American politics never really stopped at the water’s edge, but it often seemed patriotic to think so. We could argue about domestic issues, but we presented a united front to the world. This conceit was reinforced by the tendency of different people to study the different realms of domestic and foreign policy. Sometimes students of domestic politics pointed out that foreign policy was a projection of domestic values and habits of mind; what was far less common was for specialists in foreign affairs to show how foreign policy outcomes affected domestic politics. Battles over the budget occasionally led to tradeoffs between foreign aid, for example, and certain domestic programs. But there has been little systematic awareness that entire modes of thinking about political life within American civil society are significantly affected by what happens abroad.
I had been pondering this two-way relationship for some while, and finally, in the spring of 2001 I published a small book that made a big claim. The Strange Death of American Liberalism tried to account for the withering of liberalism in the quarter-century after the American defeat in Vietnam. Its core argument was that the defeat abroad was largely responsible for liberalism’s demise at home, much as the widely agreed need to respond to crises abroad had earlier expanded the reservoir of social trust necessary to boost liberalism at home. I took pains to define my terms. I focused on political liberalism rather than the social or economic varieties, and I isolated liberalism’s motivating premise: the belief that government can solve or substantially ameliorate major social problems. I allowed that though liberals hadn’t suddenly vanished in the mid- to late 1970s, liberalism as an effective force in America—as the driving force in American politics from the 1930s to the 1970s—was dead. Resurrection was not impossible, I conceded, but neither was it imminent.
The argument was historical. I noted the individualistic bias in the American character since the 18th century, the traditional skepticism toward government. Given a choice between individualism and collective action—between the private sector and the public sector— Americans had generally preferred the former. The noteworthy exceptions to this rule were the brief periods of war and national emergency. I documented the growth of central authority during each of America’s major wars: the creation of a Continental Army and the writing of America’s first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, during the Revolutionary War; the establishment of a national banking system, a national currency and a national income tax during the Civil War, along with the funding of a transcontinental railroad; the nationalization of the industrial economy during World War I, together with unprecedented Federal forays into public relations and the suppression of dissent; an even greater militarization of the economy during World War II, accompanied by novel government ventures into housing, education, health care and scientific research. The foremost non-war emergency in U.S. history, the Great Depression, spawned Social Security, a national industrial policy, a national farm policy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and dozens of other Federal initiatives that conservatives hated then and, with important exceptions, still despise today.
I pointed out, too, that after each war—until 1945—the public sector diminished. It never returned to its prewar size, bureaucratic friction and human expectations being what they are. But just as America disbanded its army after each war, it downsized government as a whole. War temporarily elicited a “we’re all in this together” spirit; peace restored the political system to its default setting of “every man for himself.” Historically minded observers in the 1940s thought the downsizing of expectations and of government would happen again after World War II. The soldiers would come home from Europe and the Pacific, and Americans would return to the individual pursuit of wealth and happiness, largely unmolested by government.
But things didn’t happen this way, because the war never really ended. The Second World War against fascism segued into the Cold War against communism. Many departments and offices of government were renamed or repurposed: the War and Navy Departments became the Defense Department; the Army Air Forces became the Air Force; the Office of Strategic Services spawned the Central Intelligence Agency; the ad hoc strategic apparatus of Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration was formalized as the National Security Council of Harry Truman and his successors.
The more important effect was the extension of the wartime mindset. Americans continued to look to government to protect them, as they had in every previous war. They expected government to succeed in doing so, as it had in every previous war. And they were willing to grant government the powers it required to fulfill its protective obligation. The temporarily expanded state of World War II never shrank back to the peacetime norm; instead, it became the permanent garrison state of the Cold War.
A few old-school conservatives complained. Republican Robert Taft decried the Cold War abroad as taking America down the path of collectivism at home. 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. America’s Presidents led the liberal charge. Every Cold War President from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon was a liberal in deed if not always in word. Truman sought to establish national health care as part of his Fair Deal. Dwight Eisenhower expanded Social Security, built the interstate highway system and employed Federal troops to enforce desegregation in the South. John Kennedy openly embraced the responsibility of government to manage the economy, launched America on the path to the moon and introduced the most important civil rights bill in American history. Lyndon Johnson completed the civil rights revolution and erected the edifice of the Great Society. Richard Nixon sponsored the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and affirmative action, besides proposing a negative income tax for the poor.
