Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Nearly seventy years ago, George Dangerfield wrote a classic history called The Strange Death of Liberal England, in which the irony of the title was that Dangerfield argued that the death of British Liberalism, far from being strange, was inevitable.  In explaining the dominant hold that the Liberal Party had on Victorian England, Dangerfield noted that :

    Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the '70s and '80s was something of a Liberal at heart.
    He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment.  He also believed in reform.

The problem with this kind of politics is that its essential moderation (even conservatism) is necessarily at odds with its progressive reformist impulse.  As Dangerfield said of Lloyd George :

    [H]e represented...all those dangerous and possibly subversive opinions which Liberalism, in its grave game of progress,
    was forced to tolerate.

The progressive nature of British Liberalism required the advocacy of various reforms, yet the Liberal Party found that it could not control the forces of change that it unleashed.  Thus Dangerfield wrote that the reform that began with limitations on the power of the House of Lords, ended up in a Home Rule crisis for Ireland, widespread civil disorder over women's suffrage, and finally a wave of strikes by organized labor that, after a short reprieve for WWI, shattered the Liberal Party's grip on power and saw Labor supplant the Liberals as Britain's dominant party of the Left.  This restored a more natural equilibrium to British politics, with the Labor Party advocating wholesale change and the Tories fighting to conserve traditional British culture and society.  What was "Strange" then was not that Liberal England died, but that it had ever existed, that it had at least briefly been able to cohere around the notion of moderate reform, what we might call slow-motion progressivism.

Comes now H. W. Brands, a history professor at Texas A & M and a respected biographer of Benjamin Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, to examine the "Strange Death" of American Liberalism.  The title must have been irresistible, but, in a delightful irony, he too argues that there was nothing strange about this demise, rather the temporary ascendancy of American Liberalism was a historical anomaly, was in fact "strange", and its eclipse inevitable.  This thesis is not necessarily revolutionary--heck, it's an article of faith amongst conservatives that the long reign of liberalism was a fluke--but Mr. Brands presents it awfully well here and he adds an unusual, though somewhat dubious twist.  Conservatives have always argued that it was the Depression and the trauma it wrought upon the American people, followed by the entry into World War II, that was almost exclusively responsible for the rise of Big Government and the Social Welfare State.  Mr. Brands, whether for effect or out of conviction, nearly ignores the Depression and World War II and instead traces the rise and maintenance of American Liberalism almost entirely to the Cold War.  Personally, I believe he goes too far in this argument, but by adhering to it throughout and pushing it to its logical limits (and maybe beyond) he does provide food for thought.  The book's really more like a provocative essay than a serious history book.  This is both a boon and a curse; a boon because you could read and enjoy it on a plane or at the beach; a curse because half the fun of it is ripping apart the inadequately supported arguments.

Mr. Brands's basic argument is that :

    [T]he liberalism that characterized the period from 1945 until the early 1970s was anomalous by the standards of American history.  Moreover,
    this anomaly was chiefly the consequence of the predominant feature of the global politics at the time--the Cold War.  It states the matter only
    a bit too strongly to say that modern American liberalism was an artifact of the Cold War.  It is not too much to say that without the Cold
    War, liberals would never have achieved the success they did.  Nor is it too much to say that the collapse of the Cold War consensus in
    America was what doomed liberalism.

He notes that America's natural political posture is essentially conservative, that is we are generally distrustful of the exercise and expansion of power by the central government.  Liberalism, on the other hand, is :

    ...premised on a prevailing confidence in the ability of government--preeminently the federal government--to accomplish substantial good
    on behalf of the American people.

This dichotomy means that Americans have a general aversion to liberalism.  But there is one thing that can get Americans to, usually very temporarily, set aside their skepticism and countenance a federal power grab, and that is war.

It is, of course, the primary role of government to protect us from threats foreign and domestic (Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan rises to provide us, first of all, with physical security), so it is no surprise that when the government is actively engaged in pursuing this goal we allow it a leeway to aggrandize power that we do not at other times.  Geoffrey Perret, in his biography of U. S. Grant, has argued that one of the reasons we perceive the Grant Administration to have been particularly corrupt is the simple fact that he was the first president to preside over a vast government, one which had increased greatly over the course of the Civil War.  He points out that this government was not necessarily more corrupt than many of those that succeeded it, but seemed incredibly corrupt by comparison to those that had preceded it, which were rather minimalist affairs with fewer opportunities for thievery.  And if the federal government expanded significantly in order to prosecute the Civil War, it expanded astronomically in the waging of World War II and then it stayed enormous during the Cold War, which might best be understood as World War III.

