Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998, ISBN: 9780674530171; 384pp.; Price: £34.95
University College of Ripon & York
Date accessed: 30 September, 2023
This volume of essays offers a powerful review of various central issues in the history of 20th Century American liberalism. Its underlying concern is how a political ideal, or set of ideals, once so firmly adhered to, should now be so discredited in contemporary American political debate. The journey of intellectual exploration which Brinkley pursues is never less than fascinating. And none would deny its importance to any historian with a concern that past and present are locked in a dynamic if often deceptive relationship.
It is possible, by overlooking many of Brinkley’s subtleties, to piece together a fairly straightforward answer to the question he initially poses. One initial element in that answer lies in the nature of the New Deal itself. In many ways the reforms, policies and ideas of the 1930s broke with the Progressive past by making the federal government a ‘compensatory’ state (in Brinkley’s formulation) not a weapon for the destruction of concentrated and irresponsible corporate power. The liberal state dedi cated its efforts to fiscal management in order to enhance consumption not to implement economic regulation or wealth redistribution. This important distinction helps explain later disillusionment with programmatic liberalism, for, in one sense, post-war America has delivered what the New Deal sought to achieve: high, if not full, employment and rising, if sometimes interruptedly so, standards of living for most Americans. The New Deal went further. In removing the Democrats’ electoral dependence on the Deep South, it opened a way from the 1950s for the national Democrat party to pursue a more liberal course on race issues than the party dependent on white conservative voters could envisage in the 1930s. Yet the very success of liberal economic policy made an explicit liberal agenda increasingly unnecessary. In the 1980s the Reagan administration, rather like the Thatcher government in Britain, presided over an aggregate increase in relative federal spending while simultaneously denouncing statism and Keynesianism together. As George Will remarked, ‘Americans are conservative. What they want to conserve is the New Deal.’
The second element of an explanation for the decline in liberalism as a doctrine comes from the experience of the 1960s. Kennedy’s administration helped to set up future disenchantment by promising too much. The very sense of political dynamism whip ped up by President Kennedy and his lieutenants - however vague it almost invariably was and however cynical it occasionally became - was bound to lead to subsequent disappointment. Yet, again, successful outcomes reduced the need for doctrinal liberalis m. As Brinkley points out, much student radicalism of the 1960s concerned conditions within the universities themselves and only later, with the mauling involvement in Vietnam, acquired wider political ambitions. But as Irving Bernstein showed, the inte llectuals’ preoccupation with Vietnam crowded out new reformist thinking. With the redefinition of universities as life-style playgrounds as well as centres for learning, and with the establishment of an all-volunteer army, virtually all serious pressure s for further liberal crusading ebbed from the student body politic. This was predicted in the celebrated chant, ‘Make Love Not War’. The emergence of a society which could be - albeit crudely - characterised as materialistic, hedonistic and, perhaps, s elfish rather than even just individualistic clearly worries any thoughtful observer of America, except for robustly full-bloodied political libertarians. But Brinkley underscores the disturbing paradox that the apparent success of much of the liberal pr ogramme since 1930s has led, not to advancing commitments to community values, political enlightenment or civic responsibility, but instead to a resurgence of militant conservatism. In an illuminating discussion of Oral B. Roberts, one of the longest est ablished and leading tele-evangelists, he emphasises that support for populist evangelical religion comes largely from those who want to be included in the mainstream of American society. However commercial the motives of some leaders of the religious rig ht may be, their supporters come from strong traditions of popular religion and strive now for full recognition of their legitimacy and role. On the political front, Brinkley points out that the New Right has gained strength especially from anti-feminist women reasserting the values of ‘family life’ against what is portrayed, however erroneously, as a liberal tide which has undermined the tradition nuclear family. Relative affluence has raised age-old questions of our moral responsibilities for families and communities. Freedom from want and freedom from fear have exposed us to the moral dilemmas posed by the possibility of freedom from ourselves.
