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The L-Word

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 use the power of the state to serve economic and other ends that it had not hitherto served, particularly in providing social security for the old and rights to organize unions for workers; for better or worse, the New Deal epoch was largely barren of either progress or retrogression in religious and personal liberty, particularly in liberating blacks in the South. Professor Brinkley’s essays make it clear that the New Deal was both less and more than a set of ill-coordinated experiments in trying to graft a planned economy onto the anarchy of the American economy in the early 1930s; but what it surely was not was an attempt to extend the freedoms so eloquently defended by John Locke and John Stuart Mill.

In creating an embryonic welfare state with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, for instance, the New Deal was making a move, admittedly a tentative move, in the direction of social democracy—i.e., state support to improve the conditions of entire groups of people who are less well off—rather than liberalism. Whether on grounds of bare humanity, or as an attempt to diminish economic inequality, the Social Security legislation of the 1930s was surely a very good thing. Whether it was a distinctively liberal good thing is another matter. One might go on to complain that it is only because socialism has had such a bad press in the United States that social democrats have to call themselves liberals. When Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward in 1888, he described its creed as “nationalism,” because “socialism” would remind his readers of beards, free love, and atheism. Herbert Croly, the influential editor of The New Republic before US entry into World War I, was brought up by parents who were adherents of Auguste Comte’s Positivism; but what he provided for Theodore Roosevelt was “the New Nationalism,” not French socialism. Had he been writing for European readers, he would surely have been identified as a socialist—not a class-warrior, but an ally of reformists such as the German Edouard Bernstein or the English Fabians.

Classical, traditional, pure, or Lockean liberalism—tastes in nomenclature vary among its defenders—had limited aims: essentially the protection of individual liberty by keeping the state at bay, not only in matters of religion, but in economics, family life, and the activities of voluntary associations such as clubs, schools, and colleges. The conduct of anything other than the state was a matter for something other than politics. A liberal politics so conceived had nothing to say about such matters as the right of private employers to refuse to hire gays or the willingness of Yale University to accept Jewish students. No doubt traditional liberals would think it disgusting of employers to be prejudiced against gays and disgusting of Yale to be prejudiced against Jews; it would not follow that it was the business of the state to eliminate such attitudes and activities. There are many matters which are not the state’s business, these among them.1 Critics of traditional liberalism would say that this shows what is wrong with liberalism; its defenders would be unmoved.

There are several reasons for not surrendering the L-word to the enthusiasts for Herbert Spencer, Friedrich von Hayek, and the night-watchman state. Although it is tempting to tidy up the ideological landscape by letting the opponents of state interventionism call themselves liberals and insisting that its friends should call themselves social democrats, it won’t do. In the first place, as Brinkley points out, New Deal liberalism was not the only interventionist liberalism that the twentieth century had seen by the time Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election. In Britain, the so-called new liberalism espoused by Herbert Asquith’s liberal administration of 1908 was both liberal and new, and it was both of these in very much the same way as the liberalism of the New Deal. Lloyd-George’s introduction, as Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, of a system to provide pensions for the elderly, one of the measures in his so-called people’s budget of 1909, was bitterly resisted, and the budget led to the last full-scale confrontation between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Nonetheless, the nascent British welfare state fit the pattern to which Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation conformed. It was for the most part conceived as a form of “insurance,” to which beneficiaries were supposed to contribute in conjunction with their employers; it took for granted the ideal of a family with a working father and a child-rearing mother. It was not a first step toward socialism; it was not redistributive, and it had no implications for the ownership or management of industry. Such measures could have been introduced by a Conservative government appealing to “one nation,” but in Edwardian Britain, the Conservative Party had lost touch with that way of thinking, much as Roosevelt’s Republican opponents had lost touch with it in the United States.

Such measures have sometimes been defended as a way of extending democracy. The defenders of a purist conception of liberalism, however, insist in the spirit of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville that liberals and democrats must be uneasy allies. Democracy has many virtues, especially as a way of ensuring that the rich and powerful pay attention to the needs of the poor and ill-organized. Its connection with the values of liberalism is another matter. The “poor many,” as Aristotle observed, are always in danger of being seduced by demagogues. Alan Brinkley has written at length about the popularity of the anti-Semitic and isolationist demagogue Father Coughlin, and he has much to say here about the appeal of Huey Long and the treatment of his career in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.

Most of the poor are still patriotic and pious; they come out against flag-burners and against the energetic secularists who carry the campaign against school prayer as far as the sacred turf of the football field; they didn’t much like young men in leather jackets with “Fuck the Draft” emblazoned on their backs. Even Professor Brinkley tends to describe Roosevelt as the begetter of a more nearly complete democracy and not as the begetter of a more comprehensive liberty.

Yet many Americans, though not many Europeans, will dismiss this as quibbling, and they are right to do so. American democracy is a liberal project through and through, as Tocqueville himself observed. The discredit into which “big government” fell during the 1970s and afterward is somewhat misleading; at least some of the dislike of big government has a respectable liberal pedigree, and so does at least some of the dislike of the welfare state, and of national solutions to local problems of welfare, education, or health care—which does not mean that local administrations should not be held to national standards of decent treatment. Some libertarians who take their inspiration from Herbert Spencer are squarely in that mold, although President Reagan confused everyone by wanting to roll back the state in domestic matters while fattening its military budget. It is even true, as Alan Brinkley notices, that right-wing fundamentalists mostly wish to defend themselves against what they see as an aggressive attempt to impose a uniformly secular, sexually permissive culture on the entire nation. Few are serious about demanding more than a decidedly vague commitment to the virtues of religion on the part of government.

European democracy may have come into being as a way of calming class warfare and holding off revolution. American democracy is generally different: it is the political expression of the thought that American citizens are free and equal, and must therefore be self-governing on terms that respect that fact.2 It is that difference that accounts for the often-noticed fact that foreign observers almost always see the Supreme Court as an antidemocratic institution, defending liberty against democracy, where American writers see it as a democratic institution, though a nonelective one, defending values that most Americans want protected.

  1. 1

    This is the line taken by Andrew Sullivan, for instance, in his Virtually Normal (Knopf, 1995).

  2. 2

    The best recent defense of this “American” understanding is to be found in Ronald Dworkin, Freedom’s Law (Harvard University Press, 1996).

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