Only Yesterday

More Equal Than Others: America From Nixon to the New Century by Godfrey Hodgson (Princeton University Press, 379 pages, $29.95)

Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore by James T. Patterson (Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $35.00)

Anyone wishing to understand the United States in the three decades after World War II would do well to start with two books: America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon -- What Happened and Why (1976), by the veteran British journalist Godfrey Hodgson, and Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (1996), by the historian James T. Patterson of Brown University. Both authors have now written sequels taking the story up to 2000, and the two pairs of books help to make sense not only of America's recent past but also of what continues to trouble us.

Though not at odds with each other, the earlier two books are quite different. Hodgson, a longtime observer of the American scene, broke ground 30 years ago by offering a compelling account of the turbulent changes that rattled the United States in the 1960s. The main argument of America in Our Time -- that a “liberal consensus,” having taken hold in the war's aftermath, unraveled in the late 1960s amid strife over civil rights, the Great Society, and the Vietnam War -- remains powerfully influential and largely unchallenged. Less original in its interpretations but more comprehensive in its scope, Patterson's 829-page Grand Expectations was rightly hailed upon its publication as a masterwork of synthesis. Patterson, who seemed to have read everything on America from World War II to Watergate, deftly interwove social and political developments in a narrative whose tone was as confident as its prose was crisp. The book won the Bancroft Prize.

Hodgson's new book, More Equal Than Others, is, if anything, more impressionistic and essayistic than his first volume, and certainly more so than both of Patterson's. The Orwellian title conveys Hodgson's critical view of American society. Taking on a major topic in each chapter -- technology, immigrants, women, and so on -- Hodgson eschews sweep in favor of a kind of sociological meditation.

In contrast, Patterson's Restless Giant follows Grand Expectations and other volumes in the indispensable Oxford History of the United States series (including James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and David M. Kennedy's Freedom From Fear) in aspiring to something close to definitiveness. Weighing in at a mere 448 pages, Restless Giant doesn't quite match the awesome breadth of Patterson's first book. But perhaps because this time around he couldn't follow trails beaten by pioneering forerunners, Patterson seems to have been more adventuresome himself in mapping the historical landscape. Dazzling and erudite, the book thrums with the buzz of ideas coming together.

Reading the two accounts together drives home the immense difficulty of imposing thematic and narrative unity on 25 sprawling years of politics, economics, culture, social mores, technological progress, race relations, gender dynamics, and demographic change -- especially in a vast, diverse nation. What's more, chroniclers of the recent past also have to cope with a problem akin to a cinematographer's challenge of focusing on subjects in both the foreground and background of a frame. To explain the Iranian hostage crisis or women's liberation requires different skills -- perhaps a different mode of writing -- from the kind needed to put in perspective the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which is still widely viewed through partisan lenses, or the 1990s rush to economic globalization, the implications of which remain as unclear as ever.

In crafting their tales, the authors inevitably make some similar choices. Besides spanning almost identical periods -- with the early 1970s nadir of Watergate, Vietnam, and stagflation providing a natural starting point -- their books also sound common themes. As the earlier volumes recounted liberalism's postwar ascent, so these focus on conservatism's ensuing rise: the cultural backlash, the tax revolt, Ronald Reagan, resurgent evangelicalism, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. And where the earlier books limned mounting disillusionment and fracturing social norms, their sequels tell a more surprising tale of what Hodgson calls “the revival of national confidence” under Reagan and especially Clinton -- though both authors, particularly Hodgson, also stress the lingering frustrations and dashed promises behind the veneer of regeneration.

Notably, both of these volumes give lesser prominence to the Cold War, perhaps because hindsight has revealed that the Soviet Union was moribund by 1975. More disappointingly, both largely omit literary and cultural developments, except to illustrate social trends such as the increasing visibility of sex. More interesting than the predictable resemblances of these accounts are their striking differences. Discrepancies in emphasis, style, and especially argument underscore that contrary to our intuition, writing history is not a passive feat of discovering meaning but a purposeful act of creating it. With an inescapably subjective lens, a historian must aggressively gather and select data, fashion a narrative, and wrestle with the material until it coheres as a piece of writing that is literary, cogent, and, of course, accurate.

Hence, two different approaches to mastering the recent past emerge in these books. Detached, dispassionate, and drawn to detail, Patterson writes in taut, vivid language, and with illustrative examples on every page. He keeps his judgments terse and defensible. More overtly opinionated, Hodgson tends toward speculative generalizations and quirky insights; at times he waxes repetitive, rambling, and random in his choice of information to include.

Above all, the two historians offer starkly divergent assessments of the state of affairs in late-20th-century America. Generally bleak, Hodgson fastens upon the unheralded persistence of inequality in American life -- of wages, income, and wealth. For all the talk of economic revival under Reagan and again under Clinton, Hodgson notes, real wages in 1999 remained 10 percent lower than they were in 1973. Meanwhile, “the average ceo earned a remarkable 107 times more than the average worker, double the ratio in 1989 and five times that in 1962.”