If this bald summary does less than full justice to Brinkley’s unfailingly subtle and often sophisticated analyses, it provides nevertheless a basis for some alternative reflections on his approach, an approach which he stresses has its roots firmly an chored in the liberal Democratic tradition.
Perhaps the most difficult area of analysis lies in the definition of the moral basis for systematic government intervention in society. In a country dedicated even more than most to individualism it is difficult to square the collective requirement t o devote efforts and resources for social reform by government with individuals’ sense of philanthropic or humanitarian commitment. The work of an array of voluntary societies, buttressed by churches, is scarcely ever analysed in relation to government s ocial reform initiatives. This misleadingly marginalises one of the most powerful countervailing forces to the extension of liberal welfarism, the sense - however erroneous it may be in macro terms - that individuals are contributing to amelioration and that government intervention entails highly inefficient transfer costs. Brinkley’s discussion of religion is illuminating, but brief and does not touch on the possible ways in which for a majority of church members, the increased activism and membership of churches in the last twenty years has channelled impulses of mutuality away from liberal reformers acting through state and federal governments towards fellow members of churches and their obligations to a wider society. The energetic ‘joiner instinc t’ of Americans has often been commented on. Its implication for government responsibilities has been less frequently analysed.
Withdrawal from government interventionism is accelerated by the way in which much interventionism has been fuelled by political opportunism. Brinkley is excellent on the purely pragmatic agendas pursued by FDR and JFK in advancing the liberal cause. But he tends thereafter to describe government activism as a generalised public good. Administrative bureaucracies simply do not behave in the ways implied. The ‘public sector’ has no more sense of ‘community’ than most business corporations. Public officials pursue rent-seeking objectives and compete over the question of who decides as vigorously as over what is to be decided. Bureaucratic gamesmanship, involving the excitement of competing for power, prominence and place, consumes as much energy a s any dedication to the establishment of shared values and implementation of reformist policies. The expansion of federal programmes in the 1960s exposed the many pretensions of liberal interventionist rhetoric. None of this is meant to deny the depth a nd sincerity of many liberals’ commitment to reform, or the need for many of the programmes developed. But the claims still outstrip the performance. Historians who depict the involvement of corporate leaders in civic affairs as an effort to extend busi ness control frequently fail to analyse public officials’ behaviour as similarly elitist and governed by self-serving agendas.
If New Left historians may have exaggerated in describing government officials as pawns of the corporate state working to businesses agendas, they are correct in insisting on the careful analysis of those officials’ motives, priorities, and effectivene ss.
Another contributory factor in the discrediting of collectivist symbolism has been the very success of one of its major achievements. The expansion of American mass higher education has provided an extraordinary transformation over the last 50 years a nd mostly as a result of state and federal government effort and expenditure. The contention that enormous human talent lies untapped around us is scarcely novel - Thomas Gray had much to say on that subject though he does not seem to have used his Prof essorship at Cambridge to do much to remedy the situation - but the pursuit of Ezra Cornell’s idea of higher education available for any person pursuing any study has never been fully realised in human experience as in the United States in the last 50 yea rs. The effect of such an expansion has not necessarily been to the good of liberal causes. The leading professions - legal, medical, engineering - whose growth has been fuelled by university expansion are scarcely notable for their communitarian, as di stinct from competitive, ideals and practices. Business is now the leading subject taken by undergraduates, and postgraduate business schools - enjoying a far longer history than those in Britain - are not at the forefront of reformist liberalism. Expan ding higher education has assisted the process of de-unionisation and emphasised individual careerism rather than the pursuit of social equality. Nor does the intense competitiveness of the university system contribute self-evidently to community values. The plurality of American government intensifies this institutional competitiveness even if it did not create it. However derived, the higher education system, which plays so crucial a role in shaping the attitudes of society’s professional and manager ial classes, offers a market-driven ethos sponsored and supported by public spending. Market-driven behaviour characterises even those who aspire to ‘public good’ ends. This attribute of public sector behaviour is only part of a much wider phenomenon.
