OUTGROWING DEMOCRACY: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century by John Lukacs

OUTGROWING DEMOCRACY: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century

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Historian Lukacs (The Last European War; Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950) is a great admirer of Tocqueville--and sees himself, like his favorite, as a man out of synch with his times. Also an admirer of the United States--he emigrated from Hungary 37 years ago--Lukacs is less inclined to resign himself to those times. This loosely-structured interpretation of 20th-century America revolves around Lukacs' dismay that America has gotten more like the rest of the world in the course of the century, starting in earnest with American entry into WW I. But Lukacs finds a lot of turning points: ""The year 1912 was, of course, an important milestone in the history of the Republic""; six pages later, ""the year 1917 was the greatest turning point in the history of the Republic since the Civil War."" Still later, the failure of the US to join Britain in a post-WW II global alliance is cited as another turning point--the last chance at an Anglo-Saxon golden age. Lukacs writes with an aristocratic disdain for economics and business (one of his favorite pejoratives is ""brummagem""; i.e., cheap)--including anything that smacks of economic thinking. This can have its payoffs, as when Lukacs ties inflation to ""the production of consumption""--the proliferation of publicity and its attendant inflation of words, images, desires. His section on ""The Bourgeois Interlude"" (the first half-century) includes the observation that, in the US, to rise meant to rise within rather than out of one's own class--hence, ""keeping up with the Joneses,"" a kind of neighborhood-based showing-off. This not only had an inflationary effect, it mired the country in conventionality and sapped it of the energy with which it entered the century. Among other phenomena Lukacs pooh-poohs are the myths of bourgeois domesticity--plenty of facts and figures on pornography, divorce, etc.--and media-and opinion-poll-based mass politics. (Lincoln, he says, was too ugly to be elected in the 20th century.) Lukacs is perceptive on the kind of American personified by Henry Ford: he creates the mass-produced automobile that helps destroy American towns, while building nostalgic replicas of those same towns. But there are heavy traces of Lukacs' less appealing side here too, particularly in his almost pathological fear of everyone and everything non-European: ""It is at least arguable that the main danger to the United States may not even be the Soviet Union but the so-called Third World, whose savagery had already penetrated large areas of the United States and the presence of which within the United States has become widespread and evident."" Elsewhere, Lukacs likens the migration of people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia to the migration that ""overwhelmed the Roman Empire when another great age was coming to its end."" Lukacs is in love with 19th-century America but he manages to avoid mythologizing it. Excesses aside, if you can stand the critical tone, there are insightful rewards here.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1984
Publisher: Doubleday