The Strange Death of American Liberalism is probably meant to recall George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which described the beginning of the slow-motion downfall of England’s Liberal Party in the years immediately preceding World War I. Like the Democratic Party here in the 1960s and 1970s, the British Liberal Party buckled under the pressures from that generation’s version of radical “new politics.” As Dangerfield explained in his colorful prose, “the burden of Liberalism grew more and more irksome; it began to give out a dismal, rattling sound; it was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more that bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past… [The Liberal Party] died from poison administered by its Conservative foes, and from disillusion over the inefficacy of the word ‘Reform.'”
Dangerfield’s description parallels the conservative view of the trials of liberalism in the U.S. since the 1960s, and at first glance it appears Brands is going to follow suit and offer a ratification of conservative triumphalism. “Liberals lost,” Brands says on the book’s fourth page, “not because they were wrong about American society, but because they were wrong about the world.” Conservatives recognize that theirs is only a partial victory, for all the bruises and defeats liberalism has experienced over the past generation, liberalism remains entrenched in the media, higher education, and especially in bureaucratic government. Thus liberalism is still setting the political and cultural agenda of the country. Brands’s real thesis, therefore, comes as a shock: American political culture is essentially conservative (or at least anti-government), and liberalism is an anomaly. The Cold War made liberalism dominant in the post-war decades; the passing of the Cold War, and liberalism’s gradual embarrassment over the Cold War, led to the downfall of liberalism over the last generation.
Much of Brands’s account is plainly right, and his book is filled with many shrewd observations and perceptions. (Nixon, he correctly notes, “was as much a liberal as John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson.”) But on close inspection there is mischief at work. The tacit premise of Brands’s analysis is that the “national security state” necessary to prosecute the Cold War was the bulwark of big government in the post-war decades. Now the nefarious “national-security state” was a key theme of the New Left revisionism in the 1960s and ’70s that sought to blame the Cold War on the United States, or at any rate to diminish the Cold War’s seriousness. The benign end of the Cold War has given this argument a new lease on life—especially among the libertarian Right, which has converged with the isolationist rump of the Old Right (think Pat Buchanan) and the New Left on this point.
It is difficult to tell whether Brands sympathizes with one of these camps, or whether he is simply taunting liberals by ascribing their fleeting glory to the part of their legacy of which they grew to be most ashamed. The point of both Left and Right revisionism is that the Cold War was unnecessary, and Brand seems to share this point of view, though he does not say so explicitly. Here and there the reader will detect in Brands’s prose the rhetorical tones of New Left revisionism, but New Left scholars such as Gabriel Kolko are missing from his bibliography; the figure Brands lauds most highly as a critic of the national security state is the original “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Robert Taft.
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The plot thickens when Brands introduces his back-story, a synoptic account of American political life since the Founding that emphasizes public distrust of centralized government. Brands has to perform some fancy footwork to lend verisimilitude to this argument. He portrays Woodrow Wilson’s presidential victory as an expression of public preference for smaller government, and notes that in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt ran against deficit spending and centralized government. The New Deal was comparatively restrained in its reach, Brands argues. In all previous wars going back to the Revolution, government shrank in the aftermath. It wasn’t until after World War II, he claims, that government remained large and growing, and this only because of the Cold War. “[I]t wasn’t an accident that the high tide of liberalism coincided with the high tide of America’s participation in the Cold War.”
Ronald Reagan appears in Brands’s account as a highly ironic figure. Reagan tried to revive 1950s-style fervor for the Cold war in the 1980s, which, it is implied, would have revived liberalism—Reagan’s sworn enemy. Brands thinks Reagan failed to rally the public to his anti-communist banner, leading him to engage Gorbachev in his second term and bring the Cold War to its close. Clinton and Gore, Brands says, both kept a studied distance from the old-fashioned liberalism—remember, “the era of big government is over.”
Brands is persuasive on many particulars—American’s skepticism about centralized government is a legacy of the Revolution and Founding Era—but he elides the essential changes to out constitutional order that Progressivism wrought, changes that were instrumental in creating the administrative state that is the engine of perpetual liberalism today. Though Clinton and Gore paid lip service to the idea of small government, they pressed for every new government program they could. This appetite, like many others in the Clinton Administration, remained ungovernable. And for the far-left, the culture war serves as a nice substitute for the Cold War of their fathers, providing endless rationales for government growth.
If, in the end, Brands’s thesis is wrong that liberalism was a short-run anomaly, still there is something in his claims worth taking to heart. His argument might be described as simply a fancy version of Randolph Bourne’s famous phrase that “war is the health of the state.” Brands finished his book before September 11, so it is ironic to read his closing judgments: “[A]nother serious threat to American security would be required to displace [public] skepticism…in the presence of a renewed security threat, the liberals will once again be called to power.”
This is precisely the prospect that has cheered liberals since September 11, as polls have found public confidence in Washington at levels not seen in more than 30 years. Some liberals have forthrightly declared that they’re back in business. Brands would not be so certain; the war on terror would need to be an unqualified success for public confidence in government to wax. Afghanistan may have gone well, but the government’s bureaucratic approach to domestic security is likely to reinforce the skepticism of centralized government that has hobbled large liberal initiatives. Instead of effective security, we are getting the domestic equivalent of Vietnam, which was liberalism’s undoing. Brands’s book may be delightful mischief, but concerning the necessity of government to be effective in its objects, he is without illusion or contrivance.