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Forgotten, but not gone

Liberalism may receive a surprise lift from the shifting winds of war

By H.W. Brands, 12/9/2001

Could the war against terrorism trigger a revival of liberalism?

The question might sound ludicrous at a time when more than 500 people have been detained on suspicion of having ties to the Sept. 11 attacks, or of simply knowing something about them; when the Bush administration has allowed the Pentagon to create special military tribunals to try suspected terrorists without due process and other standard judicial safeguards; and when pro-business conservatives in Congress are using the terrorist war to promote their favorite tax cuts.

Yet there is historical reason to believe that current events could lift liberalism out of the doldrums into which it has fallen in the past 25 years.

The great age of liberalism in America was the period of the Cold War, in particular from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, when Americans looked to government to solve all manner of social ills. Definitions of liberalism have varied widely during the two centuries since the term originated in Europe (and European liberalism even today is often quite different from the American version). In the United States since World War II it has meant, above all, an inclination to employ the institutions of government - preeminently the federal government - to attack problems of poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and other societal afflictions.

And never were Americans more willing to employ the institutions of government to solve social problems than during the Cold War. The overriding problem, of course, was national security. During every war in their history, Americans have looked to government to provide national security, for the obvious reason that no other institution has the resources, reach, and legitimacy to defend the country against foreign enemies. The Cold War, though not a war in the classic sense, nonetheless spawned a war mentality and disposed Americans to look to Washington for security. And precisely because it was not a classic war - not a relatively brief contest primarily for the control of territory, but an ill-defined, apparently endless struggle intended ultimately to win the hearts and minds of billions of people beyond American shores - it led to a broad definition of security.

Before the Cold War, for example, highway construction had been chiefly the responsibility of the states; Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway program, initiated in the name of national defense, made modern roads a federal responsibility. Before the Cold War, funding for colleges had been a state and private affair; after the Soviet Sputnik scared the wits out of the American people, Congress began pumping federal money into scientific and technical higher education.

More tellingly, the Cold War facilitated overhauls in areas utterly unconnected to any previous conception of national security. During World War II, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt had judged demands for civil rights changes a dangerous distraction from the war effort and had done its best to silence them. By contrast, during the Cold War, progress on civil rights came to be seen as critical to American success in Asia and Africa. The Justice Department's amicus brief in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 declared bluntly, ''Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.'' When Eisenhower - no fan of integration on its own merits - sent federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 to enforce integration of schools there, he did so declaring that ''our enemies are gloating'' over the actions of the segregationists. ''It would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation,'' Eisenhower said.

During the 1960s, a civil rights overhaul became a centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Unlike Eisenhower, Johnson didn't require the Cold War to alert him to the need for federal action on behalf of the poor and dispossessed; where Eisenhower was a Cold War liberal, Johnson was a liberal who simply happened to be president during the Cold War. Yet Johnson was also a canny politician, and he knew that by framing his civil rights program in terms of Cold War security, he would increase its chance of passage. In the 1965 speech in which he unveiled the Great Society, proposing sweeping new measures on behalf of civil rights, education, health care, public housing, urban renewal, the arts, and the environment, Johnson explained that in curing their own country's ills, Americans would increase the appeal of democracy to those then choosing between democracy and communism. ''We were never meant to be an oasis of liberty and abundance in a worldwide desert of disappointed dreams,'' Johnson said. ''Today the state of the union depends, in large measure, upon the state of the world.''

This connection between domestic liberalism and the Cold War worked to liberals' advantage as long as the Cold War went well for the United States. But when the Cold War produced defeat in Vietnam, the confidence Americans had in government began to seem misplaced. And when the fallout from Vietnam, including the Watergate scandal, revealed that American leaders hadn't simply been wrong about Vietnam but persistently deceitful, Americans withdrew the trust in government that had been the basis of Cold War liberalism from the start.

Liberalism never revived. Ronald Reagan was elected, twice, on an explicitly antiliberal, antigovernment platform. ''Government is not the solution to our problem,'' Reagan said. ''Government is the problem.'' As a candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton seemed friendlier to government, but after a disastrous attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system he began sounding Reaganesque, declaring, ''The era of big government is over.''

George W. Bush thought so too - until Sept. 11. Then the Republican president, and the hundreds of millions of people transfixed by the shocking tragedy being played out before them, recalled what government does that no other institution can do. During the 1980s and 1990s the private sector typically got the credit for what went right in society and the public sector took the blame for what went wrong; but after the airplanes hit the World Trade Center, it was the public sector - in the form of firefighters and police - that raced into the doomed towers, while the private sector was running for its life. It was the public sector - in the form of the federal government - that bailed out the airline industry, planned how to shore up the insurance industry, and promised to help rebuild New York City. It is the public sector that is taking over airport security.

Most significantly, public confidence in government has spiked upward since Sept. 11. From a low of around 20 percent in the mid-1990s, confidence, as measured by recent polls, has climbed to more than 60 percent - not far from where it was during liberalism's Cold War heyday.

Is liberalism back? Not yet. The critical element in liberalism's strength during the Cold War was that the popular confidence in government appeared justified, by government's success in prosecuting the war. When government faltered badly in Vietnam, confidence vanished and liberalism foundered. If the war on terrorism goes well, confidence in government will again appear justified, and the American people likely will be willing to look to government for solutions to problems not strictly related to security against terrorism. But if the current war goes badly, liberalism will be no better off than it was three months ago.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 12/9/2001.
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