It's evening in America, and the shadows are drawing in. The liberal consensus forged by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal has been ripped apart by a conservative movement devoted to free markets and small government. A wealthy elite reaps nearly all of the profits of the much-vaunted "New Economy", while most African Americans and many immigrants remain mired in structural poverty. The American middle class's incomes have stagnated and its jobs have migrated overseas for three decades. The archetypal American community is no longer the New England farm or the New York tenement, but the featureless suburb of a vast metropolis, a place of "loneliness, isolation and . . . alienation".
This, at least, is the message of Godfrey Hodgson's Orwellian description of the modern United States, in his incisive, knowledgeable and thoroughly depressing book. Hodgson needs to be taken seriously. A former Washington correspondent of the Observer, author of two excellent lives of American statesmen, and in the past a visiting professor at Harvard and Berkeley, he has been one of Britain's shrewdest spectators of the American scene for four decades. He is a self-described "admirer, even a disciple" of the US, and so it is impossible to dis-miss him as just another Bush-hating America-basher. (Indeed, the noxious Bush makes pleasantly few appearances in these pages.)
In Hodgson's account, the elitist jingoism of the current Bush administration is just the most recent manifestation of a much more profound malaise. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a "startling growth of financial and social inequality" in the US, leading to the highest levels of wealth disparity in the developed world. Despite the claims of Wall Street analysts and techno-pundits, the (largely illusory) New Economy made little difference to most Americans: the incomes of average wage-earners have not risen in real terms since 1973, while the twin insecurities of unemployment and high consumer debt condemn the middle classes to lives of "disappointment and frustration". A tiny predatory class rules: the top 1 per cent of Americans enjoys 39 per cent of the country's wealth, while at the same time the proportion of those living in poverty is the highest of all major developed countries.
The responsibility for this widening inequality lies squarely with the rise of a conservative politics that despises government and deifies the free market. Ever since Lyndon B Johnson's Voting Rights Act 1965 guaranteed many southern blacks the vote for the first time, white southerners have formed the voting base of the Republican Party, and the values of the American South have come to pervade US politics. Republican politicians have had outstanding success in wooing voters - by appealing to their pocketbook, their religiosity and their racism. The result is a "winner-takes-all" society, and a political process marinaded in money and dominated by corporations. False consciousness pervades American life, in which a political rhetoric celebrating equality and entrepreneurship conceals the harshness and unfairness of the society.
Hodgson reinforces his disquieting portrait with a barrage of statistics. His wide reading and thoughtful analysis make a refreshing change from the anti-American polemics that dominate the bestseller lists. But it remains questionable how far his narrative offers an accurate account of modern America.
Inequality is hardly a new phenomenon in American society, and nor is corporate power. The modern United States was built upon a system of institutionalised, legal inequality, namely slavery, and on the exploitation of waves of poor immigrants from Europe and the Pacific Rim. In the 19th century's "Gilded Age" came the growth of unregulated businesses and financial institutions vastly more powerful than today's AOL Time Warner and Citigroup.
Rule by elites is hardly novel, either: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were two of Virginia's largest slave-holders, while two of the presidents most admired by Hodgson, the Harvard-educated Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, were scions of America's richest families and heirs to large fortunes.
Similarly, Hodgson's hostility to the modern conservative movement blinds him to how deeply rooted its values are in the American psyche, and leaves him unable convincingly to explain its rise and durability. While he repeatedly insinuates that white racism is the twisted root of American conservatism, this is simply slanderous. He might have done better to devote more than a single page of the book to the power of evangelical religion, whose 400-year history in the US explains much more about conservatism than the political strategies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Finally, Hodgson's slightly patrician disdain for much of modern American culture (he confesses to writing the book in a Cotswold cottage) feels jarring. He complains of a "coarsening and trivialising" of American life in the past few decades, and scorns the "drum-banging triumphalism and commercialised populism" of modern American politics. But has he never read a paper published by Hearst or Pulitzer during the Spanish-American war, with their racist cartoons and jingoistic war cries? Has he never read the polemics of the early American republic, in which presidential rivals routinely accused each other of bastardy and adultery? By comparison, Fox News looks like the BBC, and today's America little worse than a slightly more tabloid version of Europe.
Shortcomings such as these perhaps explain why Hodgson is so long on description but so short on prescription. His contention that "inequality has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished" is hardly a useful policy proposal. His political ideas hark nostalgically back to the New Deal, while never fully acknowledging that the New Deal, like the New Economy, was a moment in American life, an unprecedented response to the pressures of depression and war. The kind of European welfare-state capitalism that Hodgson obviously desires for the US is itself under pressure in most European countries, a point he never considers. While one can only celebrate such a clear-headed and sober rendering of today's US, this book still reads like a premature elegy.