But then the worm turned. In a matter of just a few years Americans lost the faith in government that had underpinned Cold War liberalism. They did so not because of a failure of liberalism per se, but because of the failure of American Cold War policy. Americans’ historic support of government activism in wartime had always depended on the success of government in prosecuting America’s wars. Americans, like many other people, back a winner. Until the 1970s, America’s government had never lost a war, and so backing government came easily. But that changed when the United States lost in Vietnam.
By itself, the defeat in Vietnam would have given Americans cause to reconsider their faith in government. But events surrounding the defeat made them even more skeptical. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had been lying about Vietnam, and Watergate—whose roots lay in efforts by the Nixon Administration to stem leaks about foreign policy—showed that the government had been lying about much else besides. The result was a broad disillusionment with government, and a concomitant loss of faith that government could do what it set out to do.
That loss of faith had sources other than Vietnam, of course. By the mid-1970s it had become fairly obvious that the programs of the Great Society were not all working as promised, even as the costs of the programs, often as interpreted by the courts, kept rising. Poverty and racism had not been defeated, and some critics credibly pointed to the inadvertently counterproductive outcomes of some Federal efforts at social engineering. Liberalism had rested on the faith that government knew what it was doing and could succeed if it put mind and money toward solving problems. When that faith crumbled, liberalism was grievously undermined.
Another factor, closely connected to the defeat in Vietnam, drove the stake through liberalism’s heart. As part of their effort to disengage from Vietnam, Nixon and Henry Kissinger de-ideologized the Cold War by inaugurating the policy of détente. The premise of détente was that the Soviet Union and China should be treated like ordinary great powers, not hostile messianic causes. When in 1972 Nixon took tea in China with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and signed the articles of détente with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, he signaled to Americans that the Cold War as they had known it was over. In the process, he diminished Americans’ incentive to maintain the war mindset—the liberal mindset—that had characterized the country’s politics since Pearl Harbor.
Ronald Reagan was the immediate beneficiary of liberalism’s post-Vietnam demise. Reagan had been preaching smaller government since the 1950s, but his message had convinced only the minority of inveterate skeptics of government. The events of the 1970s swelled the ranks of skeptics to an operational majority. (A reminder is in order here: The battles of American politics always take place at the margins. What appear to be sea changes in the political mood rarely represent a shift of more than two votes in ten. In 1964 the liberal candidate, Johnson, delivered what was considered a crushing defeat to the conservative candidate, Barry Goldwater. Johnson got 61 percent of the popular vote. In 1984 the situation was reversed: Conservative Reagan beat liberal Walter Mondale in what was deemed a rout. Reagan got 59 percent of the vote.)
Reagan took office determined to downsize government. “In this present crisis”, he said at his inauguration, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Reagan got Congress to cut taxes and slash red tape. He had less luck reducing spending, in part because the beneficiaries of that spending resisted mightily, and in part because he exempted defense from the budget cuts. On the contrary, he threw money at the Pentagon to correct what he saw as the irresponsible reductions of the previous decade.
But Reagan’s most important contribution to American politics was his delegitimation of the liberal idea that government can be a force for good. Time and again Reagan railed against bureaucracy and regulation; he lampooned government programs as the earthly equivalent of eternal life, even as he sought to kill them. In his genial manner he appealed to Americans’ traditional skepticism of government, and he succeeded so thoroughly that by the end of his second term, liberalism was the political philosophy that scarcely dared speak its name.
The decline continued into the 1990s. Bill Clinton briefly attempted a liberal revival with health care reform, but when the initiative imploded and the Republicans captured Congress in the 1994 elections, Clinton abandoned the effort. “The era of big government is over”, he said in his 1996 State of the Union address, by way of capitulation. He promised to end Federal welfare “as we know it” and did so, and he moved to wean farmers from the subsidy payments they had been receiving since the New Deal. The 2000 election of George W. Bush on a platform calling for tax cuts and privatizing of parts of Medicare and Social Security sealed the deal. Liberalism was finished.
Or so I thought in the spring of 2001. Liberalism was dead and wouldn’t revive until, I said, the United States found itself again at war or in some comparable emergency. At the time, war seemed a distant prospect. Against whom would America fight? China? A resurgent Russia? The European Union? None appeared an imminent danger to the United States. I allowed the possibility of a non-war emergency: Climate change could perhaps accelerate and require a collective response of the kind that only governments can provide. Yet this, too, appeared a long way off. Nevertheless, I predicted that when some external threat compelled Americans to look to government again for protection, liberalism could reemerge.
