This book is "an attempt to understand what has happened in the United States over the last quarter of the 20th century". It is a most successful attempt: the most thoughtful, thorough and sorrowful book imaginable on what has happened in these years. Godfrey Hodgson has been in the US as a British journalist for most of his career. He loves the older America and knows its history. He quotes Jefferson in 1812 - "And so we have gone on, and so we will go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man" - but gives us cause to dread those who are not puzzled.
He paints a clear picture of the triumphalism of recent years. Yes, a lot to be triumphant about: technological innovation or, even when imported, rapid implementation, and unprecedented national wealth. But within that wealth, the gap increased not just between rich and poor - in the Clinton period (despite the rhetoric) as much as in that of Bush senior - but also between the middle classes and the millionaires. From 1981 to 1993, the median US wage-earner's income fell by 5 per cent in real terms. The income of the top 5 per cent of taxpayers rose by 30 per cent. Clinton only slightly slowed the increasing disparity.
Myths abound. Has not the old ideal of the America of the common man been replaced by the reality of a share-holding capitalist democracy, Reagan-Thatcherism? Not so, or rather, that's almost exactly a half-truth: 48.2 per cent of Americans own stocks, but only 36.3 per cent own stock worth more than $5,000, even including pension schemes. In 1999, "average wages were actually 10 per cent lower than in 1973", and if the median family income was a princely $285 a year higher, that was only because more family members were working, and working longer hours.
Hodgson sees the whole period as a reaction to the days of Kennedy and Johnson's "Great Society". Now capitalism and democracy are synonymous to too many. …