Olga Bonfiglio

If you are looking for a book that trashes and thrashes the United States, you will not find it here. Instead, Godfrey Hodgson provides readers with a grand tour through American history that offers a friendly but stern hand to explain our sense of exceptionalism in the world, an especially pertinent topic during this period of empire and economic decline.

Hodgson writes this book with some notable credentials. The Briton is a great admirer of Americans because of what we accomplished during World War II. He studied in Philadelphia and served as a correspondent for The London Observer in Washington, D.C. He covered the civil rights movement and made films about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan. He taught at Harvard and Berkeley and has visited all but two states. He prides himself on having spent most of his life trying to understand the history and politics of the United States.

American exceptionalism, he says, is rooted in religion, when colonialists saw themselves as “a chosen people” destined to “fulfill a unique historical destiny.” This ideology surfaces from time to time in the book, especially when the nation is in crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush all used it because it resonates well with the public and reasserts our identity. President Obama is now using it by “appealing to our better natures,” as Lincoln put it.

Our schools have trained us well in exceptionalism, says Hodgson; but what they often miss is the context of international historic processes at work. The American Revolution, for example, borrowed its ideas about liberty and freedom from Europeans, who had been developing them since the 17th-century British Revolution and the 18th-century Enlightenment.

European political rivalries and struggles also influenced America’s development because they brought dispossessed immigrants to our shores. We were exceptional in that we offered the immigrants land they could not get in Europe. These lands, however, became available only after our expulsion of the indigenous peoples who once lived on them. In this we were not exceptional compared with the Europeans, who had built their colonial empires in the same way.

Hodgson continues that the westward movement, made easier by transcontinental railroads, was financed by Europeans, who also invested in our manufacturing, provided us with intellectual property and supplied us with cheap European labor—through immigration. (Here he reveals his own Eurocentrism by failing to acknowledge the contributions of Asian immigrants and African slaves!)

The 20th century reinforced America’s exceptionalist belief when we acted as “an international knight errant, riding to the rescue of the victims of oppression and injustice.” Much of this ideology came from Wilson, but Roosevelt tapped into it, too, and it inspired us to win two world wars. A good thing, says Hodgson.

The postwar 1950s began a new era of American exceptionalist thought and brought more good. Our victory in war bred a new prosperity, wider participation in politics, greater rights for women and minorities, belief in educational opportunity, mobility in geography and economics and concern for the welfare of others. But it also produced a dark side, our fear of vulnerability to the Soviet Union. Our cold war textbooks taught us a “new militant sense of exceptionalism,” with a reworked religious belief that, as the author notes, “the United States had been entrusted by God with a mission of bringing light to a darkling world.”

This story continued until the mid-1970s, when something happened to make us seem less exceptional, says Hodgson. International institutions the United States had helped create, like the United Nations, became unpopular with many Americans. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 fomented hubris and we seemed to reject “long-cherished principles.” America switched from being exceedingly liberal (the legacy of F.D.R.) to being exceedingly conservative (the legacy of Reagan), which made us drastically exceptional from the rest of the world in terms of imprisoning greater numbers of people; providing less access to health care; sustaining a growing inequality in distribution of income and wealth; disconnecting the campaign from the deeds done in politics; rejecting assumptions about global warming, international law and respect for international organizations; supporting a standing army of invincible force and superiority.

The rate of child poverty in the United States, 21.9 percent, the highest among the 17 O.E.C.D. countries, makes the United States exceptional, says Hodgson, in that we are unwilling “to pay to take children out of poverty.” Additionally, our political system has become more focused on funding and winning elections than encouraging voter participation. Politicians seek money from business and lobbyists to finance the cost of television advertising, which is aimed at wealthier people who vote their best interests, Hodgson says. It is no wonder that unions, citizens groups, consumers and minorities have been left out. Even the Constitution has been abused, the author points out, in part “as a result of the unrestrained ferocity of political conflict” between the polarized conservatives and liberals—who differ very little except in their party affiliations.

A spiking stock market in the 1990s created a “mood of economic triumphalism and a belief in a ‘New Economy’ that broke all the rules.” Americans changed from a people of idealism and generosity to a people who were “harder, more hubristic.” Most Americans truly believed that everyone was experiencing a rise in living standards until the bubble burst in 2000—and again in the fall of 2008. Only then did it become obvious that the country had become a debtor nation, in which only the very rich profited.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the United States has assumed a new attitude as “the lone superpower,” with its 700-plus military bases and a force of supremacy. Consequently, Americans were the last ones to believe that anyone could challenge them, Hodgson argues, until 19 hijackers armed with box cutters poked through our vulnerability.

And that is yet another thing. Americans perceive the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an instance where we were exceptionally hated and then dismiss the fact that terrorist attacks were also carried out in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, Bali, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul and London.

Hodgson concludes that the United States as it is today is not exceptionally bad but that it is no longer exceptional. Instead, America is just “one great, but imperfect, country among many others.”

Some readers may be offended by the book’s message. But Hodgson has taken great pains not to minimize America’s achievements and to offer analysis about how our exceptionalism has prompted false perceptions of ourselves and a skewing of some of our policies. In fact this book may serve as a sounding board for our national consciousness during this time of crisis. Then, what we do as a nation is really up to us. And that will be the measure of our exceptionalism.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich., and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq.