The Strange Death of American Liberalism
By H. W. Brands (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 200 pp.
London Review of Books, June 27, 2002

“In the United States at this time,” the literary critic 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 the world has changed since Trilling wrote. Today, conservatism is in the ascendancy and liberalism seems as extinct as the dodo bird, except as a term of political abuse. Since George Bush the elder struck political gold during the 1988 presidential campaign by castigating his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a “card-carrying liberal,” virtually no American politician will voluntarily accept the label.

There are almost as many explanations for liberalism's demise as historians who have written on the subject. Some blame 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 toward 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. In “The Strange Death of American Liberalism,” H. W. Brands adds his own contribution to the list. Brands, who teaches history at Texas A. and M. University, is a well-regarded and prolific scholar of modern American history. In this latest book, he defines liberalism as confidence in the ability of the national government to pursue the social good. In a country whose default position, so to speak, is distrust of an activist state, liberalism is something of an anomaly. What needs to be explained, Brands argues, is not why modern liberalism died, but how it survived for so long.

“War,” Randolph Bourne wrote when the United States entered World War I, “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 governmental 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 I, the government conscripted soldiers, increased taxes, regulated industry and labor, and suppressed dissent. But in 1920, Americans elected as president Warren G. Harding, who promised a return to “normalcy” – defined as individualism free of public intervention.

World War II witnessed even an more striking expansion of governmental power. It would have quickly 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, Brands argues, was the longevity of the battle against communism, which unlike previous wars lasted for decades. Americans became so accustomed to looking to the national government to protect them from threats from abroad that they set aside their aversion to state activism at home. But when the national consensus supporting the Cold War shattered in the late 1960s over Vietnam, liberalism could not survive.

It is not difficult to identify weaknesses in Brands' lively but superficial historical account. “The Strange Death of American Liberalism” tells us remarkably little about the content and historical evolution of liberal ideas (which cannot be reduced simply to belief in an activist government) and skims over those moments in American history that do not fit its thesis. Probably because it did not take place during wartime, Brands pays little attention to the New Deal, whose programs he considers “limited” and short-lived. Most scholars, however, date the beginnings of modern liberalism to the 1930s. Before then, “liberal” was a minor term in the American political vocabulary. Franklin D. Roosevelt consciously 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 other themes -- notably concern for civil liberties and the rights of women -- that cannot be subsumed within the rubric of interventionist government. Civil liberties involve restraints on state power, and feminism has come in part 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 behavior.

Brands is certainly correct that from the revolutionary era, when Tom Paine declared, “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 very people who elected them. Today, surfers on the Internet can encounter numerous anti-government web sites 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 formulation ignores the numerous times in our history when the socially and economically vulnerable – small farmers during the 1890s, blacks victimized by locally-enforced segregation and disenfranchisement, workers prevented by local authorities from organizing 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 nineteenth-century advocate of black rights, not as a danger to liberty but as the “custodian of freedom.”

Brands' 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 laser beam projected onto a dark landscape, his account leaves much in shadow but illuminates important features of the terrain. If Brands does not provide a satisfying history of liberalism's rise and fall, he does offer an engaging and insightful romp through recent American political history. He is particularly good in discussing the symbiotic relationship between the Cold War and modern liberalism.

The Cold War, Brands writes, “encouraged a tendency to look to the federal government in other areas as well.” Harry S. Truman created the national security state while simultaneously pursuing a liberal domestic agenda. But it was under Republican Dwight Eisenhower during the 1950s, Brands argues, that New Deal liberalism truly became institutionalized.

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 program at the insistence of powerful southern Democrats in Congress. He launched the largest federal public works program 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 to passage). Unprecedented federal expenditures to upgrade American schooling (an area traditionally left to the states) were explained by the need to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. When Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce a court order for school integration, he noted that the condition of black Americans was doing incalculable harm to American efforts to win the hearts and minds of the world's nonwhite peoples in the struggle against communism.

Postwar liberalism reached high tide during the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Although Brands admits that Johnson never explicitly connected his Great Society programs with the Cold War, it was more than a coincidence, he feels, that the same president who launched a massive expansion of New Deal programs also fought the largest American war since World War II. But, of course, it was Vietnam that ultimately drove Johnson from power and, when the American people discovered they had been consistently lied to about the war's origins and progress, undermined confidence in government itself. “Vietnam,” writes Brands, “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 detente with the Soviet Union he embraced sweeping new liberal initiatives at home. It was under Nixon that the protection of the environment because a major federal priority, school integration was seriously implemented in the South, and a small army of federal safety inspectors entered American workplaces. Nixon even proposed to replace welfare with a federally guaranteed annual income.

Nixon, of course, destroyed his presidency by operating an administration of stealth, lies, and obstruction of justice. But, Brands points out, even as liberals contributed to and cheered on Nixon's downfall, they failed to realize that by further undermining confidence in the federal government, Watergate threatened their own base of support. Moreover, in Watergate's wake congressional investigations traced Nixonian tactics back to the earliest years of the Cold War, thus seeming to demonstrate that the problem was systemic, not the abnormality 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 so, 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 government. Beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the only way to be elected president was to cast one's self as a political “outsider.” Ronald Reagan revived the Cold War during his first term in office, but this did not help revive to liberalism. Reagan fashioned a potent political appeal from anti-liberalism -- lower taxes, thinly-disguised racism, reduced regulation of the economy, and hostility to organized labor. And just as Eisenhower consolidated the New Deal, Bill Clinton did the same for 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' demonization 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 George Bush the younger in 2000. With the Cold War over, Brands writes, there was “no hope for any imminent resurrection of liberalism.” Only “another serious threat to American security” might reverse the prevailing skepticism toward government. Such a threat seemed “years or decades in the future.” But in the unlikely event that it materialized, Brands predicted, “liberals will once again by called to power.”

All this was written, of course, before September 11. And certainly that tragedy seemed to produce a sea change in American attitudes toward 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 purposes. After years of conservative demonization of national authority and calls to reinvigorate the sovereignty of the individual states, people demonstrated their resolve in the wake of September 11 by displaying the American flag, not the flag of New York State, California, or Texas.

But if September 11 produced a resurgence of confidence in the national government, in the hands of the Bush administration this renewed statism has thus far taken on a decidedly non-liberal cast. The idea of an open-ended global battle between freedom and terrorism has been invoked to justify serious infringements on civil liberties. At least 5,000 foreigners with Middle Eastern connections were rounded up in the aftermath of September 11, and more than 1,000 were arrested and held without charge or even public acknowledgment of their fate. An executive order authorized the holding of secret military tribunals for noncitizens 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, and the regulation of business enterprise, the administration continues to pursue a hard right agenda.

If Brands is right, Americans will ultimately conclude that the same 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.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. His “Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World,” has just been published by Hill and Wang.