Alan Brinkley
Alan Brinkley; drawing by David Levine

One of the many ways in which foreign 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.

The question faced by American democracy in the first half of this century was, then, what both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt thought it was—whether the national government could be made an adequate instrument for the realization of liberal ambitions. There was widespread unease at the fact of rapid industrial change, especially when it took the form of sharply alternating booms and depressions, and equal unease at the rise of industrial, financial, and media magnates—the “economic royalists” denounced by Franklin Roosevelt—whom the existing political system seemed unable to restrain. Traditional liberal politicians—committed mainly to protecting the citizen against state power—could not have made this unease a political issue, however, without a substantial rethinking of what liberalism was about. As FDR soon saw, a liberalism that confined itself to rolling back the power of the state would hardly have been up to the job.

The conditions of the industrial cities of the late nineteenth century made it easy to argue that the industrial worker of the modern world was hardly more free than the Athenian slave had been. The English philosopher T.H. Green, a proponent of Hegelian idealism, has been given too much credit for persuading British politicians (and some American thinkers) that the exhausted, malnourished, uneducated, and all too often drunken and violent population of the industrial slums was hardly an advertisement for free enterprise. Many politicians intuitively felt much the same, without having drunk at the Hegelian spring. Still, Green articulated a widespread feeling that it was absurd to talk of the rights and duties of citizenship to men and women who had been so thoroughly cut adrift from what a civilized society could offer them. What stirred his indignation at their condition was—arguably—squarely in the liberal tradition. The liberal hatred of state violence and cruelty is certainly fundamental. State violence is extensive in scale, and all too often inescapable. Because religious and ideological passion so readily fuels ordinary human cruelty, keeping State and Church apart is an essential step in curbing state violence.

From none of that would any “new” liberals who read Herbert Croly and later influenced FDR have dissented. But they added something of their own. For them, the nastiness of old-fashioned repressive states, and the nastiness of bigotry, are thrown into sharper relief by the possibilities of the more enlightened modern world. In this view freedom is more than the assurance that we shall not be visited by the Inquisition or the secret police. It is, among other things, having a wide range of choices open to us, in occupations, lifestyle, and friends. The state is not the enemy of such freedom, though it is not entirely a friend. Green described the state’s role as “hindering the hindrances to the good life.” It was not the task of the political authorities to tell us how to live, or what to believe; they could not do it if they tried, and if they tried they would miss the point—which is that we should build our own lives for ourselves. But they could do a good deal to prevent us from being frustrated in that task, and something to encourage us to engage with it. Public health regulations, for instance, are not an illiberal infringement of our natural right to dump our garbage where we choose; they are a way of giving us a chance of growing up without suffering from cholera, diphtheria, typhoid—the ailments that killed or enfeebled hundreds of thousands of poor people in nineteenth-century cities.

This was the outlook that Herbert Croly’s wonderful tract The Promise of American Life expressed in 1909. Croly was more trusting of the state than most liberals, but his slogan, quoted by Brinkley, “Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means,” nicely catches the allegiances of the “new liberalism.” The New Republic was founded in 1914 to advocate just such an interventionist and activist liberalism, and it is hardly surprising that it opened its pages to British Guild Socialists such as G.D.H. Cole and to left-wing British liberals such as J.M. Keynes. The Promise of American Life was vastly admired by Teddy Roosevelt, but it was his cousin Franklin who rode the liberal, or broadly “progressive,” tide a quarter of a century later. As Alan Brinkley’s opening essay on the early career of Roosevelt makes very clear, there is a paradox in this.