Just a few months later al-Qaeda crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. More Americans died than in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was as shocked and surprised as anyone. But I was not the least surprised that the public response included a renewal of trust in government. A Washington Post poll conducted in the wake of the September 11 attacks revealed that 64 percent of Americans trusted the Federal government to do what was right all the time or most of the time. This was more than twice the percentage that had responded similarly 18 months earlier, and it was the highest figure since liberalism’s glory days in the 1960s. A Gallup poll put George W. Bush’s approval rating at 90 percent, the highest rating Gallup had ever recorded for a President.
What made these figures striking was that they flew directly in the face of the recent evidence. Whatever else it signified, 9/11 marked a massive failure of government. Perhaps the failure was unavoidable; perhaps the intelligence on al-Qaeda was too fragmented and noisy. But it was a failure nonetheless. If reason had been the guide, public confidence in government should have gone down, not up. But reason was not the guide, and it rarely is in such circumstances. Americans responded to the attacks by rallying to their government, as Americans had rallied to their government after Pearl Harbor, another catastrophic failure of government. In time of national danger, we have no alternative to national government. It is our one life preserver, and we are compelled to put our faith in it.
The moment was therefore ripe for a liberal revival—if my theory was correct. It was time for a reassertion of activist government as an agent of positive influence in people’s lives. The moment grew riper still nine days after the attacks, when Bush declared war on terror. As the Pentagon geared up for action against the terrorists and their sponsors, the country shifted into the big-government mode characteristic of America’s wars. Washington created an Office of Homeland Security (soon a cabinet department); it rescued the airlines from the reflexive aerophobia of Americans; it crafted plans for an economic stimulus to forestall a post-9/11 recession. The Patriot Act gave government sweeping new powers of surveillance and investigation. The Transportation Security Administration subjected air travelers to more intrusive searches than they had ever experienced before.
Numerous observers commented on the reversal in attitudes toward government. “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.” Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center said, “The American public feels it needs the Federal government much more than they have in a long time.” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake observed, “This is the most collective mood we’ve seen in America for a long time. And it’s coming off one of the most individualistic eras in American history.”1
Which was what made things interesting. The attack on Pearl Harbor had occurred on the watch of a President disposed toward government activism; when FDR told reporters that Dr. New Deal had given way to Dr. Win the War, he was describing a costume change rather than a role transformation. Harry Truman was no less comfortable with activist government than FDR; the Cold War national security state sat easily on the foundation of the New Deal welfare state. But George W. Bush was a conservative, philosophically committed to smaller government. And yet he found himself propelled by circumstance to fashion a bigger government.
Bush went ahead with the tax cuts he had persuaded Congress to approve before 9/11, but these were re-explained as an anti-recession measure responding to a national security emergency. On the spending side, though, outlays went up rather than down. Overall Federal spending grew from $2.1 trillion in fiscal year 2001 to $2.7 trillion in 2008 (in constant 2005 dollars). As a portion of GDP, spending rose from 18.2 percent to 20.8 percent. Defense spending claimed the largest share of the growth, as could be expected amid a war on terror and the two ground wars it produced. The Pentagon’s budget grew from $363 billion in 2001 to $547 billion in 2008 (again in constant 2005 dollars). But non-defense spending also grew, from $1.7 trillion in 2001 to $2.2 trillion in 2008. Big winners on the non-defense side included Medicare, Social Security, education and training, and transportation.
Bush’s Administration recapitulated, in important respects, that of Dwight Eisenhower, another advocate of small government compelled by circumstances to accept government’s growth. What the Cold War had been to Eisenhower, the war on terror was to Bush. Eisenhower’s contemporaries called the result “moderate Republicanism”; Bush’s contemporaries coined the labels “big-government conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism.” Bush pressed back at times. After his re-election he reiterated his call for taking some of Social Security private. But the campaign fell flat and wasn’t pursued.
The financial crisis of 2008 added another wrinkle to liberalism’s comeback. Wall Street’s panic spooked Bush and Congress sufficiently that they created the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which authorized $700 billion to stabilize the financial sector. Under President Barack Obama the government added an economic stimulus package of some $800 billion, designed to bolster demand and prevent the developing recession from becoming a full-blown depression. The bailout program was bipartisan, with Republican Bush taking the lead on TARP and Democrat Obama sponsoring the stimulus package. Many Republicans changed their minds after the greatest danger had passed, with some expressing remorse for extending the reach of government. But they couldn’t take back their votes, nor change the fact that at the moment of decision they had reacted the way Americans had long reacted to crisis: by looking to government.