Armed with such statistics, Hodgson rejects Clinton's widely endorsed claim in January 2000 that the United States had never before enjoyed “so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” Downplaying the supposed wonders of the information-age economy and attendant bull market, Hodgson instead proffers sober reminders that, since 1975, “the corporate class … has strengthened its grip on society,” that anomic suburbs have displaced vital cities as “the typical American habitat,” and that the promises of equality made to women, blacks, and immigrants remain unfulfilled. He provocatively ties these developments to the triumph of conservatism, noting, “The crucial change was the discrediting of government.”

Patterson, though no Pollyanna or celebrant of unrestrained capitalism, might well group Hodgson among the theorists of American decline whose dour critiques, he notes, recurred like clockwork throughout the last 25 years. From meditations in the 1970s about “an age of limits” to angry screeds in the 1980s “culture wars” to recent laments about rifts between red- and blue-state worldviews, our era has never lacked for jeremiads. Indeed, the enduring fear of the deterioration of American life, even in good times, constitutes one of Patterson's major and more original themes.

While granting the accuracy of some of these critiques -- Patterson dwells intelligently not only on the widening gap between rich and poor but also on such intractable problems as the urban crisis and the sorry state of public schools -- he more often accentuates the positive. “This is not primarily a tale of Limits, Decline, or Conflict,” he writes, “for after the doldrums of the mid- and late 1970s, a number of more positive developments … helped to raise popular hopes. Many social and cultural conflicts, loudly contested by partisan political antagonists and given exaggerated play in the media, turned out to be neither so profound nor so implacable as they seemed.” Later, he quotes approvingly the political scientist James Q. Wilson from 1995: “Today most of us have not merely the hope but enjoy the reality of a degree of comfort, freedom, and peace unparalleled in human history. And we can't stop complaining about it.”

Fueling this unprecedented -- and unappreciated -- growth of personal autonomy, Patterson suggests, has been the revolutionary expansion of rights that he identifies as another hallmark of the age. As in Grand Expectations, he steers attention to the (fitfully) expanding opportunities for women and minorities, the (controversial) relaxation of puritanical social codes about sex, and the newfound (if limited) toleration of once-taboo lifestyles. Noting as well the real gains that most Americans achieved in the 1990s -- rising incomes, improved medical care, a cleaner environment, finer comforts and conveniences, as well as diminished crime, homelessness, and welfare dependency -- Patterson concludes that the conservative capture of political power neither drastically rolled back progressive gains nor stanched what he calls “the long-range liberalization of American cultural attitudes that had advanced, especially since the 1960s.”

Even while noting this bounty of material goods and personal liberty, Patterson describes at length (and without partisan editorializing) the fierce political wars of the century's final years. Quickly but thoroughly he reviews the Clinton impeachment and George W. Bush's successful bid in 2000 to short-circuit the recount of Florida's presidential votes that probably would have shown Al Gore to be the election's rightful winner. While evenhandedly reporting both sides' arguments, Patterson still manages to convey a sense of the opportunism behind these efforts. And though not untroubled by their grubbiness, he minimizes their import. He observes optimistically that Americans rapidly shifted their attention to more mundane matters once these suspenseful dramas ended.

Presented with authority and abundant evidence, Patterson's sanguine diagnosis of the American condition provides some reassurance at a time when political ill will remains acute and public discourse seems alternately shrill and inane. Yet given the worsening acrimony of recent years and the increasingly naked exercise of power by the right, any socially concerned citizen must feel tempted at some level to resist this analysis. After all, Restless Giant concludes on the verge of the new millennium, before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Wisely, Patterson, like Hodgson, judged that ordeal to be too recent and traumatic to analyze historically -- and perhaps also to be more properly seen as commencing a new era whose events are only now unfolding.) Widely ramifying at home as well as abroad, those attacks appear to have altered the character of American political life from what it was at the end of Patterson's and Hodgson's accounts.

The renewal of an angry and bullying jingoism, the polarizing misadventure in Iraq, the swelling arrogance of FOX News and the Christian right, the blithe acceptance of Bush's no-holds-barred politics -- these developments, though surely of a piece with those that Patterson describes in his book's last chapters, seem to go beyond even the moral posturing of the Clinton impeachment and Bush's Florida power grab and indicate real peril for America's abiding liberal spirit. Ultimately, despite the elegant and persuasive note on which Patterson wraps up his book -- evoking what Alexis de Tocqueville called “that strange melancholy which oftentimes will haunt the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances” -- we would do well to remember that the comparative placidity of 2000 represented only a moment, in no way guaranteed to last. Should the harsh tone of public life today continue, history may come to view the late 20th century's political struggles not as the relatively inconsequential indulgence of a comfortable people but as a prologue to an extended phase of division, fear, and alienation.

David Greenberg is a professor of media studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. He is writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge for the American Presidents Series from Henry Holt.

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