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The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W Brands

The Strange Death of American Liberalism
by H.W. Brands
Yale. 200 pp. $22.50

“Big Government is Back in Style”—or so declared a recent headline in the New York Times. Wishful thinking, to be sure, but might it be true? After all, since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the country has demanded and gotten aggressive federal action. From the passage of multi-billion-dollar aid packages in Congress to the assertion of sweeping prosecutorial powers by the Justice Department, a strong consensus has emerged in favor of expanding the scope of the state’s responsibilities.

For H.W. Brands, all of this might have been predicted. As he argues in The Strange Death of American Liberalism—a book completed well before the events of September 11—faith in government has never come easily to Americans, with one key exception: wartime. According to Brands, a historian at Texas A&M and the author of well-received studies of Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin, the rise of liberal, activist government in the U.S. over the last half-century can only be explained by the cold war, which “fostered a mindset that caused Americans to put aside their traditional distrust . . . and allow the public sector to grow at the expense of the private sphere.” When the cold war ended, so too did our “confidence in the ability of government . . . to accomplish substantial good,” and so too did the fortunes of American liberalism.

For Brands, whose own libertarian distaste for big government peeks through on occasion, this is no cause for regret. But today we are at war once again, and the American people have turned expectantly to Washington. If Brands is right, in the coming years we can look forward to an invigorated and newly ambitious American Left, eager to take advantage of the public’s renewed confidence in government. But is Brands right?

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For presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, Brands shows, domestic policy of all sorts was often a response to imperatives that emerged from foreign affairs. If national defense required the mass production of thermonuclear weapons, so too did it demand an interstate highway system to ensure the country’s economic vitality. If we needed to develop a space program to compete with the Soviet Union, then the federal government also had a role to play in promoting science education. If America was going to proclaim itself the leader of the free world, then of course its government had to uphold the civil rights of all citizens.

The tendency to justify domestic-policy initiatives in terms of national security reached its apex, Brands argues, under Lyndon Johnson, who pursued his cold-war agenda no less vigorously at home than overseas. Civil rights, voting rights, aid to education, national endowments for the arts and humanities, “model” cities, Medicaid, Head Start, the “war on poverty”—the breathtaking scope of the Great Society, Brands suggests, was inspired and made possible by Johnson’s dramatic escalation of the war in Vietnam. For the President as for the country at large, confidence in the country’s military capabilities translated into an ambitious domestic agenda. When the war finally spun out of control, however, the federal government was no longer able to justify its tremendous growth, or its grand designs.

Ever since then, Brand contends, American politicians have failed to see the connection between these two sides of big government. In the early 1970’s, the supporters of George McGovern foolishly believed that they could maintain momentum on their liberal domestic agenda while repudiating the cold war. No less deluded from the other direction was Ronald Reagan, who tried to intensify the cold war while simultaneously denigrating big government. The American people may have tolerated increases in military spending under Reagan, but, in Brands’s view, they would have resisted any attempt to return to the highly mobilized stance of the 1950’s and 60’s. Luckily for Reagan, the Soviet Union began to collapse before his bellicose rhetoric was put to the test.

George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton, our first post-cold-war Presidents, were left with little to do besides overseeing the slow destruction of the big-government edifice. Brands dwells in particular on Clinton’s failed attempt early in his first term to establish a national healthcare system. Rebuked in his one effort at a monumental expansion of the federal government’s responsibilities, Clinton spent the rest of his presidency tinkering with minutiae. His successors, predicts Brands—and remember that he was writing before September 11—are likely to do the same now that America has reverted to its normal peace-time skepticism about government.

Only in the event of renewed international conflict, Brands concludes, would things be likely to take a different course. As he writes in a brief appendix, speculating about America’s future, “in the presence of a renewed security threat, the liberals will once again be called to power.” Thus does a writer who intended to provide a postmortem for liberalism supply us with the tools to account for what some have seen as signs of its impending resurrection.

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Brands’s thesis is not entirely implausible. But it is, at best, a partial truth about America’s political development in the 20th century, as anyone even passingly familiar with that history can recognize. Brands does not even attempt to deal with the standard accounts of the rise of modern liberalism, which typically—and convincingly—trace its origins to the Progressives and the New Deal. Nor does he do better with recent history. Is it true, as he asserts without substantiation, that the Reagan administration’s hardline foreign policy was hampered by its efforts to cut back government at home? More fundamentally, if big-government liberalism is largely a matter of government spending, as he suggests, in what sense is it now “dead,” since the federal budget, under both Republicans and Democrats, has continued to grow year after year?

Indeed, as this last item suggests, the most problematic aspect of Brands’s argument is his willfully simplistic understanding of liberalism itself, and thus also of its career in American political life. Liberalism is more than just a belief in “big government” or rising federal expenditures. At root it is the conviction that, given sufficient political support and financial resources, public-policy experts possess the know-how to diminish perennial social problems significantly, if not to eradicate them altogether. This is an old ideological disposition, and one that long predates the cold war.

America’s foreign-policy successes in the postwar period may indeed have helped to bolster liberalism’s exaggerated confidence in the manipulative powers of experts, but ventures abroad did not create this confidence. Nor have foreign-policy failures been the most powerful source of its demise. To the extent that liberal policies have been abandoned or rethought in recent decades, it is in large part because so many of them have been manifest failures.

Credit for this political shift also belongs to the conservative intellectuals who have demonstrated that many efforts at ameliorating social pathologies actually make things worse for the very people they are designed to help. That hubris has increasingly given way to humility at think tanks and among elected officials is a tribute to the power of this critique. It is these lessons about the limits of public policy that, despite the prognostications of H.W. Brands, are likely to keep our current war-time expenditures and initiatives from inspiring a resurgence of old-style, big-government liberalism.

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