The Strange Death of American Liberalism

Article excerpt

The Strange Death of American liberalism

by H.W. Brands

Yale University Press * 2001 * 191 pages * $22.50

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. …