on April 30, 2005
This book is billed as the third volume of James MacGregor Burns' magesterial history of the United States, collectively titled "The American Experiment." Burns is perhaps best known as a biographer of FDR (he won a Pulitzer for one volume of this bio) and he's definitely a New Deal Democrat, though he would probably insist he worked hard to make sure his history of the United States was balanced. It *does* criticize both liberals and conservatives, but the criticisms are nuanced and definitely different.
FDR, it turns out, wasn't liberal *enough* during the New Deal. Reagan turned the word liberty into a weapon of hate. The author is pretty ambiguous about presidents after Roosevelt (his hero, of course) and viscerally dislikes Reagan, especially. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter the author deals with carefully, while Nixon, Ford, and of course Reagan are for the most part dismissed with varying degrees of contempt. Reagan turns out to have been "shallow" and anti-intellectual, while his opponents showed much promise but of course were outwitted by the actor who knew how to manipulate the public.
There's also an annoying thread running through the book which the author tacitly acknowledges but refuses to jettison. He's a rampant cultural relativist, and flaunts it whenever he's dealing with Foreign Policy. As a result, when comparing the Soviet Union, Communist China, and the United States, the author doesn't see much difference between the three nations morally. Either he's unaware of the Gulags and reeducation camps of the two Communist countries (and their lack in the USA) or he thinks such things are irrelevant. He certainly acts as if they don't/didn't exist.
Instead, every facet of liberal society in America gets exhaustive treatment. So various shades of radical feminism get paragraphs, even pages, devoted to them, and the socialist and Communist parties of America are treated as if they were important forces in American politics. Their progress is considered worth discussing even into the '80s, when they became completely irrelevant. By contrast, organizations such as the John Birch society or the Libertarian party (not that I'm a member or supporter of either; I'm not) are never even acknowledged. The art world gets volumes, literature is dissected in detail, but popular art and music are at best briefly alluded to. It's a rather one-sided portrait of America, to say the least.
I found this book to be biased, but of course it all depends on what biases you bring to the book yourself. The writing is generally serviceable, and if the subject matter tends to sometimes make things boring, he never spends more than 10 pages on any subject, anyway. If you're interested in this era of history, I suppose you could do worse, and if you're aware of the biases of the author, it's not a bad outline of the subject.