The Strange Death of American Liberalism 
by H.W. Brands.
Yale, 200 pp., £16, January 2002, 0 300 09021 8
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‘In the United States at this time,’ Lionel Trilling announced in 1950, ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.’ How things have changed. Today in the US, liberalism seems extinct, except as a term of political abuse. Since Bush the Elder struck political gold during the 1988 Presidential campaign by castigating his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a liberal, virtually no American politician will voluntarily accept the label. One unlikely exception is Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s new billionaire Republican Mayor, who during the campaign proclaimed: ‘I am a liberal.’ In New York, liberalism still survives – and, besides, Bloomberg is so rich he can say anything he pleases.

There are almost as many explanations for liberalism’s demise as historians who have written on the subject. Some blame the liberals for misreading human nature, promising far more improvement in American life than they could possibly deliver, and alienating ordinary citizens by relying on unelected experts and the courts to engineer social change. Others hold liberals responsible for the alleged collapse of social order and traditional family life during the 1960s, which turned upstanding Middle Americans towards conservatism. Liberals themselves tend to blame a white backlash against their efforts to secure racial justice. Doing good, they believe, did them in.

There is some truth in each of these explanations. H.W. Brands, a prolific scholar of modern American history, adds his own contribution to the list. In this latest book, he defines liberalism as confidence in the ability of the national government to pursue the social good, and argues that in a country whose default position is distrust of an activist state, it is something of an anomaly. What needs to be explained, in other words, is not why modern liberalism died, but how it survived for so long.

‘War,’ Randolph Bourne wrote when the United States entered World War One, ‘is the health of the state.’ It is also, for Brands, the seedbed of American liberalism. In wartime, Americans accept the necessity for vigorous national action to achieve common goals. When a war emergency ends, they resume their hostility to government activism. The Civil War era greatly expanded the powers of the national government. But it was soon succeeded by the Gilded Age, when laissez-faire reigned supreme. During World War One, the Government conscripted soldiers, increased taxes, regulated industry and labour and suppressed dissent. But in 1920, Americans elected a President – Warren Harding – who promised a return to ‘normalcy’, defined as individualism free from public intervention.

World War Two witnessed an even more striking expansion of government power. It would quickly have been followed by another era of political inaction but for the advent of the Cold War. What enabled modern liberalism to persist as long as it did, Brands argues, was the longevity of the battle against Communism. Americans became so accustomed to looking to the national government to protect them from foreign threats that they set aside their aversion to state activism at home. But when the national consensus supporting the Cold War shattered over Vietnam in the late 1960s, liberalism could not survive.

It’s not difficult to identify weaknesses in Brands’s lively but superficial account. The Strange Death of American Liberalism tells us remarkably little about the content and historical evolution of liberal ideas (which cannot be reduced to belief in an activist government) and skims over those moments in American history that do not fit its thesis. Probably because it didn’t take place in wartime, Brands pays little attention to the New Deal, whose programmes he considers ‘limited’ and short-lived. Most historians, however, date the beginnings of modern liberalism to the 1930s. Before then, ‘liberal’ was a minor term in American political vocabulary. Franklin Roosevelt appropriated it to describe his Administration’s efforts to marshal national power to safeguard the economic security of ordinary Americans.

Modern liberalism eventually expanded to include, among other things, concern for civil liberties and the rights of women, which cannot be subsumed within the rubric of interventionist government. Civil liberties involve restraints on state power, and feminism has come to mean, in part, shielding a realm of private decision-making from government interference. Ironically, decline of confidence in the state during the 1980s and 1990s strengthened public commitment to such liberal values as freedom of expression and women’s right to make their own decisions concerning sexual relations and reproduction. The same voters who supported conservative positions on lower taxes and reduced economic regulation did not see why a state incompetent to direct market activities should be trusted to tell them what they could access on the Internet, or enter their bedrooms to monitor their most intimate behaviour.

Brands is certainly correct that from the Revolutionary era, when Tom Paine declared that ‘government, even its best state, is but a necessary evil,’ hostility to the Federal Government has been a familiar American refrain. Somehow, a nation that prides itself on democratic institutions seems to view public officials as bent on undermining the liberties of the people who elected them. Today, surfers on the Internet can encounter numerous anti-Government websites posted by libertarians, advocates of free enterprise, militia groups and the like. Sites affirming the virtues of ‘big government’ are notable by their absence.

‘Distrust of government,’ Brands writes, ‘came over on some of the first ships from England’ and has been constant ever since, with a few wartime exceptions. But this ignores the numerous times in American history when the socially and economically vulnerable – small farmers during the 1890s, blacks victimised by locally-enforced segregation and disenfranchisement, workers prevented by local authorities from organising unions, communities left behind in the onward rush of the ‘free market’ – have looked to the national government to redress their disempowerment. To such Americans, the Federal Government has appeared, in the words of Senator Charles Sumner, a 19th-century advocate of black rights, not as a danger to liberty but as the ‘custodian of freedom’.

Brands’s single-minded concern with the relationship between war, powerful government and liberalism does have the virtue of providing the book with a clear focus. Like a powerful spotlight projected onto a dark landscape, his account leaves much in shadow but illuminates important features of the terrain. If he doesn’t provide a satisfying history of liberalism’s rise and fall, he does offer an engaging and insightful romp through recent American political history. His discussion of the symbiotic relationship between the Cold War and modern liberalism is particularly good.

