Contemporary American Politics and Society: Issues and Controversies


Robert Singh

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Endorsements for Contemporary American Politics and Society

    In this volume the political scientist Robert Singh has selected and analyzed closely a set of topical issues and controversies in American politics – including gun control, capital punishment and cultural wars – as a way better to understand the United States. The result is an excellent text which conveys both the diversity of contemporary America and the complexity of issues often treated superficially in media accounts. I recommend the book highly.

    Desmond King, Mellon Professor of American Government, Nuffield College, University of Oxford

    Rob Singh is a master of style, and his book is the perfect companion for those who are interested in America's ‘culture wars’ but hitherto have been put off by the execrable jargon they have spawned.

    Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Professor of American History, University of Edinburgh

    For those who still believe that politics is normally, naturally, about economics, Rob Singh has gathered the evidence and dialed the wake-up call: seven major instances of an ongoing culture war meet a common analytic framework here in a lively and informative fashion.

    Byron E Shafer, University of Wisconsin

    For the student this is the perfect complement to a textbook. American politics is not just about institutions and processes, but also about current political issues and debates. Robert Singh's interesting book illuminates a range of social and cultural issues that divide Americans in the 21st century. All undergraduate courses on American politics should include it on reading lists for seminars, tutorials and classes.

    Alan Ware, Worcester College, University of Oxford


    For Hannah, with love


    View Copyright Page

    List of Exhibits and Tables

    The Culture War and Contemporary American Politics
    • Table 1.1 Traditionalist and progressive issue positions 11
    The Rise of the Culture War
    • Table 2.1 The rise of the culture war: dynamics of change 21
    • Exhibit 3.1 A Progressive View: Abortion as an Equality Issue? 38
    • Exhibit 3.2 The Trimester Ruling of Roe v. Wade (1973) 45
    • Exhibit 3.3 Abortion and Foreign Aid: The History of ‘Mexico City’ 49
    • Exhibit 3.4 President Reagan's Remarks to the Annual Convention of National Religious Broadcasters, January 30, 1984 50
    • Exhibit 3.5 Filers of Amicus Curiae Briefs in Support of Appellants, William L. Webster, Attorney General of the State of Missouri, in the Supreme Court Case Webster v. Reproductive Services (1989) 53
    • Exhibit 3.6 Key Supreme Court Rulings on Abortion, 1973–2002 55
    • Table 3.1 State abortion laws before Roe v. Wade36
    • Table 3.2 Legal abortions in the US, 1967–88 37
    • Table 3.3 ‘Degenerative trends’ 38
    • Table 3.4 Respondents believing abortion should be legal, 1975–92 40
    • Table 3.5 Support for Roe v. Wade41
    • Table 3.6 Respondents supporting legal abortion under special circumstances 42
    • Table 3.7 Support for abortion in the United Kingdom, 2000 42
    • Table 3.8 Abortions and abortion providers, 1992–96 57
    • Table 3.9 Parental Involvement Laws, 2001 59
    Gun Control
    • Exhibit 4.1 Federal Firearms Legislation, 1934–2002 68
    • Exhibit 4.2 Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Concealed Carry Laws 70
    • Exhibit 4.3 Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Concealed Carry in Texas 71
    • Exhibit 4.4 Five Good Reasons to Own a Gun 72
    • Exhibit 4.5 Gun Control and Abortion: Comparisons and Contrasts 74
    • Exhibit 4.6 Selected Firearms Facts 76
    • Table 4.1 Waiting for a gun 69
    • Table 4.2 Crime rates in states and the District of Columbia that do and do not allow the carrying of concealed handguns, 1992 72
    • Table 4.3 Gun and non-gun homicides in England and Wales and the US, 1985–90 75
    • Table 4.4 Rates of homicide, suicide and gun ownership in 18 countries 77
    • Table 4.5 Public support for stricter controls 77
