April 27, 2002
In his new book, The Strange Death of American Liberalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), H. W. Brands sets out to answer the question: How did American liberalism fall on hard times? The question refers, of course, not to classical liberalism but to the kind of 20th-century liberalism that wanted a strong, activist central government to address a range of problems which, allegedly, society was incompetent to solve on its own. Brands provides a thumbnail sketch of American political history as background, before zeroing in on his central claim.
Brands' thumbnail sketch suggests that Americans, from 1776 onwards, never fully bought the notion of benevolent state management of their economic and social activities. Any exceptions to this rule were set in train by war. The bigger the war, the bigger was the seeming embrace of social engineering. The temporary character of Americans' love for government is shown by the rapidity with which wartime establishments were cast aside after the war with one important exception.
Brands' claim is that the apparent triumph of modern American liberalism in the period from 1933 into the 1970s was something of an illusion. While New Deal liberalism was welcomed quite incorrectly as having cured the Great Depression and functioned for Americans as the official public ideology of World War II, its longer success owed everything to a set of events which prevented a return to "normalcy" in the late 1940s. In two words, the Cold War.
We might think of this outcome as having been merely contingent, a happy accident for the big-government liberals. But Brands, who may or may not accept the rationale for the Cold War, is quite clear whose undertaking it was. It was precisely the New Deal-Fair Deal liberals in power who launched the Cold War, which then served them well as a bottomless justification for the sort of domestic policies they had wanted beforehand.
This was almost too convenient. A cynic could have a lot of fun with this reading of the facts. I would not recommend such an unpatriotic approach; I merely note the odd coincidence.
It adds up: a leadership class conscious that its power best expands during an emergency; the same leadership class threatened on every side by their enemies (the old-style "isolationist" Republicans had just taken the House in 1946); the sudden discovery of a new emergency in the form of our lately heroic ally, Soviet Russia, an emergency that could only be met by renewed mobilization for another crusade.
So how did this play out? In March 1947, President Truman sold Congress the Greek-Turkish aid package. In short order, we had the Marshall Plan (essentially a subsidy to US exporters), the first push toward European integration, the federation of the western zones of Germany, NATO, etc. Republicans questioned all this, but increasingly bought into the new Cold War order. Brands calls this "the capitulation of the conservatives" (p. 63). Even then, the fix was not in until the outbreak of war in Korea permitted the implementation of the very ambitious program set forth in NSC-68, the charter of the US empire kept secret for three decades.
It did not help things that many in the GOP had an inherited obsession in favor of intervention in Asia which undercut their "isolationist" posture relative to Europe.
Eisenhower, brought in as a Republican internationalist to prevent the nomination of Robert Taft, was a "conservative" President, if conserving the New Deal is the measure. Effectively, Ike was a domestic liberal, says Brands, bringing in liberal initiatives under the Cold War banner: interstate highways, federal aid to education, etc. The style reached its high point under Kennedy and Johnson. There was no scheme too intrusive, too harebrained, too expensive, too federal, to be justified as essential to the National Security (All bow your heads, NOW).
There was also a universalist ideological theme, as expressed by LBJ: "the state of the Union depends, in large measure, upon the state of the world" (quoted, p. 93). America's very security hinged, it seemed, on endless reform of ourselves connected with endless reform of others. JFK had already exhorted us to bear all those burdens and pay all those prices.
It was the war in southeast Asia against which Old Right stalwarts like John Flynn and Senator Taft had warned us which undermined the phoney Cold War consensus on domestic reform, and with it, modern liberalism. The strains sent Lyndon back to Texas and made him work on his ranch. Liberals who had raised the Cold War from a pup, now pretended not to know it.
Richard Nixon inherited the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. Functionally, he, too, was a domestic liberal, and Brands gives manifold evidence for this (racial quotas, OSHA, and much more). His famous "secret plan" to end the Asian war was part of his attempt to redefine the whole game by pursuing détente with the Soviets while playing the China card against them. His new friends would help undermine the North Vietnamese, if all went well.
Nixon's disgrace and the implosion of his administration blinded liberals to the ways in which he had furthered their domestic agenda. They hated him too much to see their kinship with him. His redefinition of the world struggle had, at the same time, drained the meaning out of the heroic, Manichaean, cosmic War of Good versus Evil, which had been the High Cold War.
The whole thing began to look like cynical great-power politics of a sort unappealing to Americans, who wish either to be left alone or to be given a mighty cause. My mother summed the whole thing up beautifully. She remarked that the televised coverage of Nixon and the Chinese leaders resembled nothing so much as the final section of George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which the Communist animal leaders became reconciled with the farmers.
It is hard to keep up a cosmic ideological crusade without the ideological issues.
Nixon fell, Ford stumbled, and Carter possibly the best of the lot got no respect. In these years, the liberal Dr. Frankensteins had abandoned their Cold War monster, while a corporal's guard of Cold War liberal loyalists reinvented themselves as Neo-Conservatives. They became the brains, if that is the right word, behind Reagan's foreign policy of détente, Cold War tough talk, and the harassment of Central America.
Brands suggests that Reagan's constant Old Right-style rhetoric undermined his grandiose foreign policy. Nonetheless, he was able to spend wildly on so-called "defense," giving rise to the misleading folktale that Reagan destroyed communism by outspending those regimes. I think Brands takes the notion of a Reagan Revolution in domestic policy entirely too seriously.1
There is no need to bring the story all the way to present. Professor Brands has written a very useful book. At the time Brands finished it, it seemed a safe bet that federal power would gradually recede, absent a convincing National Security problem. But the big-government people never go quietly into that dark night.
The lesson seems clear enough. If you want big government (modern "liberalism") at home, find yourself a great crusade abroad. As James Madison put it in 1798, "Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad" (my italics). Or as John Hobson wrote in 1905: "[The Liberal party's] leaders, having sold their party to a confederacy of stock gamblers and jingo sentimentalists, find themselves impotent to defend Free Trade, Free Press, Free Schools, or any of the rudiments of ancient Liberalism."
What has George Dubya Bush brought us? Steel tariffs, deficit spending, new ecological boondoggles, more federal educational ventures to chloroform our children's minds, bailouts for everyone, the list goes on2 and, of course, a "war" so vaguely but so broadly drawn as to resemble the theory of eternal frontier war (in Russia) put forward in the early 1940s by certain policy-makers in service to the Austrian fellow with the moustache.
Let us leave the "war" and the "terrorists" (including those who are not on the US payroll) to one side. No one knows how the "war" is going, what its goals are, or how to tell when it has been "won." Perfect. More than close enough for government work.
How can the enlightened Left-bureaucrats lose under these rules? They can't. George Bush II will be remembered as a great state-building liberal on the scale of Wilson, FDR, and Nixon. Ah, the Republican Party: the great friend of free enterprise and individual rights.
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