Is This Progressivism's Last Gasp?

Some conservative critics of Barack Obama dismiss him as an ineffective, confused president–no surprise, in their view, since his thin résumé showed from the beginning that he was unqualified for the job. Others, much farther to the right, circulate spooky theories about Obama: that he’s a secret Muslim, a friend to terrorists, an un-American, foreign-born Other holding his office illegally. In his important new book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, Charles Kesler provides a conservative reading of the Obama presidency that is neither dismissive nor conspiratorial. Instead, he sees Obama as the latest presidential exemplar of a liberal political tradition that for a century has worked to transform the American constitutional order in ways that would make it unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers. And Obama knows what he is doing, Kesler believes. The president, he warns, “is playing a long, high-stakes game, and it’s not at all clear he’s losing.”

For Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the respected Claremont Review of Books, American liberalism was born in Progressivism, the early-twentieth-century movement that saw the freedoms and natural rights secured by the U.S. Constitution as insufficient to meet the modern age’s challenges, which ranged from the malignant influence of powerful special interests to the disordered growth of cities. Woodrow Wilson, a relentless proponent of Progressivism as a Princeton University professor and administrator, was elected president in 1912. He would unleash the first of what would be three major waves of liberal reform in the twentieth century–in his case a “political liberalism,” as Kesler calls it, that sought to correct the purported weaknesses of American governance. Wilson’s “New Freedom” gave us a series of themes and doctrines that still inform Obama-era liberalism.

First is the “living Constitution.” In the Founders’ view, rights were rooted in the universals of human nature and therefore preexisted government, which meant that government’s reach was limited. Wilson and his fellow Progressives, by contrast–drawing on then-trendy Darwinian theories and on historicist German philosophy–held that human nature and rights weren’t static but evolved over time. And government, they believed, could take control of that evolution and perfect it, so that society as a whole advanced. Government could perform this crucial task, however, only if the Founders’ limited Constitution was replaced with a “living” one that lifted the constraints on state power. An empowered state would then move ever-closer to a condition of “man’s complete spiritual fulfillment,” in Kesler’s words–a utopianism as far from the Founders’ prudent understanding of the proper ends of government as one could imagine.

Wilson represented American liberalism “in embryo” in other ways, too. He was the first president to try to make the role of the executive paramount in the American system: the ruler of the country should be a political visionary, leading the people into the radiant future. Wilson also helped establish the Progressive ideal of governance by expert advisors, a development made possible by the rise of the nation’s research universities. “For all its emphasis on the people versus ‘the interests,’” Kesler writes, “the Progressive movement did not trust the people to govern themselves unless under the influence of the ‘exact knowledge’ of an expert class.” Needless to say, rule by experts can at times conflict with self-rule by a democratic people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal brought the second, bigger wave of liberal reform. FDR “was the second great captain of liberalism, the first to fight under that banner and the first to win electoral victories so massive and legislative successes so lasting that liberal public policies and, even more important, the assumptions behind those policies, became ruling elements in our public life.” His “economic” liberalism, taking advantage of the disruptions of the Great Depression, sought to introduce radically new socioeconomic rights–entitlements, as we call them today–into the American system. FDR’s success in pushing through his agenda transformed America into a nascent welfare state.

Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights,” proposed in his 1944 State of the Union address as World War II still raged, laid out an array of “rights” that liberals continue to support aggressively–to housing, to a “living wage,” to education, to social security, to adequate medical care, and so on. In keeping with Progressivism, the new rights weren’t inalienable aspects of human nature, prior to and limiting government; they were gifts that government gave to the people. After all, if government recognizes your right to a decent home, it becomes the government’s responsibility to provide you with that home, directly or indirectly. The New Deal Democrats didn’t fear government as a potential oppressor, as the Founders did; they viewed it as a mighty instrument in the creation of a just society.