Whether Teddy Roosevelt had any deep understanding of the political theory of his progressive allies is debatable; the gentle, otherworldly Croly was an unlikely companion to the former Rough Rider. Yet there is no doubt that Teddy Roosevelt was fascinated by Croly’s ideas. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, showed in his early years no interest in intellectual matters of any kind. It was not that he showed no sign of political interests, however. Although he led an extraordinarily cosseted existence from his birth in 1882 to his departure for Groton in 1896, and was thought to be something of a prig during his time at Harvard, he greatly admired his cousin Theodore, and inadvertently amused his Harvard contemporaries by aping his cousin’s mannerisms. His studies at Columbia Law School after he left Harvard in 1904 did not result in a degree, though they gained him admission to the New York Bar. As early as 1910, he ran as the candidate for the New York State Senate from Dutchess County, and won.

He ran as an anti-Tammany Hall Democrat, and won partly because the disarray of the local Republican Party let him in, but also because he was a firm defender of upstate farmers against the urban predators of New York City. As Brinkley reminds us, he ran as an unabashed Hudson Valley aristocrat—for which he was much mocked by his opponents, but to no effect. His new wife, Eleanor—they married in 1905—very much disliked the idea of his taking up the rough trade of politics. She hated the invasion of their private life that politics entailed, and wanted neither to leave her own home nor to invite the rest of the world into it. But her husband had found his passion and his métier, and there was nothing to be done about it.

The pragmatist in Roosevelt appeared early. He made his peace with Tammany Hall, and with his own money hired Louis Howe, the strategist and all-around fixer on whom he relied for the next twenty years. Howe was an unlikely companion—described by Brinkley as “short, disheveled, withered, and in many ways coarse.” He was just what Roosevelt needed. He taught Roosevelt the necessity of hiding rather than flaunting his aristocratic background, and helped him secure allies where he needed them. He may even have been quicker than Roosevelt himself in seeing the possibility of a national career, though it is hard to believe that Roosevelt ever had the image of cousin Theodore far out of mind. Soon after he was reelected in 1912, Roosevelt was offered the assistant secretaryship of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s new administration, and went off to spend the next eight years serving in that post. He may have accepted the position because it was the job in which Theodore Roosevelt had made his name; it certainly does not seem to have been the result of a principled choice of Wilson’s “new freedom” over Teddy’s “new nationalism.”

The only hint of what was to come during the New Deal lay in the exuberance with which Roosevelt ignored his altogether more quiescent boss, and the energy with which he promoted the ideal of national preparedness during the long run-up to American entry into the war. One other early sign of the talent of later years was his ability to shrug off disaster: he was the vice-presidential candidate on the losing Democratic ticket in the 1920 election, but nobody seemed to notice. Today such a defeat would be the kiss of death. Far more devastating was the poliomyelitis that struck him the following year. The history of Roosevelt’s unavailing efforts to recover the use of his legs, sometimes by medical means and sometimes by sheer blind willpower, is now a national legend. Professor Brinkley is coolly good-natured about it, leaving readers to draw what political moral they choose from his account of Roosevelt at the polio rehabilitation center he established at Warm Springs, Georgia,

becoming the ebullient leader of dispirited groups of men and women—exhorting them to work toward recovery, as he had done, and providing (if unintentionally) an example of how the power of denial and bravado could help someone who could not regain the use of his legs regain some control of his life.

Sara Roosevelt wanted her son to give up politics; Eleanor and Louis Howe encouraged him to hang on. He did so to such effect that in 1928 when Herbert Hoover trounced Al Smith, Roosevelt squeaked home as governor of New York. In 1930, he won a second two-year term by a landslide. Two years later he capitalized on Hoover’s unpopularity to become president on a majority vote of 57 to 40 percent. What nobody agrees on even now is whether he had any clear idea of what he wanted to do when he was elected, and whether he knew what he was doing thereafter. Because millions of people in Europe and Asia owed him—and the American armed forces—their lives and their freedom after 1945, it remains hard to get his achievements in focus. Over and over, Professor Brinkley describes the confidence and the charm that enabled Roosevelt to collect about him an astonishing team of imaginative and talented administrators and to persuade the country that there was no difficulty they could not lick—but high spirits carried to a high degree do not define the liberal project either.

