America In Our Time (1976), by Godfrey Hodgson, is a history of America’s post-World War II "liberal consensus." In particular, Hodgson analyzes the origins and ultimate social consequences of an ideology that guided policymakers for thirty years. His concern is to explain how America fell from the heights of confidence it enjoyed in the wake of the war to the fractured despair of the mid-1970s. The book’s subtitle says it all: From World II to Nixon, What Happened and Why. Hodgson’s argument can be summarized in two sentences (p. 491):
The point of departure for this book was the idea that, for a few years on either side of 1960, American politics and society had been ruled by a consensus, and that this consensus in turn rested on an ideology. What happened in the twelve years separating the beginning of Kennedy’s and the end of Nixon’s first terms in the White House, I have argued, can best be understood in terms of impact of events on that interlocking body of ideas and beliefs.
Hodgson’s account is thus more ‘idealistic’ than materialistic -- it places more emphasis on ideas than on structural dynamics -- but it is not entirely one-sided, fortunately. Nevertheless, it is incomplete, and the frequent persuasiveness of particular arguments is marred by the shallowness of the book’s overall perspective.
America’s postwar liberal consensus, Hodgson rightly notes, was not leftist but centrist. It united almost all Democrats and Republicans, business elites, academic intellectuals, the foreign policy establishment, and most other mainstream institutions and figures. Some of the components of the ideology were as follows: (1) capitalism can not only function well but can operate democratically and justly, if managed properly; (2) economic growth is the be-all and end-all, since ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’; (3) because growth benefits everyone, society is ultimately composed of a harmony of interests; (4) government can solve all social ills if policymakers have sufficient expertise (or are advised by experts); (5) the United States has a duty to aid the cause of freedom, i.e. capitalism, all over the world, which means to fight Communism. Liberals’ fetish of expertise, rational planning, governmental coordination of society, led to their love-affair with the presidency as opposed to Congress or democratic public debate: experts could be trusted to administer society. There were ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ and the latter were ignorant and meddlesome, lacking information and expertise. In the end, the liberal centrist creed paid lip-service to democracy but placed far more faith in technocracy as the means to societal harmony.
One consequence of this faith, according to Hodgson, was that the presidency in the 1960s became isolated from the broader world. The bureaucracy of the executive branch, especially the national-security bureaucracy, withdrew into its bubble of pseudo-rationality and pseudo-expertise, the expertise of numbers, charts, graphs, statistics, day-to-day targets, the ‘domino theory’ of the spread of Communism -- in short, instrumental rationality rather than substantive rationality. In the Pentagon there was virtually no debate over ends, only over means. Almost no one questioned that it was necessary for the sake of American prestige to fight Communism in Vietnam; the domino theory was not seen as the hollow, simplistic illusion it was, because the bureaucracy stultified independent thought. No real debate occurred over Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson heard the figures from McNamara, heard the arguments from the generals, heard no dissent, and launched the war while lying to Congress and America. Liberalism’s celebration of technocracy thus led to Vietnam, which contributed to the collapse of liberalism.
Hodgson also places the blame for Vietnam on the liberal doctrine of foreign intervention in the service of freedom. Old conservatism, the conservatism of Robert Taft, had been isolationist; liberalism and the new conservatism (which accepted, with qualifications, the liberal consensus) were interventionist, fanatically anti-Communist. There was no Left in the mainstream anymore to challenge the Truman Doctrine; the Vietnam War was the result. Hodgson sums it up by saying that the liberal error was to believe that “the United States could use its military power to change the world in conformity with its wishes and not itself be changed in the process” (p. 497).
Another liberal error that led to the ideology’s downfall was the belief in economic growth as a virtual panacea. More specifically, liberals were wrong to think that America’s resources were limitless, that one did not have to take from one group of people in order to give to another. Johnson and his aides thought they could pay for the Great Society and Vietnam at the same time -- after having just passed a major tax cut! The tax cut may indeed have stimulated economic growth, but it reduced the revenues with which to pay for the government’s huge expenditures, thereby giving rise to budget deficits, which caused inflation. Moreover, the spending for Vietnam eventually became so high that Johnson had to cut his beloved Great Society programs. Evidently society’s interests were not all harmonious, America’s resources were finite, and economic growth could not be the foundation of social justice. “You cannot abolish poverty if you won’t pay higher taxes. Only if a real transfer of resources has taken place has relative inequality been diminished; it is the relative, not the absolute, situation of the poor that must be changed if poverty is to be abolished” (p. 497). By not taking from the rich to give to the poor -- and, in addition, by believing that massive foreign intervention could be undertaken without cost to domestic programs -- liberals ensured that their creed would founder on the shoals of social conflict.
The civil rights and black power movements further revealed the bankruptcy of liberalism. The coalition of blacks and Northern liberals was unstable, and it was bound to fall apart as liberals showed how shallow was their commitment to social reform. Their ideology did not countenance the possibility that racism and inequality were more than mere relics of the past, that they were of the very essence of American society and could not be eradicated without major economic redistribution. By the mid-1960s, most blacks understood that liberalism was part of the problem, not the solution. For them, radicalism was the answer -- but it failed too, and furthermore antagonized whites across the country, who punished Democrats for their coalition with blacks by electing conservatives.
Liberalism, says Hodgson, was not just the dogma of a faction or school; it was “the operational creed of a great nation at the height of its confidence and power” (p. 492). As this confidence and power waned, in large part as a result of policies and non-policies that grew out of liberalism and its illusions, the ideology necessarily waned as well. Conservatism rose in its stead: government would no longer position itself in the center, no longer base its policies on the myth of unlimited economic expansion and a harmony of interests, but would unapologetically favor the privileged over the oppressed (at least in the institutional realities of conservatism, though not necessarily in its rhetoric). It would accept that certain interests are irreconcilable and so would do what liberalism had been unwilling to do: it would redistribute resources to benefit particular interests at the expense of others. That is, it would take from the poor to give to the rich.
America In Our Time offers a compelling interpretation of the postwar years in America, but in the end it does not fully explain why the liberal ideology was constrained in the ways it was -- why it was constrained to adopt silly illusions, to view the world in simplistic Manichean ways, to place such faith in technocracy and class harmony. Liberalism can be thoroughly understood only if one places it in the context of the social structures within which it became hegemonic, and in particular, the class structures. The fact is that it served the interests of certain sectors of business in a certain period of history, and this is why it was propagated and celebrated. The ideology itself was important, but more important were the structural mechanisms that propagated it, the institutional realities that were sublimated into a belief-system, and the social dynamics that favored or frustrated particular policies. Policymakers did not act simply in accordance with their beliefs; on a deeper level, they tended to act as they were driven to by institutional power-relations, institutional constraints. Had they not believed in this ideology called liberalism, they would not have risen to such positions of influence as they did. Thus, on the deepest level it was social structures, power-relations, class structures, that mattered, not mere beliefs. In other words, liberalism was not just an ‘intellectual error’; it was an institutional necessity in postwar America, and it was inevitably going to wane as the institutions that it legitimated evolved in tension with other institutions and social movements to the point that they mutated, like much of society, in more ‘conservative’ directions.
Despite its flaws, the book is well worth reading. Its panoramic vista is a welcome corrective to the minutiae of scholarship, and by glancing over an immense array of issues it stimulates new insights and makes new connections. It is worthwhile, after all, for academics to read popular literature.