H. W. Brands, Author . Yale Univ. $22.50 (224p) ISBN 978-0-300-09021-5

Defining liberalism somewhat simplistically as "a prevailing confidence in the ability of government—preeminently the federal government—to accomplish substantial good on behalf of the American people," Brands argues that Americans have always been oppositely inclined and that only wartime exigencies—in both WWII and the Cold War—allowed for a period when the liberal expansion of government could triumph. (His similarly truncated view of conservatism renders "family values" and Joseph McCarthy as "pseudo-conservative.") A skilled biographer (T.R.: The Last Romantic; etc.) and professor of history and liberal arts at Texas A&M University, Brands makes this argument primarily through a string of engaging presidential narratives, but he sets them against a background of public opinion (though offering only broad generalizations, for instance, based on sporadic reference to specific polls) on the role of government. He's deft at presenting complexities in concise form, as in his exquisite contrast of JFK and LBJ, but offers some questionable judgments as well (such as that Nixon was a liberal). Though it's not a Great-Man view of history, this approach suffers from a profound neglect of broader historical considerations, such as the role of race in American politics, party dealignment after 1968, a renewed elite hostility to the welfare state after the 1973–1974 recession and a host of other factors necessary to clarify the rise and fall of American liberalism. By concentrating on Americans' general loss of trust in government and ignoring continued strong support for specific programs (substantiated by numerous studies), Brands perpetuates the illusion that no such complexities need be considered. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/29/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
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