America: The User’s Manual - Second Edition
Benjamin R. Kantack, Lycoming College
Copyright Year: 2022
Publisher: Tekakwitha Press
Conditions of Use
America: The User’s Manual provides a basic overview of the main components of American government, from its Constitutional underpinnings through the three branches of government and the role of political intermediaries (re: media, interest... read more
America: The User’s Manual provides a basic overview of the main components of American government, from its Constitutional underpinnings through the three branches of government and the role of political intermediaries (re: media, interest groups, political parties). I would compare it to Barbour’s AmGov: Long Story Short for the amount of detail provided. There are some chapters that could be expanded, especially the chapters on the Courts, on Civil Liberties and Rights, and the Media.
In my review of this textbook, I did not find any factual errors. The materials presented are unbiased and do not lean to either side of the political aisle.
Kantack’s book has a 2021 copyright. The introduction to the text include a vignette about the January 6, 2021, protests and subsequent break-in at the United States Capitol. The chapter on interest groups includes a relevant story regarding the mass shooting at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School (2018). One of the things I liked about this book is that it did not include illustrations/figures of Congressional Leadership with the names of individual leaders (re: this does occur in other textbooks and can date the materials quickly). The book could use a deeper discussion of the problems associated with the ongoing problems associated with hyperpartisanship (a term which does not appear in the text).
The text is written in an accessible fashion for 100-200 level college students. Students in a high school AP or dual credit course would be able to understand the materials. Technical terms are explained and defined in the text. The book includes both definitions listed in the outside margins of the chapters as well as a glossary.
Kantack’s book has a consistent framework and vocabulary. It’s structure is easy to follow and understand.
I reviewed the PDF version of America: The Users Manual. This version was 198 pages, broken down into 14 chapters, two appendices, a glossary, and a preface (which Kantack calls a “preamble.”). Each chapter was between 10 - 15 pages in length. The subsections in each chapter were short and to the point.
The book was organized in a fashion similar to other American government books. I would, however, make the following suggestion: move the media chapter to follow the two chapters on interest groups and political parties so that you can teach all of the political intermediaries together.
The PDF version of the text was easy to navigate. The photos used in the book were relevant to the material being taught. The figures and charts were clearly printed and easy to read. I would suggest reconfiguring Figure 3.2 as a triangle as the arrows in this particular diagram distracting.
I did not notice any glaring grammatical or typographical errors. I did, however, find the number of blank pages in the book to be a bit distracting in the PDF (re: page 60, 104, 116. Etc.). However, I believe this is due to the publishing process so I am not sure how this could be corrected. If you are printing a copy of the PDF, you may want to check for the blank pages so that you do not waste paper.
In the early chapters, the text does acknowledge the idea of America as a “melting pot” and states that our governmental structure is necessary due to the diversity of residents in the USA. However, the Civil Rights chapter could be expanded to include a more in-depth discussion of the Civil Rights movement. The book could also expand on its discussion of Civil Rights to include the nation’s treatment of American Indians and Japanese Americans, as well as more recent immigrant groups.
I offer the following notes for instructors who choose to use this textbook:
1. You will need to add your own discussion of the various models of democracy, such as procedural vs. substantive and majoritarian vs. pluralist as they are not included in the text.
2. The federalism chapter does not include a discussion of cooperative vs. dual federalism.
3. The civil liberties/civil rights chapter is very light on case law related to these issues. At a minimum, I would include the following cases: Plessy, Brown, Miller, Miranda, Lemon, and Tinker. The chapter does, however, mention case law related to LGBTQIA+ rights.
4. If you are interested in the role of social movements in American politics, you will need to augment the book with deeper discussions of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements.
5. The political parties chapter is focused primarily on the two major parties. In my courses, students routinely ask about third parties, especially the Libertarian and Green Parties. You might also want to augment the book with information about the role that Ralph Nader and Ross Perot played as “spoilers” in presidential elections.