Many liberal intellectuals were entirely dismissive of Roosevelt. Walter Lippmann thought he was a good-natured man who very much wanted to be president but didn’t know why. John Dewey said the famous experimentalism of the New Deal was merely “messing about.” They were, as it happened, quite wrong, but it is less obvious what they were wrong about. In five long essays, Alan Brinkley tackles the substance of the matter: first, the experiments with new economic institutions, new forms of community-building, and new ways of balancing different interests in American society; second, the ideological conservatism that left the South and its apartheid largely untouched; and third, the shortage of trained, reliable, liberal administrators and policy-makers that allowed foreign policy to remain in the hands of a conservative, upper-class, largely Republican establishment.

Alan Brinkley is a historian, not a political philosopher, but he is a very reflective historian. He is fascinated by the different perspectives from which historians have seen the New Deal and its aftermath. The one that perhaps offers most insight today is the sociologists’ concern with what they often call “state capacity”; the ability of a bureaucracy to change a society. Anyone who wonders how Prussia could possess a national education system early in the nineteenth century, and the outlines of the modern welfare state late in the century has to recognize that the bureaucratic apparatus at the service of the Prussian state was uniquely efficient. It was possible for Prussia to organize and run a national public education system and to institute a welfare state at a time when Britain and the United States could only have dreamed of it.

In that light, Roosevelt’s successes and failures become more explicable and the view that there was more to him than exuberance and more to what went on than “messing about” becomes more defensible. Of course, it is true that he was elected to stop the Depression and failed to do so; his early successes were more than wiped out in the second slump that struck in October 1937, and it was World War II that pumped so much demand into the economy that full employment returned. All the same, the experimentation had a direction. In the jargon of Herbert Croly, it was the attainment of Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means. In more modern jargon, it was an attempt to build state capacity, and to ensure that whatever tasks the federal government took on lay within that capacity.

Alan Brinkley points out that Roosevelt’s first administration had its greatest successes in dealing with matters for which a well-established, and well-practiced, bureaucracy was already in place. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration worked well because there had been decades of experience of government intervention in agriculture. The National Recovery Administration, on the other hand, was chaotic, precisely because there was nothing to build on; and the Social Security system was jerry-built and expensively inefficient because it, too, had to create from scratch the machinery it needed. Even so, the extent of the success of the AAA must not be exaggerated. Like any other bureaucracy, its officials had to find prominent local citizens with whom they could work, and in many regions of the country, especially the South, these locals were reactionary, oligarchical, and corrupt.

The moral that some of Roosevelt’s intimates drew was that the New Deal must be expanded: the renewed depression that began in October 1937 made them more than ever disenchanted with the capacity of capitalism to deliver full employment and prosperity. But there was no agreement on the direction in which the New Deal was to be expanded. Initially, it appeared that proponents of regulation, such as Henry Wallace, who believed that government’s task was to coordinate and rationalize the economy, would gain the upper hand. Soon, the experience of the war suggested that what government could best do was to nudge the economy toward high output and full employment by using its powers of taxing and spending. The first would have led in the direction of full-blown corporatism, and it is hard to believe it would have got very far. The second led in the direction of the “Keynesian” welfare state of the postwar years.

Neither of these directions appealed to the New Left of the later 1950s and 1960s. Professor Brinkley’s survey of those who were discontented with liberalism from a position to its left is too short to go very deeply into the successes and failures of the New Left. He complains, quite properly, of a streak of unseriousness among the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society; he observes, as others have done, that the transition from the mild reformism of the student wing of the League for Industrial Democracy in the early Sixties to the Marcuse-inspired taste for compulsory liberation (as an antidote to what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance”) was alarming. He concludes rather touchingly that the movement did not betray its passion for participatory democracy and personal authenticity so much as succumb to it. If there is a moral, it is that we should not look to politics to make our lives meaningful; if politicians can provide a tolerable level of job security, material comfort, and social justice, we can discover the meaning of life privately and for ourselves.