One vital distinction drawn by Brinkley is between Progressives’ desire to control corporate power and the New Deal’s eventual elaboration of the notion of fiscal management. It is useful to be reminded that the central purpose of federal economic int ervention by the later 1930s was to manage the economy through fiscal policy in order to foster consumerism. The New Deal did not aim to redistribute wealth or to promote the vastly expanded public sector. It sought to use taxation and government spendi ng to create short-term jobs in order to reflate consumer demand and thereby reinvigorate manufacturing output. The legatees of the New Deal continued in a similar vein. This doctrine made it difficult to distinguish morally or politically between consu mption in the shape of spending on a movie and a hamburger or on the Met and Quaglino’s. The path was open to the 1980s notion of ‘greed is good’. After all, the New Deal’s message was in effect ‘to consume is to be public spirited’. For the public pol icy aspirations of many contemporary American social critics, the redistributionist objectives of democratic socialism would have provided a far more effective ideological platform than that yielded by the New Deal, as some of FDR’s advisers argued at the time.
The answer to the dilemma which Brinkley poses at the beginning of his collection of essays is therefore partly resolved through his wide-ranging variety of case studies. The political opportunism of FDR and the pragmatic programme which he experiment ed with laid down only a blurred ideological blueprint for the future. It was possible from within the Democratic tradition and from among the various policy options available during the 1930s to have created a firmer ideological framework upon which to base future action. But Keynesian economic theory was about managing the economy not transforming it. And the very dedication to consumerism as a key element in promoting recovery scarcely indicated any ideological commitment to changing the nature of A merican social and economic relationships. Brinkley demonstrates that the political activism of the 1960s had more to do with particularist liberal causes than with a commitment to a thorough-going reformist agenda. Once major breakthroughs had been mad e in reforming higher education to meet students’ demands, to pass wide-ranging civil rights legislation, and to pull American out of Vietnam, then a great deal of the energy and commitment in the reformist impulses of the 1960s quite logically disappeare d. Without being entirely facetious, one could suggest that Ronald Reagan’s steady evolution from youthful New Dealer to 1980s conservative exemplified the experiences of a generation. As the have-nots became haves, there was little else in their upbri nging as New Dealers to inspire belief in anything other than a market-driven American system. And the actual policies pursued by the federal government during the 1980s combined pro-capitalist rhetoric with massive doses of federal government borrowing to sustain heavy public expenditure during recession. Perhaps with increasing hindsight we may regard the vibrant reformism of the 1960s as being far more exceptional than as a stage in a process of liberalisation in American political life and attitudes towards government.
Anyone who contemplates modern America is bound to be puzzled at how so technologically sophisticated and indeed - in Galbraith’s formulation - technocratic a society has been swayed by the crude incantations and punitive policies of the New Right. Th e resolution of that paradox has to take account of a profound populist reaction against the pretentious claims and knee-jerk interventionism of the liberal reformers as well as the grim truism that the spread of opportunity has led to the spread of oppor tunism. Whatever their aspirations, successful middle class people will behave in the time-honoured fashion of the grasping bourgeoisie, tempered, but not tamed, by moral, social or ideological restraints. In the 1890s a Liberal Treasury minister in Bri tain declared, ‘we are all Socialists now’. A century later a more apposite catch-phrase could well be, ‘we are all market-traders now’. The New Deal and the Great Society programmes in one sense set up vast publicly-funded market places for the promoti on and peddling of public policy initiatives and ideas developed and offered by fiercely competing individuals and interest group
I am grateful to Bruce Collins for his many kind words about my book and for his thoughtful and interesting observations about its principal subject: the complicated history of American liberalism since the 1930s. It is no easy thing for an author or a critic to find a coherent structure in a collection of essays written at different times and for different purposes, but Collins has done an admirable job in summarizing many of what I like to believe are my book's central themes.