Obama, whose “yes we can” 2008 election arguably owed much to the liberal impulse generated by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror, capitalized on the liberal turn to press the Affordable Care Act through Congress. The new health care law had the potential to rank with Social Security and Medicare at the apex of the American welfare state, and to place Obama in the liberal pantheon beside FDR and LBJ. But doubts developed almost at once, driven by a drumbeat of Republican criticism. The doubts helped deliver the House to the Republicans in 2010, and though they didn’t keep Obama from getting re-elected in 2012, they magnified the Administration’s mismanagement of the 2013 rollout of Obamacare into a crisis for both the Administration and the 21st century version of American liberalism.
The beginning of the end of the era of Cold War liberalism had been the Tet Offensive of 1968, which gave the lie to the statements by American officials that the war in Vietnam was on track to an American victory. Liberalism failed at that time because government didn’t deliver on its promises in foreign policy, and the resulting withdrawal of popular confidence bled over into domestic affairs, where the crucial middle-fifth of the American electorate eventually found the Great Society wanting. Trust in government is as seamless as trust in individuals can be: Once lost in one area, it is almost impossible to maintain in others.
Tea Party types and other critics of post-9/11 liberalism have hoped the botched rollout of Obamacare would be a similar turning point. The inoperable government website could have been accounted a mere technical difficulty; it has been much harder for the Administration to explain away the President’s oft-repeated promise that Americans who liked their insurance policies could keep them. Not only was this wrong, but Obama and his advisers had reason to know it would be wrong. So many are confused now: Did the President lie, or was he so completely absorbed by the fractious politics of the program that he never gave significant thought to implementation at all?
Strikingly, the Obamacare stumble coincided with the most serious questioning of American foreign policy since the post-Tet period. The breakdown of security in Iraq has strongly suggested that the American war there was a waste of time, money and blood. It might have even been counterproductive, by toppling the odious yet containable Saddam Hussein to the regional benefit of Iran. The war in Afghanistan isn’t entirely over, but the American effort there shows unmistakable signs of ending badly. A CNN poll in December 2013 revealed that 82 percent of Americans opposed the war in Afghanistan, a figure substantially higher than the greatest opposition to the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile the fiscal crunch in Washington augured a tightening of Pentagon budgets far into the future, as Americans would have to choose between guns and butter. Retrenchment appeared inevitable; future adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan highly improbable.
Not since the 1970s, then, has the Federal government been held in such disrepute. The President’s approval rating fell into the low 40s; that of Congress plumbed single digits for the first time ever. Washington has stumbled from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis: from deadlock over the debt limit to sequestration to shutdown.
The Obama Administration had already retired the war on terror as an organizing trope, and it was on schedule to pack up the lingering war in Afghanistan. Many liberals, and apparently the President too, hoped these actions would clear the deck for action on the home front. In doing so, they fundamentally misunderstood the working of the American political mind—in much the way liberals had misunderstood it in the wake of Vietnam. By the 1970s, many liberals had conveniently forgotten that the Vietnam War was their idea, not some conservative plot. And many dreamed that the end of the war would produce a peace dividend that could be devoted to more of what Lyndon Johnson had been selling—to finance a Greater Society, as it were. But by discrediting government in one thing, Vietnam, the defeat discredited government in most things.
Something similar might well have happened forty years later even if Obamacare had launched successfully. The liberal turn after 9/11 had been motivated by, and was often justified as, part of the war on terror. When that metaphor lost its force as the so-called war ended up being less than met the eye, so did its motivating power. The misfire of Obamacare, coming amid the gridlock on the budget, simply reinforced the neo-Reaganite view that government wasn’t the solution but the problem.
What this means for the future is probably quite similar to what the demise of Cold War liberalism had meant: that Americans are reverting to their traditional skepticism of government, and to their preference for individualism over communitarianism. Post-9/11 liberalism has been much shorter-lived than Cold War liberalism, largely because the threat from al-Qaeda and affiliates was less than the threat from Soviet nuclear weapons had been, but also because disillusionment mobilizes faster in the age of the internet and nonstop media commentary.
Will liberalism rise yet again? Certainly. If Americans could do without government, they would have disbanded it long ago. Sometimes government seems less necessary than at other times. But times change, and the country again could face a challenge that compels it to look to government, and to one another. Just because the causal link between perceptions of national security threats and domestic politics is underappreciated doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
1Faux, “Three Things We Learned”, American Prospect, December 19, 2001; Kohut and Lake quoted in Robin Toner, “Now, Government is the Solution, Not the Problem”, New York Times, September 30, 2001.