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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THREATS, TOO NOBLE TO NEGLECT'
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
COLD WAR CONSENSUS RUNS AGROUND IN S.E. ASIA
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.
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
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
cosmic War of Good versus Evil, which had been the High
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.
is hard to keep up a cosmic ideological crusade without
the ideological issues.
SO IT GOES'
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.
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
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.
TO REPEAT HISTORY?
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."
II, 'TERR-RR-SS,' AND RENEWED UNIVERSAL MANAGEMENT
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
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.
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.
See Larry M. Schwab, The
Illusion of a Conservative Reagan Revolution
See Jeffrey Tucker, "Bush
Swells the State."