Though aspects of the New Deal–Social Security above all–proved popular, its legacy has had a dark side. The entitlement state made lobbyists out of many Americans, who increasingly positioned themselves as group members (the elderly, the disabled, workers, and many more) seeking benefits from government. “Almost immediately the high idealism of socioeconomic rights descended into the grubby politics of interest groups,” Kesler observes. “Every American had an interest now in becoming part of a vested interest, a special interest.” That this shift has undermined self-government is a plausible contention.

After the New Freedom and the New Deal came the sixties and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, liberalism’s third, “cultural” wave. LBJ’s liberal dream didn’t just encompass ending poverty and racial injustice; it had an existential dimension–a politics of meaning–that paralleled the incoherent aspirations of the New Left and promised a world of perfect community and beauty. “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” announced Johnson deliriously, as he lit the national Christmas tree, shortly after the 1964 election landslide.

The project was doomed to fail. “The Great Society destroyed the Great Society,” Kesler says. “Its soaring expectations, its utopian promises, could not be fulfilled in ten years or a hundred years.” How could government satisfy all material and spiritual desires when human desires were infinite? The Johnson administration’s anti-poverty initiatives spent profligately, yet poverty rates didn’t plummet; long-term welfare dependency emerged as a seemingly intractable social problem, and cities burned in race riots. “The government did not know what it was doing,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan would later observe.

Liberalism’s utopian, radical turn–its embrace of the New Left–would harm it politically during the Johnson administration and beyond. Liberals began to denounce the Silent Majority of Americans as warlike, bigoted, sexist, materialistic, stupid, and on and on. Reject the democratic majority, though, and that majority, unsurprisingly, will reject you. Liberals soon found themselves in the political wilderness of the Reagan years, which repudiated everything they stood for. Then a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, announced the end of the era of big government. Then George W. Bush won two terms, albeit narrowly.

These political disappointments help explain the wild expectations that the American Left initially placed in presidential candidate Barack Obama. It was all there, each previous wave of American liberalism. Obama was Wilson’s visionary leader, bringing down the powerful and elevating the middle-class and the poor; he would expand entitlements, guaranteeing decent health care to all Americans; he would rebalance the courts in favor of the living constitutionalists. Obama’s elevated rhetoric even recalled the politics of meaning of the sixties.

Despite the disappointments of some on the Left with his first term, Obama may represent liberalism’s fourth wave. He has added nothing new to the Progressive legacy of Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, Kesler maintains, except for himself, the “Lightworker,” as one San Francisco writer hysterically described him in 2008, the eloquent African-American redeemer. But he has enacted a universal healthcare law, something no previous liberal achieved. And as Michael Grunwald’s recent The New New Deal chronicles with disturbing enthusiasm, Obama used his $1 trillion stimulus package partly as an excuse to remake the American economy via ambitious industrial policy, showering money on green startups and other enterprises that the market largely rejected as unprofitable. Should Obama defeat Republican Mitt Romney in a few weeks and win a second term, America could be moved closer to becoming a European-style social democracy.

Yet Kesler thinks it more likely that President Obama represents liberalism’s last gasp. Liberalism–to put it bluntly–is out of money, at least if the American economy remains only partly socialized. Congressional Budget Office projections show that, a dozen years or so from now, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest payments on federal debt will consume every penny of federal revenue. That means that the federal government would probably need borrowed funds to pay for everything else it does, including defense; debt would cripple the economy, as it is crippling the economies of statist Europe. When the money runs out, as Irving Kristol once put it, Americans tend to get serious about reform. Kesler contends that we could soon see not a fourth liberal wave but a conservative or libertarian one, with means-testing of benefits, devolution of authority to states and localities, and a shift from socio-economic “rights” to a welfare system based more on traditional notions of charity. That makes the November election one of historic importance for the future of liberalism–and, more important, of America.      

I Am the Change is probably the most serious book written to date on Obama. Kesler helps us understand the president and the current of American political life that produced him. Clearly written, patiently excavating the words and actions of Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama, the book is a model of intellectual history that is at the same time completely of the moment.

Additional Resources at Law and Liberty:

Podcast with Charles Kesler on I am the Change.