American Refractions
The Tides of American Liberalism

Liberalism at home thrives when government succeeds abroad.

Appeared in: Volume 9, Number 4 | Published on: March 3, 2014
H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of various books on American politics and foreign policy, and is completing a biography of Ronald Reagan.
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  • qet

    Your argument is difficult to follow. (1) You write: “But most Americans endorsed the global policy of the containment of communism, and they accepted that policy’s corollary of domestic liberalism—that is, of activist government”. How, exactly, is this a corollary? You write that Americans were willing to grant the government the powers it needed to fulfill its protective obligation. As far as I can tell all of the liberal domestic policies that more right-leaning people dislike have and had nothing necessarily to do with waging war. Not even the income tax, which you associate with the civil war but whose present incarnation was proposed and ratified nowhere near a war. (2) You talk about Reagan delegitimating the notion of government as a “force for good” as though the meaning of “good” were self-evident. What does “the good” mean? How did you come to that determination? (3) You seem to think the conservative argument against central government (and remember that it is the size and scope of the central government, not of state governments or local fire departments, that conservatives oppose) is a simplistic opposition to a single parameter: “size.” By this understanding you seem to believe that a broad support for a larger/stronger/more active military in times of war or crisis equates to a support of “big government.” But this is a mistake. Conservatives in my lifetime and of my acquaintance, aside from hard-core libertarians, see the military as a proper province of the central government and absolutely insist that it be kept at a level of size and strength necessary to defend our interests abroad. The expansion of all of the social welfare programs well beyond the bounds of any safety net, and the mentality, most recently demonstrated by Cass Sunnstein, that it is emphatically the province of the central government to micromanage all aspects of our lives for our own good–it is these aspects of “activist government” that not only are resisted now, but were never ideal corollaries of any war, not even WW2; if they ever were actual corollaries, as in, co-present, that was an accident of history and not a cause-effect relation.

  • Jim__L

    Is America’s skepticism of government traditional, or the view of a few inveterates?

    “When the chips are down, where do we turn?” asked Jeff Faux in The American Prospect. “To the government’s firefighters, police officers, rescue teams . . . and to big government’s army, navy and air force.”

    You’re right, this is not rational. On 9/11 our government did not save us. The average citizens on Flight 93 saved THEM.

    Then again, few argue that National Defense is not the legitimate purview of government.

    “Post-9/11 liberalism has been much shorter-lived than Cold War liberalism”

    I will not believe that either of those Liberal surges have stopped twitching until we have REPEALED Obamacare, and we’ve cut Medicare / Medicaid / Social Security down to sustainable economic levels.

    If they really are dead, then their dead hand is still shoveling out money at a rate that will bankrupt this country sooner rather than later.

    • Kristian Holvoet

      “When the chips are down, where do we turn?” asked Jeff Faux in The American Prospect. “To the government’s firefighters, police officers, rescue teams . . . and to big government’s army, navy and air force.”

      Given the militarization of the police, and the absurd number of deaths of family pets, and mentally upset but harmless people due to calling the police, I don’t see out trust in those institutions increasing. With the state taking children from families (as in Mass / Conn) due to a difference in opinion in medical care, and the bureaucratization of healthcare, the rampant child abuse in public schools, the inability of government to discipline bad teachers, cops, lawyers, firefighters and doctors (the people listed as ‘who we turn to’), not to mention CIA/NSA/IRS abuses, trust in government is going to drop for the near term.

      Until the beast cleanses some (sadly not all) of it’s pathogens and parasites, it will ultimately diminish.

  • Anthony

    “Government is the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever rising problems of a complex civilization. Repeated attempts at their solution without the aid of government has left us baffled and bewildered’ (Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

    In present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” (Ronald Wilson Reagan).

    Many powerful currents have flowed together to tilt our politics in the direction inferred by author. Undergirding author’s tides of American liberalism is an appreciation of civic virtue and benefit of common interests and mutual gain. Such attitudes have been somewhat easier when America ostensibly seemed more homogenous 70 years or so ago. But now a signal challenge for author’s liberalism regeneration is American diversity – diversity has always been a challenge for America. This challenge, not even implied in essay’s theme, implicates any drive towards thriving government liberalism rebirth; and it continues to be a hard task to reconcile (human capacity to both cooperate and segregate). How America responds to this force may well determine liberalism’s resurgence as identified by H.W. Brands (“whatever the deeper neurochemistry, humans have a profound ability both to cooperate and nurture and to shun others and fight”).

  • Boritz

    This article is logically cohesive – and in my opinion completely wrong.
    Liberalism has recently co-opted the portion of the economy represented by healthcare and pushed around American citizens and insurance companies to whatever degree necessary to get it done.
    Also recently (very recently, as in one single administration) it has spent more money on the welfare state and liberal rent seekers than in all of the country’s history.
    This isn’t what a populace distrustful of government brings about and endures.

    • Anthony

      Some broad sweeping generalizations (…money on the welfare state and..rent seekers….). One of the most basic components of American capitalism is that in reality it is and always has been a mixed economy – sans free market fallacy. Still, I agree the challenge for populace is Reform of government.

    • ShadrachSmith

      Agreed. The thesis, Obama’s failures have made Democrats less popular is correct. But the point has already tipped. Any country that elected Obama twice, is not headed toward a libertarian future.

  • Thirdsyphon

    This is an interesting article, but it completely glosses over Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Progressives’ policy agenda was extremely liberal by modern standards, but was driven entirely by domestic concerns. The author should have made some effort to address this.

    • Rick Heller

      Though the Spanish-American war is almost forgotten now, it was pretty important in Teddy Roosevelt’s career, so I think TR does not stand as a counter-example. I find this thesis credible, as long as we see it as a tendency, not an iron law. People are driven more by emotion than rational choice, and our feelings toward government action in one area spill over into into our assessment of government in other areas.

  • Diodotus

    This implies a fundamental conflict between a pacifist foreign policy and an activist domestic policy. Liberalism is already bedeviled by a conflict between environmental hostility to economic growth and the necessity of encouraging economic growth to fund entitlements. Furthermore, the civil liberties movement has usually been associated with the left and further contradictions with other liberal goals are presented here (although civil liberties are also a major concern of the libertarian right). Civil libertarians are very skeptical of the trustworthiness of government in our age of “big data.” Yet for the national government to operate such entities as a national health service accumulation of “big data” is imperative. Could it be that liberalism is in decline because it contains not only a thesis (i.e., the New Deal) but its antithesis (i.e., the new left) as well?

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