It's the stupid Yanks, stupid

More Equal than Others
June 11, 2004

Nearly 60 years ago, Fred Rodell, a professor at Yale Law School, declaimed that there are "two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content." Godfrey Hodgson's polemic, More Equal than Others , provokes the same thought. This is a book marred by both its style and its content.

In fairness, the book's origins were likely to make it something of an ideological screed. Hodgson was commissioned to write it by the Century Foundation (formerly the Twentieth Century Foundation), an old-line New York outfit that prides itself on its progressive politics, and that, one suspects, provided a subvention for its publication. The foundation recruited Hodgson as an outsider who would be able to provide the "missing perspective" that is necessary, at least in the view of the folks in New York, better to understand the US: both its domestic policy and its place in international affairs. It seems fair to say that in ideological terms they surely got what they paid for. This is as ideologically skewed an account of recent American political history as one can imagine.

As to style, there are two fundamental defects. The first is that the book aspires to be so comprehensive that it sprawls and cannot offer a focused argument likely to persuade doubters. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that its structure dooms it to incoherence. Every chapter (some of which seek to cover everything from politics to technology to economics to immigration to women's rights to race) looks as though the author has thrown in everything he has ingested in his many years of observing the US.

A chaos in the presentation undermines whatever argument might be lurking.

The second stylistic defect is the tone Hodgson insists on adopting, and is likely to have the same off-putting effect. At its core, the book is an attack on what the author describes as the "conservative ascendancy" of the past quarter century. This is not so much a matter of political criticism as of moral condescension. For example, he goes so far as to suggest, without any convincing documentation (as is usually the case in the book), that not only is "growing inequality... the most salient social fact... of the conservative ascendancy", but that such inequality may well have been "one of the conservatives' strategic goals". This is not research; it is a rant.

The main problem with the content is the undeveloped nature of the book's stunningly simplistic assertions ("arguments" would be an overstatement). Hodgson's basic contention is that the US has strayed from the path that would allow it to "build a fairer and safer world". It has been tugged off that noble course by the magnetic attraction conservative policy-makers have felt for the principles of free-market economics. The result of what he calls the "deification" of the free market is that a peculiarly American notion of capitalism has been "elevated" to a position of equality with democracy itself. Because of this confusion of democratic freedom with economic liberty, he concludes, "the years from Richard Nixon's resignation of the presidency until the millennium... were in reality for many, probably for most Americans, years of disappointment and denial".

That most Americans - and not just those he denigrates as self-interested and venal corporate villains (a recurring theme throughout) - would disagree with that assessment is no hurdle to Hodgson. In an argument reminiscent of the old left, his conclusion seems to be that the people are simply too stupid to know the system is stacked against them.

Aspiration, ambition, hard work: these will never be enough to overcome the intentionally harsh policies of the free-market conservatives in positions of power. The only solution to the American nightmare of the past quarter century is a return to something like the big-government views of the liberal coalition that began with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and to put the levers of power back in the hands of those who are sensitive to the intractable stupidity of the average American.

To hear Hodgson tell it, the US since Nixon's demise has known no progress in race relations or in the social standing of minorities; feminism is all but dead; educational policy is failing virtually everyone; and Americans are so insular that they do not know, and if they did know they probably would not care, that the rest of the world increasingly despises them. So much for John Winthrop's shining city on the hill. And none of this is likely to turn around until a "post-conservative majority" is returned to power.

But the return of such a majority - may we not simply call it a "liberal majority"? - is at best unlikely, based on Hodgson's own analysis. For the corporate sector has so corrupted American political life with its influence born of big money that the real democratic foundations have all but been washed away. The little guy cannot possibly hope to change things when faced with such financial clout. As Hodgson puts it, summing up his own view of current American political life: "Most liberals are not wealthy, and most wealthy people are certainly not liberals." No evidence is offered, because, apparently, no evidence is needed.

It is a shame that the biases of this book are so unrelenting that it contributes virtually nothing to the current debates over foreign and domestic policy in the US. Hodgson points towards and raises many important questions - the effects of the advent of the technological revolution, the pandemic of anti-Americanism and the long-term impact on US politics of immigration, to name but three - that are truly fundamental. To consider these and others he raises in a more dispassionate and balanced way would have been to make a major contribution. That this book fails to make that contribution in no way diminishes the importance of the questions asked.

One simply has to look elsewhere for the answers.

Gary McDowell is research fellow, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, Virginia, US.

More Equal than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century

Author - Godfrey Hodgson
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 379
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 691 11788 8

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