6. The bureaucracy chapter feels more like a history discussion than a political one. You may wish to expand on this information to talk about different types of government agencies (re: government corporations, foundations, etc.) and about the devolution of regulatory power from the national to state level.
7. The judicial chapter does not discuss the process used by the justices to select their docket for the year, nor does it talk about the different types of decisions that can come from the bench. In my opinion, this is probably the weakest chapter in the book.
8. The media chapter focuses on mass media; an instructor will need to augment this with their own discussions of social media and its influence on American politics.
9. The book does not include a public policy chapter.
The book is focused and reasonably comprehensive, given its stated design goals and pedagogical purposes. The book introduces students to many of the fundamental aspects of the American political system without diving too deeply into any... read more
The book is focused and reasonably comprehensive, given its stated design goals and pedagogical purposes. The book introduces students to many of the fundamental aspects of the American political system without diving too deeply into any particular topic. Topics such as the historical development of modern American federalism, campaign finance law, or internal Congressional procedures are either not touched on or summarized quickly. While not suitable for a student interested in something obscure or advanced, this will suit the vast majority of student and faculty needs for an American Government survey course, and most importantly, it will not over-extend into territory better left for more advanced courses.
One particular note is that while the book does contain some history, it is much lighter on that front than many other American politics textbooks I've reviewed. This is an intentional choice as stated by the author in the introductory material, and explained to the students. Personally, I support this choice - it allows for a greater focus on political science, not history, and any stories that an instructor thinks important for context are likely either referenced in the text or easily added to lecture/supplementary materials. De-emphasizing backstory leads to a much trimmer text that students are more likely to actually read. I do think this lighter textbook approach would require a teaching style that allows for student questions.
Given the choice between this book, which is an efficient overview of the most fundamental concepts in American Government that avoids getting mired in unnecessary detail and trivia, and an 800-page Introduction to American Politics review copy I just pulled from my shelf, I would err towards this one. For instructors who want a more encyclopedic approach, this will not suit.
There is a glossary but no apparent index.
I found only one minor error - a potentially outdated reference to incorporation cases. In all other respects, the text seemed error-free and remarkably free of partisan or other biases.
Content was up to date and relevant with examples drawn from recent politics that students will be familiar with, while centering on events large enough that they won't be outdated immediately (Twitter feuds, etc). Assuming the author is able to update the book according to his stated goals, the text should also remain relevant long-term.
Terms are clearly defined in the text and sidebars and collected in a glossary, and the book's writing style is clear and admirably mechanical. The idea of the United States as a machine is not merely an example given in the opening, but a recurring theme throughout the book that keeps explanations simple and unified.
The book uses the same structure throughout to organize and sort the text. Terminology once introduced is repeated both in chapter and when it comes up again in future chapters, and always used consistently. Helpfully, for many of the irritating bits of terminology that introductory American politics chapters deal with (such as the difference between liberalism and the modern American popular usage of the term) boxes in the text carefully and simply break down the different meanings and clarify which the book is using, helping to keep students consistent in their terminology use as well. Each chapter ends with a short concluding section touching on major themes from the chapter.
The chapters in the book are short, and for the most part independent of each other. Especially after the introductory chapter (and perhaps the chapter on the Constitution) one could remix the chapters into almost any order one wanted with minimal effort. Putting the institutional chapters on Congress, the Presidency, etc before chapters on public opinion and elections would be very easy to accomplish, for example. It also seems well-designed to allow for the introduction of outside material: if you wanted to supplement the text with outside readings, it would be very simple to do.
Given the short chapter sizes, I wouldn't personally want to break them up any smaller. However, the chapters do include section headings, so assigning parts of chapters would be simple. I do wish section headings within chapters were listed - either in the TOC or chapter introductions would be ideal.
Given the PDF format of the book, you could break the book into separate chapters very easily. However, I'd simply give the whole PDF to students and assign readings accordingly, ala a traditional text.
