Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

The Strange Death of American Liberalism

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The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands purports to explain why LBJ-style liberalism no longer has any real influence on American governace.

He is right to note that its influence has faded away.  No matter how many times Bill Clinton is labelled a tax-and-spend liberal, the facts remain that he balanced the budget, reformed welfare, and introduced no major government programs.  The comparison to LBJ and even Nixon could hardly be more stark.

Brands’ main thesis is that liberalism is a political philosophy that puts enormous trust in the government, and that Americans are only willing to give that much trust to a government which is successfully prosecuting a war.

Most basically, Americans only tolerate the expansion of government power during wartime.  Brands tells the story of government expansion during and after each American war.  Each time the government takes on extraordinary powers; at the end of each conflict, the size and power of the government ebb- but never all the way back to prewar levels.

The Cold War allowed America to remain in a war mentality for decades, building a huge military and national security bureaucracy at the same time as it expanded domestic spending and policing abilities.

Vietnam and Watergate brought a loss of trust in the government, while detente meant a partial end to the Cold War.  By the time Nixon resigned, the liberal era was over.

Brands thesis is fine as far as it goes.  I get the sense that the heart of this book is about the wartime expansion of government power, in ways liberal or not; the title was probably chosen to sell more copies rather than to describe the contents.  His writting is clear and occassionally compelling.  He makes one prediction which is obvious in the abstract, but bracing given he timing: in a book published in early 2001, he states that the next major expansion of government would come only after a “national emergency.”  The emergency, and the expansion, of course followed swiftly.

This made me wonder how far the government’s size and power will ebb when Americans perceive the “War on Terror” to be over.  How many of us will outlive the Department of Homeland Security?  Or Federal security and shoe removal at airports?

Mostly I wonder what a President Obama would do.  His stated position of ending the war in Iraq, restoring many civil liberties, and also introducing major new government programs such as national health care, is impossible according to Brands.  Major new domestic powers can only come in wartime.  So will Obama continue the war in order to have a freer hand domestically?  Will he end the war along with his plans for major new initiatives like health care?  Or will he prove Brands wrong?

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Written by James Bailey

September 4, 2008 at 3:37 am

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