The L-Word

Alan Brinkley
Alan Brinkley; drawing by David Levine

One of the many ways in which for-eign observers of the American scene irritate their American friends is by mocking the American understanding of liberalism. As Alan Brinkley’s book suggests, most Americans identify twentieth-century liberalism with the achievements of the New Deal. “When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, surrounded by adults who considered themselves liberals and in a political world that appeared dominated by their beliefs,” says Professor Brinkley, it was perfectly clear what liberalism was and what it had achieved. “Liberalism was the set of political ideas that had descended from the New Deal and that had shaped the steady postwar expansion of federal social and economic responsibilities.” Liberalism had laid the ground for the prosperity of those years, and the new Keynesian economics appeared to offer the promise of continuous high employment and steady economic growth.

Those were the years of a rather contented, not to say complacent liberalism, and the contrast between that postwar optimism and the ill repute into which the very word has fallen in our own day is one of the things that animate the essays that make up the book. The rationality or otherwise of conservative complaints against the whole liberal enterprise is one of Professor Brinkley’s themes, and it is a theme that complements his interest in the anti-liberal populisms of both left and right. Another theme, however, and one that provides in some ways a more interesting ground of “discontent,” is the incompleteness of New Deal liberalism—especially its shortcomings domestically when it came to the racial politics of the South, and the failure of its successors to distinguish in international relations between anticommunism on the one hand and the positive support of liberal regimes on the other. Professor Brinkley is a distinguished historian of the politics of the New Deal, and Liberalism and Its Discontents might, without excessive injustice to its content, have been titled, or subtitled, “The Achievements and Omissions of the New Deal: How They Looked at the Time, and in the Fifty Years Since.”

But it is not only foreign observers who complain about the identification of liberalism with the New Deal and its legacy. Many American critics have argued that the New Deal’s achievements were unconnected with the aims of liberalism as traditionally and properly understood; indeed, one of the reasons why nobody was quite sure whether to describe the backlash against the postwar welfare state as “neo-liberal” or “neo-conservative” is that the followers of F.A. von Hayek or Milton Friedman could quite properly claim that they were trying to conserve an older and purer form of liberalism. Liberalism, on almost any account of its history, began as an attempt to curb the power of the state; and liberals were particularly eager to exclude the government from imposing any form of religious practice or belief. The New Deal was, in aspiration, an attempt to…

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