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The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands




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Who dunnit?

H.W. Brands takes on the question of who killed liberalism in his book, The Strange Death of American Liberalism. Brands consider the question from a variety of perspectives and delivers his own clear opinion: liberalism has been rare in American history given a historic skepticism of big government, except when it comes to defense. The Cold War allowed liberalism to continue following the government build-up of the second World War, and the end of the Cold War killed American liberalism. This is a short and very readable book, that clearly covers the authors point of view, with which you might readily disagree and have your own experts to refute his case. Whether you agree or disagree, Brands offers a refreshing perspective on events of the last fifty years. Here’s an excerpt about Richard Nixon:

“Whatever he called his philosophy of governance, Nixon endorsed – and often initiated – a variety of policies associated with liberalism. He pushed the environmental ethic of the Rachel Carson school farther than Lyndon Johnson had dared. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was the most sweeping measure of its kind ever written; the Environmental Protection Agency, created the same year, became a bęte noire of conservatives. To be sure, Nixon didn’t give the forest greens everything they wanted, which was why they regularly refused to credit his accomplishments. Or perhaps it was because they recognized that his environmentalism was a matter of the head, rather than of the heart. Nixon constantly weighed costs against benefits, and not infrequently found that the costs of doing the environmental right thing outweighed the benefits. ‘In a flat choice between smoke and jobs,’ he declared privately, ‘we’re for jobs.’ …
Nixon’s record on race relations was similar. It was under Nixon that the promise of the Brown decision of 1954 was first seriously implemented across the South. As on the environment, on race Nixon was a grudging liberal. He made no grand gestures, like John Kennedy’s telephone call to martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail, and he uttered no stirring speeches on behalf of racial equality, like Lyndon Johnson’s ‘We shall overcome’ promise to Congress.”

If the idea of Nixon as a liberal stirs you up one way or the other, The Strange Death of American Liberalism is certainly the book for you. Considering Brands’ premise, I wonder if he thinks liberalism will return in an America engaged in a war on terrorism. We’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Steve Hopkins, February 6, 2002


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