Commentary Magazine


America In Our Time, by Godfrey Hodgson

Low Horizons

America in Our Time.
by Godfrey Hodgson.
Doubleday. 564 pp. $12.95.

After years of reporting on life in America for British newspapers, Godfrey Hodgson has now attempted to tell, and to explain, the story of the postwar period in this country. Hodgson’s skill as a journalist has produced a wide-ranging, well-written book which covers all the bases—from Acheson, McCarthy, and Bundy to the Beatles and Charles Reich. Unfortunately, when Hodgson leaves reporting and turns to analysis, his skills begin to fail him.

Hodgson’s analysis is easily summarized. After World War II, America’s unmatched power and prosperity led a broad consensus of Americans to adopt what he calls the “liberal ideology.” According to this liberalism, really a “conservative liberalism,” American economic growth would allow our “injustices and inequities” to be abolished with little or no social unrest and little or no sacrifice by the better-off classes. Meanwhile, American military power would result in nearly unlimited American ability, and responsibility, to oversee international political change. These views, Hodgson says, were held by a consensus “which stretched right across the broad center of the political spectrum. Only the extremes to Left and Right remained aloof from it. The ‘liberal ideology,’ in fact, was the ideology of the Center.” Moreover, Hodgson tells us, this ideology, though “the creation of an elite” or establishment, was “more or less widely accepted by ordinary people.”

In hodgson’s view, the liberal ideology was a “dangerous illusion,” which was exploded in the 60′s by the roughly simultaneous outbreak of racial violence and large-scale war in Vietnam. The absence of progress on race showed that it was foolish to believe any longer that economic growth, rather than wholesale income distribution, could satisfy the needs of less fortunate Americans, while the war, the inevitable result of our “internationalism,” showed the folly of our foreign policies. The results, we are told, were that “the years 1965 to 1968 were years of polarization for America.” Indeed, by 1966, “events had revealed the inherent contradictions of the liberal ideology.” At the same time the new youth culture was reflecting, but also building, disaffection among young Americans; Hodgson writes that “it would be hard to exaggerate the influence the Beatles had on the generation of Americans who grew up in the 60′s.”

After all this turmoil and disaffection, we now live in a “system in ruins.” However, this is the “price [that] must be paid to be free from illusions, and . . . if the illusions are dangerous enough, the price is well paid.” Americans are now, for the first time, asking not “how to solve their problems, but whether problems could be solved.” The new watchwords must be “Down to earth. Limited resources.”

____________

 

This analysis of recent American life, with its description of a period of political and moral crisis and of international overreaching, is a familiar one: Senators Frank Church and George McGovern or journalists such as Tom Wicker, for instance, would find little to disagree with here. Nevertheless, it is a difficult analysis to prove, especially since it is not true. Oddly enough, America In Our Time itself contains much evidence that it is not true.

Vietnam provides a good example. Hodgson notes that, according to poll data, most Americans despised the “peace movement” and were opposed to the Vietnam war simply because of their “cannily realistic judgment that the war didn’t seem worth the price.” He also reports a 1968 survey revealing that “college-educated white people in their twenties were more likely than older people with only grade-school education both to justify the war and to favor intensification of it.” Such data give little support to Hodgson’s picture of an entire population so deeply offended by the immorality of America’s effort in Vietnam that it now rejects wholesale all of America’s foreign policy.

Similar examples abound. Though he draws a picture of an America divided into two camps, Hodgson at one point concludes that “it never was true that American society was polarized.” Though he writes of the 60′s as a period in which Americans questioned the very principles under which their society is organized, he states in another chapter that it was the media, not the majority, “which had been primarily responsible for raising grand questions of morality.”

These contradictions point to the central problem in Hodgson’s analysis, for they all can be explained by the simple fact that while some Americans did feel the enormous disillusionment which Hodgson describes, and did resign from the “liberal consensus,” others did not. Surprisingly, Hodgson never asks who composed the membership of the former group, and who the latter, though clues to an answer are scattered throughout America In Our Time.

Thus, in discussing the origins of the “liberal consensus” in the 40′s and 50′s, Hodgson is careful to separate the elites who created the “liberal ideology” from the “ordinary people” who merely accepted it. When discussing the protests and disillusionment and backlash of the 60′s and early 70′s, he remains aware of the distinction: he notes that the youth protests and New Politics of the 60′s were largely an upper-middle-class affair, while the “New Majority” and Middle America of more recent years were predominantly a middle-and working-class phenomenon. One expects an inquiry, then, as to who lost faith in the “liberal ideology”—ordinary people, or the elites alone? Is Hodgson’s story that of millions of Americans who have come to realize that the nation’s problems are far greater than anticipated, have passed through a period of deep political and moral crisis, finally to emerge with their hopes in and expectations of America greatly lowered? Or is it a tale of the American establishment, which, faced with racial and international problems and the rebellion of its children, has lost confidence in itself and in America and has thereby lost the confidence of the American people?

These are questions Hodgson never poses. He has made his choice: it is not certain elites that have failed, it is America. Though he writes of “the failure of the political system to represent the needs and grievances of the majority,” he does not ask whether it is not simply that the elites, in the end, misunderstood or disdained those needs and those grievances.

Once it is clear, to Hodgson at least, that the American system is failing to meet the needs of the people, and that economic growth will not greatly ameliorate social or economic problems, the path is open to his conclusion, his blueprint for our future:

There will have to be less emphasis on equality of opportunity, and more on equality of condition. The traditional goals of absolute freedom and maximum economic abundance will have to be modified in the more intricate equilibrium of a society that accepts the limits of human possibility and strives for the greatest possible measure of justice and equality. It will not be easy. Yet, sooner or later, the American people will have no alternative but to attempt it.

This vision of a new America, healthier because it will be without illusions, learning to live with shrunken hopes and lowered horizons, aware that its former “way of life” must now disappear, is a somber portrait, and a remarkable likeness—not, however, of the United States but of Hodgson’s own United Kingdom. Hodgson’s prescription for our future is a fair description of recent British history and of current Labor-party policy. Yet in view of the British experience, the package he offers—limited growth, limited economic opportunity, and emphasis on egalitarianism and “leveling” rather than on equal opportunity—is unlikely to attract most Americans. This society may no longer be the America of the 19th century, but still less is it the Britain of the 20th, grappling with a rigid class structure, burdened with socialist ideologies, and saddled with limited economic resources. One need hardly be Pollyannish about America’s present difficulties to reject Hodgson’s view of its future.

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