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The Strange Death of American Liberalism

The Strange Death of American Liberalism

H. W. Brands
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Strange Death of American Liberalism
    Book Description:

    In this provocative book, H. W. Brands confronts the vital question of why an ever-increasing number of Americans do not trust the federal government to improve their lives and to heal major social ills. How is it that government has come to be seen as the source of many of our problems, rather than the potential means of their solution? How has the wordliberalbecome a term of abuse in American political discourse?From the Revolution on, argues Brands, Americans have been chronically skeptical of their government. This book succinctly traces this skepticism, demonstrating that it is only during periods of war that Americans have set aside their distrust and looked to their government to defend them. The Cold War, Brands shows, created an extended-and historically anomalous-period of dependence, thereby allowing for the massive expansion of the American welfare state. Since the 1970s, and the devastating blow dealt to Cold War ideology by America's defeat in Vietnam, Americans have returned to their characteristic distrust of government. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Brands contends, the fate of American liberalism was sealed-and we continue to live with the consequences of its demise.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12774-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-26)

    Americans who came of age after 1945 might have been forgiven for assuming liberalism was the norm in American politics. From the New Deal through the Cold War, there was indeed a liberal bias in American thinking about the relation of government to people. But in the overall scheme of American history, this liberalism was anomalous. From before they had become a nation, and continuing until almost the middle of the twentieth century, Americans registered chronic skepticism regarding a more active role for the federal government in their lives. Every generation harbored its advocates of activism, but every generation comprised...

    (pp. 27-48)

    There was one conspicuous exception to the rule of skepticism of strong government. Since the country’s birth as a nation, Americans had looked to government to protect them from armed enemies. In the name of national defense—most conspicuously during wartime—Americans accepted an expansion of government authority that they tolerated under no other circumstances. America’s first war spawned its first national government; the country’s greatest war of the nineteenth century confirmed the preeminence of the federal government over the states; both world wars of the twentieth century touched off veritable explosions of government into what had been the private...

    (pp. 49-66)

    Historically, what had made each wartime expansion of government tolerable was the general understanding that it was temporary. After the Revolutionary War, after the Civil War, and after World War I, Americans lost little time reversing the growth of government those conflicts had engendered.

    The 1781 victory at Yorktown, and even more so Britain’s formal acknowledgment of American independence at Paris two years later, removed the external stimulus to cooperation that had persuaded the states to make common cause during the war. Militia drafts were terminated, leaving soldiers to go back to their farms and forges; requisitions by the Congress...

    (pp. 67-98)

    The tide of postwar liberalism reached the flood stage during the 1960s, but the waves had been lapping higher for some time. As long as the Democrats controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government (which was to say from 1933 until 1947), the New Deal remained tenuous and provisional. Republicans routinely promised to repeal the Wagner Act, Social Security, and the various other manifestations of creeping statism. After seizing Congress following the 1946 elections, they did manage to weaken the Wagner law, and they fairly well strangled Truman’s Fair Deal. But Truman’s unexpectedly tenacious grip on the White...

    (pp. 99-126)

    Johnson maintained his balancing act for four years. The Great Society was a brilliant legislative success, and in expanding the scope of government beyond anything most Americans had even conceived of ten years earlier, it set historic standards for liberalism. Whether it would be a social success—whether it would fulfill the promises Johnson and other liberals made on its behalf—would require years to determine, but if high hopes counted for anything, it was off to a rousing start.

    Meanwhile the war in Vietnam proceeded more or less according to plan. Johnson had never expected a quick victory; indeed...

    (pp. 127-152)

    The demise of liberalism in the mid-1970s left the field of American politics in confusion. Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 as neither a liberal nor a conservative but an outsider; his four years in office accomplished little beyond allowing conservatives time to regroup. They needed it, for they had been wandering in the wilderness so long that they hardly knew what conservatism meant any more. New varieties of conservatism, largely unrecognizable to pre-Cold War conservatives, sprang up. Of these the noisiest and most pretentious was neoconservatism, a hybrid ideology that afforded a haven for refugee intellectuals of the old...

    (pp. 153-174)

    Although his efforts to resurrect the Cold War continued intermittently into his second term, by the beginning of 1984 Ronald Reagan was starting to acknowledge the likelihood of failure. In January of that year he held out the hand of cooperation to the erstwhile evil empire. ‘‘Together we can strengthen peace, reduce the level of arms, and know in doing so that we have helped fulfill the hopes and dreams of those we represent and, indeed, of people everywhere,’’ he declared. ‘‘Let us begin now.’’ As an actor and raconteur, Reagan had always been known for good timing, and if...

    (pp. 175-178)

    The purpose of history is not to make people happy; it is to make them wiser. Yet some find history—or at least parts of it—a happier hunting ground than others do. To the extent anyone infers encouragement from the foregoing chapters, such heartened souls are bound to be conservatives. History would seem to be on their side, and therefore they on its. (That this was where Marxists always claimed to be—until history ran them down—is perhaps food for conservative thought.)

    Liberals may not be as discouraged as they ought to be, doubtless partly because some won’t...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 179-186)
    (pp. 187-190)
    (pp. 191-192)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 193-200)