The book would be stronger if Mr. Brands stopped to consider the expansion that occurred between the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the end of World War II, which created a rather substantial government, but he instead begins his story in 1945, with the Cold War still aborning, and proceeds to analyze the history of the last six decades, chiefly through the successive presidencies from Truman to Clinton.   For my money, the insight and clarity that he brings to this period makes up for the failure to adequately treat the New Deal years.

There are a few things I especially liked about his analysis.  First, he gives Senator Robert Taft his due as one of the truly visionary politicians of the 20th Century, one of the few voices in America to raise coherent objections to the Cold War.  Taft's principled isolationism and passionate aversion to big government led him to take lonely stands against even such now hallowed programs as the Marshall Plan.  No wonder he was called Mr. Republican.  One of the real lessons of the book is that conservatives need to be very wary of war, not merely because they may oppose the aims of the conflict but also because of the deleterious effect that wartime has on the size of domestic government.  It is futile to speculate about the agony the nation might have been spared had it heeded Taft or had he won the GOP nomination in 1952, and thereby the presidency.  Mr. Brands does an excellent job though of explaining why Eisenhower, who defeated Taft and effectively thwarted the first conservative attempt to dismantle liberalism, should be considered very much a part of the American Liberal mainstream.  Ike's acceptance of the mammoth Social Welfare State that Truman handed on to him more than justifies this judgment.  Equally gratifying is how Brands deals with Eisenhower's deputy, Richard Nixon, confirming Tom Wicker's assessment that whatever the feelings of those on the Left towards the man, Nixon's presidency was as liberal as any we've ever had.  All of this is quite good, in part because it defies what is still conventional wisdom.

Mr. Brands also makes an effective argument that regardless of what each of the presidents during this era might have liked to do, whether their focus would have been domestic or foreign, they felt more or less forced to pursue big government policies in both, just to keep public opinion satisfied.  He says that they found it impossible to separate the one from the other because of the rhetoric each required.  Thus, even if JFK had been only a Cold Warrior, he would have still had to pursue an expansive domestic agenda because when you tell people that government can effectively face down communism abroad there is an implicit suggestion that government must be able to tackle problems at home too and vice versa.  This tendency reached its apotheosis under LBJ who told Congress :

    I want to be the president who educated young children to the wonders of their world.  I want to be the President who helped to feed the
    hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters.  I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and
    who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.  I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men
    and who promoted love among the people of all races, all regions and all parties.  I want to be the president who helped to end war among
    the brothers of this earth.

About all he left out was parting the Red Sea and raising the dead.  Yet this same man, with his megalomaniacal visions of reconstituting mankind, felt it necessary to widen the war in Vietnam in order to satisfy hawks who wondered why government could do all that other stuff but not stop the spread of communism.

The one presidency that he gets somewhat backwards is that of Ronald Reagan.  Mr. Brands says that Reagan sold his anti-government message so well as regarded domestic programs that he failed to carry people along when he tried selling an expansion of the Cold War, specifically in Central America.  he says that this led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal as the administration was forced to do by clandestine means what it could not achieve by popular means.  But this ignores the fact that Reagan did in fact win a monstrous build up of America's military and that he failed utterly to reduce domestic spending.  Mr. Brands and his thesis would have been better served by an argument that Reagan's rhetoric about America's unique role in history and the necessity of stopping communism overwhelmed his rhetoric about government as the enemy of the people.  In order to win the Cold War, Reagan too had to govern in the American Liberal tradition.

Mr. Brands surely seems right though that the end of the Cold War drove the final nail in American Liberalism's coffin.  Reagan may have been forced to compromise his principles (which were really a return to traditional, preDepression/preWWII, principles), but not since Walter Mondale has any Democrat even dared to run on the principles of American Liberalism.  And it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who declared that : "The era of big government is over."  The return of peace did indeed bring a return to more conservative government (though the big government that had been created has proven a tough tumor to shrink).

