The Strange Death of American Liberalism Kindle Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B0016O9RQW
- Publisher : Yale University Press (November 1, 2001)
- Publication date : November 1, 2001
- Language : English
- File size : 1530 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Not Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Not Enabled
- Print length : 192 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,899,161 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The hypocrisy of the title itself says it all.
Do not read!
Most academic reviews of this book point out that it neglects a lot; that it doesn't take into account all sorts of evidence or several possible counter arguments, etc. Brands himself admits that he doesn't cover all the bases. Instead, he just puts the argument out there for what it's worth. For that reason, this book was destined to become an historical footnote. I'm still not sure what I think of it.
Liberalism, Brands argues, is a centralized political arrangement that can only thrive in the U.S. during wartime. Because of the depth of Americans' distrust of the central government, the natural political fallback position of Americans is conservatism. Only during war do Americans drop this instinctual distrust of the federal government and allow it to take over new responsibilities.
So why do some Baby Boomers think that liberalism is a natural and permanent condition in U.S. politics, simply in need of resuscitation? Brands says the duration of the Cold War fooled them. Whereas wars involving the U.S. had been relatively short in the past, the length of the Cold War allowed for a more sustained intrusion of the central government into Americans' lives than ever before.
As Brands' book is only 170 pages long, he merely breezes through U.S. history (surprising for a historian), but nevertheless gives an interesting historical sketch as a preliminary test of his hypothesis. He argues, for example, that the basic nature of both progressivism in the early 20th century and the New Deal in the 1930s were both fairly conservative. On the other hand, he also buttresses his thesis by showing the solid advances in power made by the federal government during WW1 and WW2.
One of the more surprising bits of data that Brands gives is a poll in 1939 that asked Americans whether the U.S. federal government was spending too much money, not enough, or just the right amount. 61% answered that the government was spending too much. Only 10% said too little. And throughout the 30s, even with unemployment rates never dipping below 10%, and once going as high as 25%, most Americans thought it should be a priority for the government to balance its budget and reduce its debt. On the eve of FDR's second administration, 50% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans said they hoped it would be more conservative than his first administration.
Conservatives are probably gleeful to read this. Is there any more palatable thesis to conservatives than that their political philosophy is the natural state for Americans? But while Brands' interpretation of U.S. history is likely to provide some succor for conservatives, his reading of the importance of Reagan will probably turn their stomachs. Reagan, according to Brands, could not overcome the public's distrust of the federal government to enlist its support for new foreign adventures beyond Grenada, or for a more general support of the Cold War beyond increased defence spending.
It's here that Brands' argument becomes strained. Aren't huge increases in defence spending still a sign of American trust in the central government in at least one regard? Brands' book is so short that he never gets around to properly answering these kinds of questions. He says that others must take up his hypothesis to test its explanatory power. Brands should have spent the time to answer these questions himself.
"The Strange Death of American Liberalism" was published just prior to 9-11, but if its hypothesis is correct, such an event might prove to be the resurrection of liberalism as Americans turn once again to the federal government for solutions to problems that only it can provide. But whatever its relevance to current events, this book gives an interesting twist to the traditional conservative/liberal divide.
Based on his treatment of controversial presidents Nixon and Reagan (which I find to be a projective test of a scholar's political beliefs), Dr. Brands comes across as a political moderate.
What does the book say? In a nutshell, The Strange Death of American Liberalism describes how liberal action, defined here as expansionist federal government, rarely happens in American history. However, Americans will allow the federal government to work where it can solve a problem better than any other institution. Only government can protect us from foreign enemies,and we have seen most government expansion during wartime. Brands believes that the long-lasting Cold War encouraged liberalism in domestic policy as well. When the United States left Vietnam and President Nixon resigned, American support for the Cold War and trust in government eroded. The country reverted back to its natural distrust of government, and therefore, a distrust of liberal policies.
Brands summarizes his thesis:
"For a quarter century Americans had grown used to looking to Washington for leadership, first in matters of national security and then, as the Cold War suffused nearly all areas of American life, in such previously domestic matters as education, transportation, civil rights, and health care. As long as the Cold War preceded successfully for the United States, popular confidence in government appeared justified. A people accustomed to depending on government to protect them from nuclear annihilation didn't find it much of a stretch to look to government to address such comparatively minor challenges as an anachronistic system of race relations and lingering economic inequality. Yet when the war in Vietnam turned sour...the skein of popular trust in government unraveled....It was the liberalism of the Cold War era that was the anomaly" (pp. 172-173).
Ironically, the most effective liberal in American history, President Lyndon Johnson, planted the seeds of liberalism's destruction with his prosecution of the Cold War in far away Vietnam.
Liberals, like everyone else, do not want to hear about the unpopularity of their political views, and therefore it was no surprise when esteemed (and quite liberal) historian Eric Foner panned parts of the book. Foner's criticisms, that liberalism reached its modern form in the 1930s New Deal and that the New Deal, not the Cold War, was the defining moment of liberalism, were anticipated by Brands (P. 175). Foner also criticizes Brands' lack of analysis of liberal ideas, especially liberals' pursuit of civil liberties and the decidedly non-liberal response to the events of September 11th, 2001. Foner does enjoy the book's "laser-like" focus on this piece of political history, its usefulness as a survey of American political history, and agrees with the author's portrayal of the Revolutionary War times.
I am quite interested in how the Cold War resulted in a Federal power grab from the what used to be a state issue--the funding and management of public education. Brands describes (pp.78-79) how the Sputnik scare and the Cold War made education a national priority and the business of Washington and not just the state capitols. The National Defense Education Act authorized $1 billion in spending (in 1958 dollars) and initiated the Advanced Placement (AP) program ubiquitous in high schools today. Johnson's Great Society programs increased federal aid to K-12 education (P. 92).
Few people consider "compassionate conservative" president George W. Bush a liberal in any respect. Yet, in 2001 he crafted No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which further expanded federal power into each state's management of K-12 education, a fairly liberal idea. The law was supported by both conservatives and liberals but not for long. NCLB critics complain that NCLB mandates can never be satisfied, eventually making all schools "failing schools," and the law has become increasingly unpopular among education professionals. We may have seen the apex of federal support (or interference, you pick) in education. Cracks are forming under the enforcement of NCLB, and states are finding ways to get around pieces of the law and perhaps its enforcement entirely. If Brands is correct, we can expect, as part of liberalism's eclipse, less federal funding for education and less support for NCLB or a rewrite of the law. I will let the reader surmise what the death of liberalism means for the future direction of Congress and the executive branch.
Top reviews from other countries
I only read the first two chapters, which was enough to realise this, and from that I give it a 2 star rating, "I don't like it." I'm sure that it's a perfectly good book for what it is, but it was not what I had wanted.