The book is organized in a logical manner - from the basics of collective action to the American Constitution and fundamentals such as federalism and rights and liberties, on to citizen focused topics such as public opinion and vote choice, and then moving on to the three major institutions of American politics before ending in the media that ties citizens to their government. While not the only way to organize the material, it should make intuitive sense to students if presented to them in the same order as the textbook.
Within chapters, the material is laid out in a straightforward manner, broken into clearly labelled sections.
I did not encounter any interface errors while using this book. Charts are clear and easy to read, images displayed correctly, and the entire book worked on all three devices I tested. The simple PDF nature of the book likely makes it more robust to errors of that nature. I find the simple approach to the text - avoiding links, outside content, etc - a definite feature of this book, as I have experienced issues with several OER texts using those features.
The book does contain some slight grammatical errors, but nothing that detracts from reading or understanding the text. I found only 4 errors while reviewing the complete text with an editor.
The book is not offensive on any front that I can see. Examples include a wide variety of political figures from all backgrounds, and issues such as women's suffrage or the 3/5 Compromise are discussed prominently and treated appropriately. There is no separation of chapters, as many books have, on issues such as gender or race: instead these topics are featured throughout the books where appropriate. I appreciate this integrative approach.
I am currently planning to adopt this for my next introductory American politics course. I think the author is right - an accessible text that is meant to be used is likely to be of more value to our students, especially non-majors, than a much larger book filled with details that obscure the basic structure we're trying to teach them. Many of our students enter college without the fundamentals of civic knowledge in place, and this addresses that. I think this book would serve as a good foundation for students, and leave them not only able to deal with those interesting political details, but actually curious about many of them. I would strongly suggest this book for in-person American undergraduate survey courses.
This textbook is written and designed as a "user's manual" to American Government for students in survey/intro courses in American Government. It is a basic introduction to the major functions and principles of American government without going... read more
This textbook is written and designed as a "user's manual" to American Government for students in survey/intro courses in American Government. It is a basic introduction to the major functions and principles of American government without going into all of the details that most intro textbooks use. It really serves as more of a "quick start guide" than a comprehensive user's manual. This has both advantages and disadvantages for students and faculty. For students, the chapters are easy to digest and read--the average chapter is 10 pages long. For faculty, the advantage is that the text gives students the broad principles of American government, leaving the details to classroom lectures, discussions and supplementary readings. The disadvantage of this approach is that a large amount of detail is left out. For students, this could be a tremendous advantage--short readings with all of the details coming from attending class lectures with little duplication between the two. It will be great for busy Millennial and Gen Z students who are trying to work full time, take 18 credits, participate in university athletics and take care of their family. The chapters will not take more than 30 minutes to read and in some cases, may take even less time. For faculty, this can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can warn students of this--skipping class is an absolute no-no with this book; "I can always get what I need from the textbook" won't work. One the other edge, this means faculty need to cover the rest of the details in class.
I do cover a lot of material in class and on the online site I have created for my class, so this text could work very well for me and the way I have structured my course. But this text will not work for everyone. If you want a more comprehensive text, there are other American government OER texts on this Open Textbook Library that will serve your needs better. There are some topics that are not covered at all or very briefly, such as campaign finance, periods of federalism, political polarization, demographic data on voting turnout and political participation and informal powers of the Presidency. This is not a failing of the text at all; the author states from the outset that his purpose is to cover the broad structures of American government without overwhelming students with the details.
There is a glossary in the back of the book, but there is no index and there are no accompanying study materials that can be found in other OER texts.
The book is well written, designed to reach the average college freshman reader and contains very few errors. The author also strives throughout the book to present a balanced view of American government.
The content is up to date through 2021 and contains examples from the 2020 election and the new Biden presidency this year in 2021. The author also does a very good job throughout the book making the material relevant to students, connecting the material to current examples and examples from university campuses. Right now the text is only available as a PDF, so I am not sure how easily it can be updated as the online formats with other OER texts on this site are.
The book is extremely readable and clear. The author does not use the jargon that many political science texts use and any terms are clearly defined in sidebar boxes.
