How do you handle differences in opinion? In geography?

Our first step is to read the reviews from our readers that CQ commissions and then have a conference among ourselves about what changes we might want to make in chapter coverage and in chapter authors. These two kinds of changes interact of course as we might have a new chapter in mind but no author can be found. Or we might think of scholars we might like to bring on board someday, but right now there is no vacancy in that area of expertise. This stage of the process—making sure the old authors we want to retain and the new authors we want to land—can stretch out over several months.

Each editor takes the responsibility for editing one-third of the chapters so there are relatively few differences of opinion. If we do differ, we have three editors, so a two-to-one vote rule can be invoked. We haven’t had differences in geography; but we find that having editors living in different states is a plus.

Having your peers deem your work an ‘enduring contribution’ sounds like an enormous pat on the back. What was your reaction? Might such an award also create a burden of future expectations?

Yes, you are right. We regard the Mac Jewell as a major accolade for us. It is particularly meaningful for me as Mac was my first department chair at the University of Kentucky. I don’t think the award will place an undue burden, any more than the burden we already place on ourselves to choose the chapter authors who are the tops on their areas of specialization. And any more than the burden that the chapter authors put upon themselves to write the best and most up-to-date chapters.

Virginia Gray
Virginia Gray

Looking at this from a different vantage, Virginia, APSA has created the ‘Virginia Gray Best Book Award’ for “the best political science book published on the subject of U.S. state politics or policy in the preceding three calendar years.” What’s it like to have an enduring monument cast in your own name?

I am very proud and humbled to have such an award created in my name. The people whose books have won the award have been excellent scholars and their books have been worthy ones. This year the winner is one of my former graduate students so that is especially pleasing.

Let’s talk specifically about state-level politics for a moment. In the journalistic sphere it’s almost always a poor cousin to national politics. Do you feel state politics gets its due? How about specifically in academe?

No, I do not feel state politics gets its due. Journalists are partly to blame because they inordinately focus on national level politics and ignore state level politics. As a result, citizens know less about what goes on at the state level, and they conclude it is not important since it is not talked about. The same avoidance goes on in academia. Most state universities teach state government and politics, but few private universities do. The subfield is looked down on by some political scientists, whose image of the subfield is decades out-of-date. The research going on today is methodologically sophisticated, theoretically informed, and substantively interesting. They are ignoring our work at their peril.

And lastly, what is the state of state-level politics and partisanship in the United States? Is it as ‘bad’ (feel free to argue the use of that concept) in statehouses as it is in Washington, D.C.? Do you see solutions in the laboratories of the states, or just the next generation of disunion?

Governors have always been more pragmatic than other public officials, and state legislators have often worked to solve problems across party lines. So compared to the national level of government, the state level works. That said, our research shows that partisanship is rising at the state level, especially in state legislatures and to some extent among governors. The question is whether a number of state governments will reach a tipping point in the near future where they become as dysfunctional as the nation’s capital. So far only isolated cases have done so, e.g., Illinois, Maine, while most states have remained functional.

Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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