Certainly the New Deal had its successes. But it is worth noticing how minimal a political project the “Keynesian” enterprise can be. Without belittling the importance of prosperity and full employment, one might nonetheless wish a liberal government to do two things that the New Deal never contemplated. The first is to correct the imbalances of power and opportunity that every twentieth-century society displays. The other is to act abroad on the same liberal principles as at home. Professor Brinkley does nothing to contradict the usual account of Roosevelt’s treatment of the South. Needing the support of the solidly Democratic Southern voters, he simply put to one side the grievances of the black population. And Brinkley reminds us of episodes—such as the persecution of homosexual sailors at the end of World War I, and the internment of American citizens of Japanese origin during World War II—that cast doubt on Roosevelt’s moral sensibilities. It is also clear that although his administration made the growth of labor unions possible by enacting the Wagner Act, Roosevelt was not tempted by ideas of industrial democracy; and he saw Social Security as a device for the alleviation of misery pure and simple. It was this down-to-earth practical-mindedness that so irritated critics from the left both at the time and since.

In foreign affairs, Roosevelt can hardly be criticized for the detailed management of cold war foreign policy after his death. Nor does Professor Brinkley suggest anything of the sort. Rather, consideration of the “state capacity” of the New Deal suggests that, as is still the case, the American foreign service was simply too small, and inadequately trained, to formulate a distinctively liberal view of the American national interest and help the President secure the assent of Congress and the public. One result was that Roosevelt relied all too heavily on two figures described by Brinkley as “icons of the American establishment” to formulate a global strategy in war and peace for him. One was Henry Stimson and the other John McCloy.

Brinkley is no great admirer of either. He admits their virtues: probity, energy, a “safe pair of hands.” He also thinks that they were snobbish, inflexible, and inclined to prefer dictators with good manners to badly spoken democrats. He does not discuss one obvious question of substance, which is whether Roosevelt was excessively oblivious to Stalin’s territorial ambitions, and therefore perhaps in need of some assistance from skeptical right-wingers. Among the counts he presses against Stimson and McCloy, the one that Professor Brinkley seems most to mind is the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. The offense is, perhaps, not so much that in the aftermath of the disaster at Pearl Harbor these ordinarily calm and phlegmatic figures fell victim to panic, as that McCloy was still defending the internment forty years later. In 1981, he addressed a congressional committee considering whether to compensate the victims of the internment. McCloy was very much opposed. The relocation process, he claimed with stunning imperviousness to decades of recrimination, “was an example of the humanity and breadth of principle with which the war was conducted.”

Brinkley acknowledges that it would have been a great deal harder for the United States to fight World War II without Stimson and McCloy. His point is simply that making the twentieth-century liberal project work is exceedingly difficult. It hardly needs emphasizing how unlikely it was that Roosevelt would have had available an elite corps of liberal-minded aides to match the upper-class Republican lawyers and bankers he had often had to turn to. A thoroughgoing liberalism implies a degree of governmental effectiveness that almost no nation has achieved in peacetime, and a steadiness of moral and political purpose that almost no government has either the time or the intellectual resources to sustain. Certainly in the US the “state capacity” to carry out broad-ranging social programs seems as weak as ever. Indeed, the complete intellectual and policy vacuum that has followed from the crippling of the Clinton administration suggests that change or its absence depends on the accident of presidential personality quite as much as it did in 1933.

How far this is a matter for discontent is another matter. Chastened liberals have always counted their successes one by one—fewer people tortured for their political and religious beliefs; black Americans no longer insulted by Jim Crow legislation; sexual minorities less humiliated; the opportunities taken for granted by the well-off increasingly, if erratically, available to everyone. The “divine” discontent that makes liberals chip away at oppression and misery is not to be wished away, though petulance and despair surely are. It is hard to know, indeed, what liberalism would be without its discontents.

This Issue

September 24, 1998