HOW LOCAL POLITICS SHAPE FEDERAL POLICY: BUSINESS, POWER, & THE ENVIRONMENT IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY LOS ANGELES By Sarah S. Elkind (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 288 pp., $45.00 cloth)
SARAH ELKIND'S SUPERB BOOK explores the politics of natural resource management in Los Angeles between 1920 and 1950. This transitional period in American politics bridged the Progressive Era's use of government authority to check the power of business and the Cold War's suspicion of centralized government. As such, the period gave rise to some characteristic features of today's national political landscape. Los Angeles is a paradigmatic location for studying those origins.
Elkind answers two vitally important questions. First, how did business come to be equated with the public interest? Historians have long recognized the decisive political power that local business interests such as railroads, newspapers, and chambers of commerce wielded in early twentieth-century southern California. This power, however, has generally been taken as a given. Elkind, in contrast, explains how it emerged. In three chapters on environmental controversies--beach access, air pollution, and flood control--she recounts the processes by which local business groups cast themselves as the voice of the public interest, and reinforced this claim by conducting studies, formulating proposals, and placing them before local officials stamped with the imprimatur of apparent public approval. Thus, these groups performed the important governmental function of vetting and prioritizing policy options while also providing officials effective political cover of appearing to advance the public …