    • Table 4.6 1992–96 presidential vote by gun ownership 83
    Capital Punishment
    • Exhibit 5.1 World Leaders in Executions 100
    • Exhibit 5.2 Does the US Constitution Sanction the Death Penalty? 109
    • Exhibit 5.3 Key Supreme Court Rulings on Capital Punishment, 1972–2002 116
    • Exhibit 5.4 Capital Punishment: Philosophical and Religious Views 117
    • Exhibit 5.5 Electrocuting Killers: Cruel, Unusual and Constitutional? 119
    • Exhibit 5.6 Willie Horton and the Death Penalty 125
    • Table 5.1 Countries that retain and use the death penalty for ordinary crimes, 1996 99
    • Table 5.2 Abolition, partial abolition and restoration of the death penalty 102
    • Table 5.3 Ten leading causes of death in the US, 1992 103
    • Table 5.4 Prisoners executed under civil authority, 1930–94 104
    • Table 5.5 Methods of lawful execution, by jurisdiction, 1994 105
    • Table 5.6 Minimum legal age for capital punishment, by jurisdiction, 1994 106
    • Table 5.7 States prohibiting capital punishment 106
    • Table 5.8 Total number of death row inmates, by state, 1999 107
    • Table 5.9 Prisoners executed by jurisdiction in rank order, 1930–95 and 1977–95 108
    • Table 5.10 Number of official lynchings and legal executions in the US, 1890s–1960s 109
    • Table 5.11 Public opinion on the death penalty, 1936–91 111
    • Table 5.12 The demographics of support and opposition to capital punishment, 2000 113
    • Table 5.13 Killer-victim racial combinations and death sentences in Georgia, 1973–79 121
    • Table 5.14 Racial breakdown of the 85 executions in 2000 121
    Gay Rights
    • Exhibit 7.1 The Biblical View: Homosexuality as Sin 164
    • Exhibit 7.2 Traditionalists v. Progressives: Homosexuality as Nurture or Nature? 165
    • Exhibit 7.3 AIDS, Americanism, and the Paranoid Style in American Politics 167
    • Exhibit 7.4 The State in the Bedroom: Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) 174
    • Exhibit 7.5 Key Supreme Court Rulings on Gay Rights, 1975–2002 177
    • Exhibit 7.6 The US Constitution and Marriage: For Straights Only? 178
    • Exhibit 7.7 Gays in the Military: ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ 182
    • Exhibit 7.8 Donations By Gay and Lesbian PACs to Federal Candidates 185
    • Exhibit 7.9 A Free Market Road to Gay Rights? 186
    • Table 7.1 AIDS cases reported in the US, 1981–95 167
    • Table 7.2 Respondents believing homosexual behaviour is wrong, 1973–91 170
    • Table 7.3 Respondents allowing groups to perform specified activity 171
    • Table 7.4 The gay and lesbian presidential vote, 1992–2000 181
    Religion in Public Life


    As its title implies, Contemporary American Politics and Society: Issues and Controversies is a book about contemporary social divisions in America. It provides an analysis of the ‘culture war’ that has engulfed America since the later 1960s by focusing on seven highly divisive political issues at the heart of that conflict: abortion, gun control, capital punishment, pornography, gay rights, religion in public life and drugs. All of these issues fall within the rubric of ‘cultural value conflict’: conflicts of morals, ethics and matters of fundamental ‘right and wrong’. Each issue is distinctive and important in the United States and each has received extensive analysis. Taken together, they form a powerful set of concerns that underpin, shape and sharpen the profound divisions that currently inform American politics at federal, state and local level.

    Although the issues considered in this book are ones that generate deep and intense passions among Americans, their treatment here has been – as far as possible – dispassionate and balanced. The book does not take sides in the several controversies nor does it endorse a particular political viewpoint or analytical approach. My own views will, perhaps, appear more clearly in some chapters than others to curious readers. If so, the discussion of the issue should nevertheless remain balanced rather than one-sided. The aim of the book is to avoid prescription and provide students with a clear and rounded interpretation of each issue, and the several cultural conflicts taken together.