The Cold War, Brands writes, ‘encouraged a tendency to look to the Federal Government in other areas as well’. Harry Truman created the national security state while simultaneously pursuing a liberal domestic agenda. But, he argues, it was in the 1950s, under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, that New Deal liberalism truly became institutionalised. Rather than seeking to roll back liberalism, Eisenhower presided over the extension of Social Security benefits to ten million predominantly black agricultural and domestic workers who had initially been excluded from the programme at the insistence of powerful Southern Democrats in Congress. He also launched the largest Federal public works programme in American history, the building of the interstate highway system. This dramatic exercise of national power was justified by the need to create routes for the swift evacuation of urban residents in the event of nuclear war (although the more mundane interests of construction companies, suburban developers and automobile manufacturers certainly contributed). Unprecedented Federal expenditure to upgrade American schooling (an area traditionally left to individual states) was explained by the need to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. When Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce a court order for school integration, he noted that the condition of black Americans was doing incalculable harm to efforts to win the hearts and minds of the world’s non-white peoples in the struggle against Communism.

Postwar liberalism reached high tide during Lyndon Johnson’s Administration. Although Brands admits that Johnson never explicitly connected his Great Society programmes with the Cold War, it was more than a coincidence, he feels, that the same President who launched a massive expansion of New Deal programmes also fought the largest American war since World War Two. But it was to be Vietnam that ultimately drove Johnson from power and, when the American people discovered that they had been consistently lied to about the war’s origins and progress, undermined confidence in government itself. ‘Vietnam,’ Brands writes, ‘killed the American Cold War consensus, and in killing the Cold War consensus killed liberalism.’

Liberalism’s death was not immediate. For even as Richard Nixon abandoned the Cold War paradigm by visiting China and agreeing to détente with the Soviet Union, he embraced sweeping new liberal initiatives at home. It was under Nixon that the protection of the environment became a major Federal priority, school integration was seriously implemented in the South, and a small army of safety inspectors entered American workplaces. Nixon even proposed to replace welfare with a Federally guaranteed annual income.

Nixon, as we know, destroyed his Presidency by the snooping, lying and obstructions of justice he set in train. But, Brands points out, the liberals who contributed to and cheered on Nixon’s downfall failed to realise that by further eroding confidence in the Federal Government, Watergate threatened their own base of support. Moreover, the Congressional investigations that followed in Watergate’s wake traced Nixonian tactics back to the earliest years of the Cold War, thus seeming to demonstrate that the problem was systemic, not the work of a single individual. Liberals by this time had forgotten their own earlier complicity in CIA coups, FBI efforts to spy on and disrupt peaceful domestic protest movements, foreign assassination plots and the cynical manipulation of the press and public opinion. Perhaps Cold War liberalism was, in the end, an oxymoron, since the Cold War inevitably was fought in a profoundly illiberal manner. If this analysis is correct, liberalism had only itself to blame for its own demise.

With government having discredited itself, it is easy to understand why Americans lost faith in it. Beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the only way to be elected President was to cast oneself as a political ‘outsider’. Ronald Reagan revived the Cold War during his first term in office, but this did not help reanimate liberalism. Reagan fashioned a potent political appeal from anti-liberalism – lower taxes, thinly-disguised racism, reduced regulation of the economy and hostility to organised labour. And just as Eisenhower consolidated the New Deal, Bill Clinton consolidated the Reagan revolution. Future historians will probably conclude that the most significant public statement of the first post-Cold War President was not ‘I did not have sex with that woman,’ but ‘the era of big government is over.’ For with this pronouncement in his 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton embraced the Republicans’ demonisation of national authority, and turned his back on his own Party’s modern tradition of viewing the Federal Government as an active and beneficent force in American life.

Brands ends with the election of Bush the Younger in 2000. With the Cold War over, he writes, there was ‘no hope for any imminent resurrection of liberalism’. Only ‘another serious threat to American security’ might reverse the prevailing scepticism toward government. Such a threat seems ‘years or decades in the future’, but in the unlikely event that it materialises, Brands predicts, ‘liberals will once again be called to power.’

All this was written before 11 September. And certainly that attack seemed to produce a sea-change in American attitudes towards the national state. In the last few months, public trust in government and faith in its capacity to pursue common goals has risen dramatically. Americans expect Washington to act decisively against terrorism, and public servants like firemen and policemen have become national heroes. The extreme individualism of the 1990s has been submerged in a renewed sense of national community and shared social purpose. After years of conservative demonisation of national authority and calls to reinvigorate the sovereignty of the individual states, people demonstrated their resolve in the wake of 11 September by displaying the American flag, not the flag of New York State, California or Texas.

But if 11 September produced a resurgence of confidence in the national government, this renewed statism has thus far taken on a decidedly non-liberal cast in the hands of the Bush Administration. The idea of an open-ended global battle between freedom and terrorism has been invoked to justify serious infringements of civil liberties. At least five thousand foreigners with Middle Eastern connections were rounded up in the aftermath, and more than a thousand were arrested and held without charge or even public acknowledgment of their fate. An executive order authorised the holding of secret military tribunals for non-citizens deemed to have assisted terrorism, in which defendants’ right to counsel and to examine evidence against them will be severely restricted. On issues ranging from taxes to the environment, women’s rights to the regulation of business enterprise, the Administration continues to pursue a hard-right agenda.

If Brands is right, Americans will ultimately conclude that the government trusted to fight terrorism overseas is the proper vehicle for addressing persistent social inequalities at home. If he is wrong, hope for the revival of liberalism in the United States will be among Osama bin Laden’s many victims.

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