Serendipitously for Mr. Brands, with the events of 9-11 and the war that followed, we are now getting to see this theory play out again.  So far it is holding up reasonably well.  Poll numbers indicate a ridiculously high level of confidence in government and a willingness to see government expand.  Even the Republican House folded and passed an abomination of a bill giving the feds authority over airport security.  And all budget restraint has been thrown to the wind.  Of course, it's only fair to the GOP to acknowledge that the Senate, thanks to Jim Jeffords, is in Democratic hands, which has prevented Republicans from governing as they might have wished.  But that only makes the elections this Fall all the more interesting.  If the GOP were to win back control of the Senate and retain control of the House and the war were to continue, as presumably it will, we'd get to see if it is actually possible for an American government to shrink domestic government while it pursues a foreign war.  One fears that instead Democrats will hold the Senate and maybe even win the House, in which case their demands for increased spending at home will combine with the President's demands for increases abroad and American Liberalism will be reborn from the ashes, strange as that may sound.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

H. W. Brands Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: H. W. Brands
    -TWITTER: @hwbrands
    -SUBSTACK: A User's Guide to History (H. W. Brands)
-PODCAST: Authors on Audio: H.W. Brands (Talmage Boston, March 6, 2024, Washington Independent Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Founders Chic (H. W. Brands|Sep. 1st, 2003, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: The Forgotten History of the Brutal, Internecine Battles of the American Revolution: H.W. Brands on America‚Äôs First Civil War (H.W. Brands, November 12, 2021m Lit Hub)

Book-related and General Links:
    -H. William Brands (Texas A & M)
    -BOOK SITE : The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Yale University  Press)
    -ESSAY : The Four Schoolmasters (H.W. Brands, National Interest)
    -REVIEW : of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power by Max Boot (H. W. Brands, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (H.W. Brands, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Clarence G. Lasby. Eisenhower's Heart Attack: How Ike Beat Heart Disease and Held on to the Presidency. (H. W. Brands, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of Mrs. Paine's Garage by Thomas Mallon (H.W. Brands, News & Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Clarence G. Lasby. Eisenhower's Heart Attack: How Ike Beat Heart Disease and Held on to the Presidency. (H. W. Brands, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War. By David L. Snead (H. W. Brands, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of Empire Express (H.W. Brands, The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War. By Campbell Craig (H.W. Brands, Journal of American History)
    -INTERVIEW : Was Benjamin Franklin the First American? : H. W. Brands (PBS Think Tank)
    -INTERVIEW : The Full Franklin : H.W. Brands' New Biography Reveals the Entire Story of Benjamin Franklin (CLAY SMITH,  December 1, 2000, Austin Chronicle)
    -INTERVIEW : How the Century Began: A Conversation with H. W. Brands :  When Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris talked recently with historian H. W. Brands, the conversation turned to America at the turn of the last century (May 1998)
    -DISCUSSION : A Return to Big Government? : Featuring H. W. Brands, Professor of History, Texas A&M University and author of The Strange Death of American Liberalism; with comments by Jonathan Rauch, National Journal; and Sebastian Mallaby, The Washington Post (BOOK FORUM, November 29, 2001, The Cato Institute)
    -PROFILE : Author examines death of liberalism (Mary Alice Davis, January 11, 2002, Austin American Statesman)
    -ARCHIVES : "h. w. brands" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of American  Liberalism by H. W. Brands (Joshua Micah Marshall, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands (Harold Meyerson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Damon Linker, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Death (John W. Sloan, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of American Liberalism By H.W. Brands (David Turner, News and Observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Paul Rosenberg, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Strange Death ( CLAY SMITH , Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of H. W. Brands, editor. The Foreign Policies of Lyndon Johnson: Beyond Vietnam (Fredrik Logevall, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Foreign Policies of Lyndon Johnson: Beyond Vietnam. Ed. by H. W. Brands (Lloyd Gardner, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin  Franklin by H. W. Brands (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The First American (Max Hall, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey. By H. W. Brands (A. Slaven, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of   WHAT AMERICA OWES THE WORLD : The Struggle for the Soul  of Foreign Policy.  By H. W. Brands (Adam Garfinkle, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of What America Owes the World (William C. Widenor, Historian)
    -REVIEW : of What America Owes the World (Robert D. Schulzinger, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of T. R. : The Last Romantic by H. W. Brands (Charles Kesler, The National Interest)
    -REVIEW : of T. R. (Matthew Spalding, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt ed. H. W. Brands (Christine Stansell, New Republic)

    -Benjamin Franklin (
    -ESSAY : Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father of American Management. : Successful businessman turned public servant, the avuncular Benjamin Franklin left an indelible imprint on his country's management practices. (Blaine McCormick, January 01 2001, Business Horizons)

    -Homes of Our Heritage: The Presidents : Theodore Roosevelt Home
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex By Edmund Morris and Theodore Roosevelt By Louis Auchincloss (Michael J. Ybarra, American Prospect)

    -ESSAY : The Wimps of War (FRANK RICH, March 30, 2002, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Against Liberalism. By John Kekes (Brian C. Anderson, First Things)