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The Strange Death of American Liberalism [Hardcover]

By H.W. Brands (Author)
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Item Specifications...

Pages   192
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.6" Width: 5.92" Height: 0.96"
Weight:   0.94 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Nov 1, 2001
Publisher   Yale University Press
ISBN  0300090218  
EAN  9780300090215  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
In this provocative book, H. W. Brands confronts the vital question of why an ever-increasing number of Americans do not trust the federal government to improve their lives and to heal major social ills. How is it that government has come to be seen as the source of many of our problems, rather than the potential means of their solution? How has the word liberal become a term of abuse in American political discourse? From the Revolution on, argues Brands, Americans have been chronically skeptical of their government. This book succinctly traces this skepticism, demonstrating that it is only during periods of war that Americans have set aside their distrust and looked to their government to defend them. The Cold War, Brands shows, created an extended--and historically anomalous--period of dependence, thereby allowing for the massive expansion of the American welfare state. Since the 1970s, and the devastating blow dealt to Cold War ideology by America's defeat in Vietnam, Americans have returned to their characteristic distrust of government. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Brands contends, the fate of American liberalism was sealed--and we continue to live with the consequences of its demise.

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More About H.W. Brands

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H. W. BRANDS holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. A New York Times bestselling author, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American and Traitor to His Class.

H. W. Brands currently resides in Austin, in the state of Texas. H. W. Brands has an academic affiliation as follows - Texas A & M University University of Texas University of Texas Univers.

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Product Categories
1Books > Subjects > History > Americas > United States > General   [16214  similar products]
2Books > Subjects > History > Americas > United States   [399  similar products]
3Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Government > Federal Government   [1144  similar products]
4Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Politics > General   [22730  similar products]
5Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Politics > History & Theory   [3416  similar products]

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Unconvincing  Jun 24, 2007
This polemical short book is the prolific Brands' effort at explaining the failure of liberalism in recent American history. By liberalism, Brands' means primarily the idea that government can be a positive, constructive force in American life. Brands' has a relatively simple idea to explain both the appeal and failure of liberalism; it was a product of the Cold War. In Brands' model, the default attitude of Americans towards government in a libertarian one. Liberalism became attractive because a major external threat legitimated strong central government because national defense has always been a function of the the Federal government. Liberalism collapsed in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate because Vietnam became a plebiscite on the ability of liberal administrations to handle the Cold War.
This idea has some attractive aspects. It certainly contains an element of truth, and certainly some aspects of the Cold War had propulsive force in American life. It was difficult, for example, for Americans to advocate human rights abroad while denying them to minorities here in the USA. It is likely this fact provided real impetus to liberal advocacy of racial equality.
Brands, however, ignores some crucial facts. One obvious one is the experience of WWII. The relatively liberal Roosevelt administrations emerged from WWII triumphantly and the experience of national mobilization in WWII under Federal direction undoubtedly greatly boosted the status of liberalism. The subsequent postwar economic success and expansion of the American middle class went hand in hand with liberalism. Liberalism worked, and this was recognized clearly by the many Americans who recalled the pre-Roosevelt period. Brands also implicitly associates liberalism with a larger role for the Federal government. This is correct but incomplete. The last 50 years saw not only an expansion of Federal government but a parallel expansion of state and local government, something that cannot be attributed easily to national defense concerns.
Brands' explanation of the failure of liberalism as a political movement in the aftermath of Vietnam has more power. Vietnam and its sequelae certainly eroded trust in government. Even here, however, one has to be careful. What would have happened if there hadn't been significant economic stagnation and the oil price shocks of the 70s? A signficant factor which Brands doesn't mention is the limitations of popular historical memory. By the end of the 1960s, the events of the Depression and WWII were fading in the minds of those who lived through them and many, many Americans had no direct experience of the events that prompted the transformations of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.
Brands has, however, identified something that might be important. The idea that major wars and foreign policy events act as de facto plebiscites for major political movements is an interesting one. If the experience of WWII and Vietnam mark great triumphs and defeats for liberalism, what of subsequent events? Certainly, the collapse of the Soviet Union, occurring during the Reagan-Bush I years, was a huge political windfall for conservatism. And not an entirely merited one either, as the foundation for American success in the Cold War was the containment policies of the Truman administration. We now have another significant external threat and a situation in Iraq with legitimate analogies to Vietnam. This time, however, its a conservative administration, arguably the most conservative administration since the Hoover years, that bears the opprobrium of failure. Will Iraq have the impact on conservatism that Vietnam had on liberalism? The next few years may provide a test of the most insightful part of Brands' argument.
It Ain't over until its over  Mar 29, 2005
Annotation: [ book-13] H. W. Brands is a distinguished professor and author of American History at Texas A &M University, and any person such as myself, to put it politely, `without portfolio' should well shiver in his boots to criticize a author of distinction but what is an honest man to do. Yet it seems undeniable, that not much knowledge of history or of logic I must add, leads one to find the central theme of this book far beyond the provocative or "even perverse" as the author fears, but soundly absurd. He asserts, even possibly without a smile on his face, that Liberalisms created the Cold War. The word `created' is mine because he seems unsure. Did the chicken come before or after the egg? He states that "... American Liberalism was an artifact of the Cold War.," and that "It is also likely to annoy many liberals by reminding them that the Cold War was originally their idea." Holy artifact Bat Man is that a cause or effect?