    The various presentational devices – from summaries to ‘exhibits’ to discussion questions and web links – are intended to assist students in two ways. First, by presenting a common format that progresses from introduction, historical context and public opinion to an analysis of the politics of the governing institutions (president, Congress and courts, in particular) and intermediary organizations (concentrating on political parties and interest groups), readers should be able to follow each chapter clearly and, if they wish, to dip into each to compare and contrast particular features of distinct issues. Secondly, with the exhibits and tables focusing on particular dimensions of these complex issues, along with web sites dedicated to particular viewpoints or factual information, readers can follow whatever aspects interest or concern them in more detail as and when they (or their instructors) so wish. To the extent that a textbook can be ‘user-friendly’, hopefully this one meets that goal.

    American politics is invariably fascinating and the study of it ought also, it seems to me, to be enjoyable. Some academics object to the analysis of issues such as gun control or gay rights as ‘frivolous’ compared to the serious stuff of congressional subcommittees or oversight of the executive bureaucracy. Equally, some scholars regard references to popular culture as ‘dumbing down’ or pandering to student prejudices. Perhaps because I came, like many students, to the study of American politics through a fascination with the land, people and popular culture (from music and novels to film) of the United States, my approach here regularly employs references to matters other academics reject. But there exists sufficient room today for different approaches to the study of America, ones that combine serious analysis with humour and an embrace of the types of concerns that make the United States simultaneously riveting and bemusing to non-Americans. Hopefully, readers of this book will find it informative, comprehensive and enjoyable.


    I owe substantial debts of gratitude to many individuals who generously offered advice and suggestions – some directly, others indirectly – that had a tremendously positive effect on this book. Needless to say, the following bear no responsibility for any errors of fact or interpretation that remain.

    The idea for, and initial work on, this book and its companion volume, American Government and Politics, occurred at the University of Edinburgh during 1996–99 but was completed at Birkbeck College, University of London during 2000–02. Most of the chapters were ‘road-tested’ in one form or another on my graduate and undergraduate students at both institutions and I should like to thank those students for proving to be such positive and pleasant critics. Revising and adapting courses and teaching styles helped greatly in identifying the problems associated with studying and writing about American politics. My students – whether consciously or otherwise – proved invaluable contributors to my continuing education, not only in terms of what I learnt from them, but also in clarifying the kinds of concerns that help to stimulate their interest and enthusiasm.

    At Edinburgh, my colleague, friend and distinguished authority on modern Italy in the Department of Politics, Martin Clark (now retired), kindly read the chapters on pornography and gay rights and lent his exceptional knowledge to finessing their finer points. I should also thank my ‘Americanist’ colleagues in the Department of History for their consistent interest, assistance and support and the greater appreciation of the historical context to contemporary American politics that they helped to engender: Alan Day, Frank Cogliano, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones and Owen Dudley Edwards. Robert Mason deserves special thanks for reading the chapters on abortion and capital punishment and providing very constructive suggestions on both. Of my politics students at Edinburgh, I should thank in particular Tim Nuthall, Eleanor Prescott, Juliette Cottrill and Ruth Walker who all read draft chapters. My warmest thanks go to them for their time and generosity.

    At Birkbeck, I have benefited immeasurably from a set of highly supportive and imaginative colleagues in the School of Politics and Sociology. I should thank in particular Bill Tompson, for regular conversations on all matters American, and Samantha Ashenden, for illuminating discussions on all manner of cultural conflicts, reading two draft chapters of the book and offering very helpful observations on each. Many Birkbeck students also assisted – in classes, bars and public houses in the Bloomsbury area – to refine, revisit and revise the views and ideas contained herein. Of the many mature undergraduate and graduate students who have suffered my American politics courses with good humour, I should especially thank Kate Dixon and Darren Stevens for reading the chapters on abortion and pornography and offering valuable suggestions for revisions on both. Another former Birkbeck graduate, Andy Coath, offered many suggestions, rich and varied, that made their own distinctive contribution to the outcome and helped me to cope with the ups and downs of modem academic (and London) life.

    Finally, I should thank Lucy Robinson and the staff at Sage for all their work on this book and its companion volume.

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