The Strange Death of American Liberalism
by H.W. Brands
Yale University Press • 2001 • 191 pages
Reviewed by George C. Leef
H.W. Brands is a prolific historian with some readable books to his credit, such as his biography of Ben Franklin, The First American. In The Strange Death of American Liberalism, however, he ventures into the field of intellectual history and has produced a book that reads more like an overstuffed college term paper with a hastily conceived thesis than a book worthy of a major university press.
By “liberalism,” Brands (who teaches at Texas A&M) means the belief that government should not just protect life, liberty, and property, but should undertake programs designed to “make life better.” Early on, it becomes clear that Brands likes the deformed, modern conception of liberalism and disdains those who reject it. However, the main point of the book is not to demonstrate the correctness of liberal belief, but to explain why he thinks that it’s dead.
“During the 1960s,” Brands writes, “liberalism permeated American political life; it was in the very air, supplying the optimism and energy that enabled Lyndon Johnson to declare war on poverty and inequality and believe that could defeat those historic foes of human happiness. But by the mid-1970s, the liberal dream had died, and by the 1980s, ‘liberal’ had become an almost actionable epithet.” Brands admits that there are still a lot of liberals around, but sniffs that liberalism is politically kaput. No more will the mass of the people and politicians embrace uplifting programs to attack the “foes of human happiness.”
Before we get into Brands’ autopsy, is “liberalism” really dead? Much as I wish it were, it is merely in a period of remission, with occasional outbreaks.
Brands puts the year 1975 on liberalism’s tombstone (why is a matter we’ll get to shortly), but signs of life have often been detected since then. He dismisses the Carter presidency as a “period of confusion” in American politics, but Carter bequeathed to us two monuments to liberalism: the federal departments of Education and Energy. Both bear the liberal seal of wanting to use governmental power to manage crucial aspects of life “for the common good.” Since their creation in 1977, they (and all the other bureaucracies) have been busily regulating, which bring smiles to so-called liberals. Liberalism still exerts strong influence on public policy, but more often does so now through covert regulatory moves than visible legislative ones.
The Reagan presidency was rather stingy toward liberalism, but the first President Bush happily gave us the monstrosity known as the Americans With Disabilities Act. It’s hard to imagine anything more attuned to “liberalism” than that. Clinton tried and failed to saddle us with Hillary’s authoritarian health-care plan, but did push through the bossy Family Leave Act. Under President Bush II, liberalism triumphed again with “campaign finance reform.”
No, liberalism isn’t dead. It springs to life whenever politicians see a “crisis” in which sensible inactivity is rejected because it gives future opponents the dreaded “He doesn’t care about . . . ” attack ad.
Back to the author’s thesis. Brands would have us believe that liberalism died with the end of the Cold War (or in 1975; he’s confusing in this regard). In his view, liberalism was possible because the Cold War made Americans feel that they needed a big federal government for protection internationally, and this led them to trust the government to do the right things domestically, too. But failure in Vietnam (ending in 1975), brought about a sea change in thinking, with Americans coming to doubt and distrust government, looking askance at politicians who proposed new liberal legislation. The people have been in a sour, anti-government mood ever since, especially manifesting itself in the 1994 elections.
That explanation just won’t do. It places far too much importance on Vietnam, which most people have forgotten, and, astoundingly, places no importance whatsoever on the rise of libertarian thinking and its spreading influence. Brands talks about lots of politicians, but never brings up any of the pro-market intellectuals who have given liberalism such a pummeling in the battle of ideas. He has nothing to say about Nobel laureates F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan. Nothing about the growth of pro-freedom think tanks and publications, or the importance of talk radio. The free-market movement has made many people skeptical about liberalism by showing that there are sound reasons to doubt that governmental coercion can “make life better,” but Brands never mentions it.
Liberalism held sway for decades because the opposition to it was disorganized. Few people ever heard cogent arguments against Social Security or Medicare. Now, intelligent analysis of statist measures is available so widely and quickly that some liberals want to trash the First Amendment to “equalize access to speech.”
The weakness of liberalism in the marketplace of ideas is a much better explanation for its decline than is the author’s strange account.