He is right, most of all, in noting that one of my central concerns in this book (as in my earlier work, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War) is to explore the implications for American liberalism, and American society ge nerally, of what I argue is an important, if perhaps unintended, result of the New Deal: the shift of public policy away from "reform" (from efforts to restructure capitalist institutions, confront monopoly power, and redistribute wealth) and towards a la rgely "compensatory state," to use my own phrase. The result was post-war American liberalism, committed to sustaining prosperity and economic growth through using Keynesian fiscal and (later) monetary tools; and to compensate for capitalism's limitations by providing welfare protections for those left out of the circle of abundance. This was a reasonably successful formula for a generation after the war, and it contributed to one of the great achievements of modern American history: the lifting of millio ns of people out or poverty and into affluence. (It will be obvious, of course, that this was not purely an American achievement that most of the western industrial world experienced a similar elevation of living standards in the generation after the war, even if not always through the same public policy vehicles.)
Eventually, however, the compensatory liberalism of the post-war era experienced a series of crises some of them a result of the upheavals of the 1960s. But the most important crisis facing post-war American liberalism was probably not the Vietnam War or the racial crisis or the New Left, as significant as all those events were. The most important crisis was that the American economy began to change in fundamental ways in the late 1960s ways that eventually made it much more difficult for the governmen t to manage economic growth effectively, and ways that far from reducing inequality (as many liberals erroneously believed economic growth would do in the 1950s) actually began rapidly to increase inequality. Unable to provide answers of its own to the na tion's economic dilemmas, liberalism lost much of its authority, to be replaced by a new orthodoxy of the market.
Collins offers several important observations of his own about the problems liberalism has faced in post-war America. One of them is that the United States is peculiarly devoted to the ameliorative power of voluntary associations (and religious institu tions) when it considers how to make social progress or address social injustice. He is surely right about that although not correct in saying that scholars have paid little attention to this aspect of American life. I am not convinced, however, that the power of voluntary associations and philanthropic societies is at the core of the problems that government (and modern liberalism) has faced in retaining legitimacy. It is true that there is now a very large network of not-for-profit and religious organiz ations committed to conservative and reactionary goals and working very hard to discredit state action. But most philanthropic and voluntary organizations are very comfortable with government; many are crucially dependent on it. The American state is, in fact, best understood as a system of alliances among many different organizations: governmental institutions at the national, state, and local levels, and non-governmental organizations (universities, foundations, charities, social service agencies, relig ious bodies, and many others) which work in tandem with government. There is a tension between voluntarism and the state, but there is also a great deal of mutual support.
Collins also suggests that the great expansion of university education in America since World War II has helped to undermine liberalism, by taking many of its erstwhile constituents and propelling them into careers (most notably in business) that has g enerally led them to more conservative positions. That is a plausible, although as far as I know so far untested, proposition. But the expansion of the university system has also played an important role in creating the social and technological knowledge on which the aims of liberal government relies. As Olivier Zunz points out in his recent book, Why the American Century?, the close partnership between universities, corporations, and government is a long-standing feature of American life and one t hat has contributed in many ways both to the strength and success of American capitalism and to the growth of progressive social policies.
I must take issue with Collin's statement that I consider government activism to be "a generalised public good," although it is certainly possible that my essays in this book may not suggest otherwise. I am, it is true, a believer in the idea that gove rnment has a useful and important role to play in the life of society and in the solution of social problems which is not, in the 1990s, as uncontroversial a stance as it once would have seemed. But I am all too aware of the many ways in which public bure aucracies have failed and in which government policies have been unsuccessful, or worse, in addressing public questions. Those who believe in the value of government have, as Collins suggests, been much too slow to acknowledge the inherent limitations of public bureaucracies and to imagine less bureaucratic forms for public attention to social problems. (The American Earned Income Tax Credit, a public subsidy to the earnings of the working poor, is one successful recent example of searching for effective alternatives to traditional bureaucratic policies.)
The purpose of the essays in this book, however, is not to prescribe social policy or to defend liberalism against its opponents. It is to explore, as history, some of the ways liberalism has changed, some of the ways in which it has been challenged (both by its own failure and contradictions and by an increasingly active and organized right), and some of the ways in which it has been understood (or misunderstood) by its chroniclers. I am, again, grateful to Bruce Collins for suggesting that I have been successful in at least some of these purposes.