An `artifact' is something that is not naturally present but nonetheless present because it is `caused' by something else. In some sense, it seems not to matter, whether we conclude the author believes Liberalism caused the Cold War or that the Cold War caused Liberalism. Either choice seems equally absurd. Certainly, politicians as he points out did use the Cold War to further their particular agenda. Does he seek to investigate the nature of Liberalism or politics? Unfortunately, I find a rather poorly reasoned argument that actually does neither.
Because two events are associated in time, is very little evidence that one caused the other or the other caused the one. Here, for a `historian' to proffer that Liberalism caused the Cold War or that the Cold War caused Liberalism is an apparent and unfortunate incognizance of a whole lot of history. We should not be surprised then, to find that the other shoe has dropped but somehow not hit the floor. And we are even unable to award the author a classic error of logic award, such as ad hoc post hoc ergo propter, which says because one thing followed another the first in time must have create the second. Here, I guess, we'd be saying that the author is saying that because the cold war followed the creation of liberalism then liberalism must have created the cold war. Well, sound oxymoronic but looks like that's what he sayin'.
He proposes that because Liberalism caused (or was caused by) the Cold War, and because the Cold War is over, Liberalism must be, well, over.
Such reasoning is Johnny Carson logic. During some of his bits, the audience would hiss and he might turn to them and say something to the effect, "Look folks you buy the premise, you buy the bit." Johnny Carson was at the very least one of, if not the best comedians in the history of theatrical arts and I miss him every time I turn the damn thing on. But it ain't logic folks and that's the stop sign here.
Mr. Brands book is so filled with poor reasoning it's a hill over which we can not see. Certainly, there is most likely some functional relationship between the Cold War and the `politics' of its time. Yet we must ask, has he chosen the correct struggle. Had he chosen the class struggle between the rich and the poor, between those with and those without privilege, could we dare remind Mr. Brands of two fundamental ideas: (1) it ain't over, and (2) it ain't over `til it's over.
Liberalism and Big Government  Apr 12, 2004
Brands attaches liberalism to big government like most conservatives, yet notes repeatedly how conservatives have embraced big government when the times suited them. The book is less an autopsy on liberalism than it is a study how big government has evolved, gathering mass like a snowball until it became a behemoth no one wanted to claim responsibility for.

He notes how the growth in big government has corresponded with each of the major wars, dating back to the American Revolution, but once the wars were over a skeptical public generally demanded that government be reduced. Not so after WWII, when Truman initiated the Cold War which stretched nearly 40 years and saw the most substantial growth in liberal policy, which Brands attached almost exclusively to the dawn of the Nuclear Age. What began as the Truman Doctrine was expanded under successive presidents, including Eisenhower, which saw sweeping reforms in domestic policy more or less tied to national security interests. I think Brands stretches the connection a bit too far, but he makes many salient points as to how Cold War ideology and Liberalism were intertwined, most notably in the Kennedy-Johnson years.

Many of the federal programs became institutionalized, such as welfare and social security, reaching the status of sacred cows that later conservative presidents were afraid to touch. But all that came crashing down with the collapse of the Cold War, which Brands noted began with our withdrawal from Vietnam. Even when Reagan tried to revive the Cold War in the 80's, he found little support among the electorate or in Congress. Instead, Reagan focused on delimiting the domestic policies of the federal government by reducing the tax base which supported them. Yet, the Reagan years saw a soaring of the federal deficit, as he continued to pour money into National Defense, and was unable to get all the cuts he sought in domestic spending.

While this book provides an interesting recap of the growth of big government, it offers very little into the contemporary liberal ideology beyond the Cold War paradigm. Brands sees these two as inextricably intertwined, and I think here is where his argument unravels as he tries to tie too many loose strings together in what is a rather short book on the subject.

A starting place for beginners  Mar 18, 2004
One need not be an astute observer of public life in America to note the ascendance of the conservative perspective in politics, religion, and education. As a mid-life convert to liberal thought, I approached this book in hopes of finding insight into contemporary trends. With broad brush strokes, Brands paints a historical frame that provides an interesting start.

Liberalism - champion of the downtrodden, advocate of egalitarianism, conveyor of compassion - is reduced in Brands analysis to the barest essentials of its American expression. Liberalism so conceived is for making big changes in big ways. Discontent to await progressive evolution of social life, liberalism advocates pro-federalist accretions of power and money to be expended on the behalf of those who lack power and money of their own. While such a picture of liberalism may rankle a few, there seems to be ample evidence in Brands discussion to support such an interpretation of 20th century American liberalism (e.g. - Johnson's Great Society).

Why, then, is this liberalism all but dead? Brands' explanation is simple and elegant. He contends that the American public has always maintained a high level of distrust of government. This distrust is overcome only during periods of national emergency. The prolonged dominance of liberalism (from World War II to Great Society and briefly beyond) is best explained as an aberration during which the public distrust of government was temporarily suspended during the hot war and cold war "emergencies." Nixon's détente and pre-resignation shenanigans ended the prolonged national emergency, and with it, liberalism's dominance.

This book is a quick read, has only eight pages of footnotes, and contains a short annotated bibliography. I consider it appropriate for undergraduate students as an introduction to historical analysis, but found it a bit light for my personal tastes.

An Interesting if Sketchy Argument  Dec 25, 2002
H.W. Brands has developed an interesting thesis in his recent book "The Strange Death of American Liberalism" that neither liberals nor conservatives will much like.

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.


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