The book is very consistent throughout in its format and terminology. It would be helpful to students to continue the "user manual" theme throughout the text though--the author does not bring the theme back up again after Chapter 3. I actually like the idea since it introduces students to the idea that they can "use" their government, that it is their government too. They just need to know how to use it as they use their cell phone, laptops, cars and other devices. I wish the author had threaded his theme throughout the book.
Since the chapters are so short, it will be easy to assign these chapters to students without a lot of trouble. However, the table of contents does not have subsections of the chapters, so it is not as easy to assign subsets of the chapters as we can in other OER texts., Since this is only available as a PDF right now that can be viewed online or downloaded in a PDF file, there are also no links to the chapters and it is not as easy to change and reorder the text. (maybe this is available in the purchase edition of Adobe Acrobat software?) However, the chapters can be read out of order without confusion to students. For those of us using learning management software for our courses, it is not possible to put up a link to Chapter 9 in a unit on American Elections; faculty will need to direct students to the PDF link to the entire book. Students can download or print the entire book to their device, which is an advantage.
The book follows a traditional structure in its organization, starting with the structure of American government, followed by political behavior topics and ending with American political institutions. The one odd chapter placement is the last one on the media. Typically, I would cover this with other political organizations (mediating institutions in some texts). However, this text treats the media as another political institution alongside Congress, the Presidency/bureaucracy and courts. Some of us may agree with this and others like myself would assign this chapter earlier in the course.
The graphs, charts and pictures in the text are very readable and helpful to understanding the content. One issue I have with this book is that there are few if any links to other sites or resources for students to explore topics in more detail. There are no interactive interfaces in this text. The book also does not contain extensive links to research articles and references.
The writing contains very few grammatical errors.
The textbook does not contain culturally insensitive language--it contains neutral, unbiased language. Though, the book gives very little discussion to racial and gender equality issues other than in Chapter 5 on rights and liberties. This will work fine for programs where these topics are covered in greater detail in upper division courses. Faculty who desire greater coverage of political equality topics or in programs where there are fewer opportunities to explore these topics in upper division courses, they might consider using a different OER text or adding supplementary readings to this one.
After reading this book, I have decided to try this book with my students this spring. I agree with the author's premise--do we really need to overwhelm our students with 500-600 page textbooks filled with minute details in a survey course? We can cover the details in class and help students to connect the Quick Start guide to the detailed User's Manual to help our students understand, participate in and evaluate how our political system really works. I prefer my students to read 9-page chapters that give them the big picture ideas before class than for them to read nothing at all.
This book will be really useful in shorter sessions such as 8 week terms, summer classes and other alternative formats. This is also a very useful text for those faculty who cover the detailed workings of American government in class. This is also a useful text for students and faculty who prefer the basic text version of American politics textbooks without the links, interactive exercises and graphics. I would not recommend this text for online courses that do not have supplementary lecture and reading materials; nor would I recommend this for classes where the details are not covered in class. This is also not the textbook for those what want all of the bells and whistles (interactive interface maps, charts, games, videos, etc.) that come with many online texts.
Table of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Politics
- 3 The Constitution
- 4 Federalism
- 5 Civil Liberties
- 6 Civil Rights
- 7 Public Opinion
- 8 Interest Groups
- 9 Parties
- 10 Elections
- 11 Congress
- 12 The Presidency
- 13 The Bureaucracy
- 14 The Courts
- 15 The Media
- Appendix A Declaration of Independence
- Appendix B U.S. Constitution
- Photo Credits
- About the Author
About the Book
This is a free textbook written for introductory undergraduate courses in American politics. It may also be suitable for precocious high school students, as well as non-students who are interested in learning how American government works.
About the Contributors
BENJAMIN R. KANTACK is an assistant professor of political science at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish from the University of Nebraska and master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from the University of Illinois. Previously, he taught at the University of Georgia and Georgia Gwinnett College. His research has been published in American Politics Research; the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties; the Journal of Political Science; Political Research Quarterly; and Social Science Quarterly. America: The User’s Manual is his first textbook.