‘He was much more liberal than his presidential campaign let on,” Charles Kesler writes of Barack Obama in 2008. You can say that again. “Liberals like crises, and one shouldn’t spoil them by handing them another on a silver salver. The kind of crisis that is approaching . . . is probably not their favorite kind, an emergency that presents an opportunity to enlarge government, but one that will find liberalism at a crossroads, a turning point,” he argues in I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. “Liberalism can’t go on as it is, not for very long. It faces difficulties both philosophical and fiscal that will compel it either to go out of business or to become something quite different from what it has been.” As we approach President Obama’s second inaugural, is this really so? Kesler looks at the president’s first term and the future of liberalism with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You wrote a whole book about “Barack Obama and the crisis of liberalism” before the 2012 election, which he won fairly easily. Is your analysis still relevant?
CHARLES KESLER: Highly relevant, alas. I began writing about Obama in 2007, when his speeches struck me as more interesting and ambitious than the usual Democratic pablum. His two books — one a strikingly postmodern memoir, the other a more conventional campaign book that displayed his highly unconventional view of how to transform our politics — confirmed my judgment that conservatives (and at the time, the Clintons) were dangerously underestimating him. By the time I began I Am the Change in 2011, he had run the table, winning on the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank the kind of liberal legislative breakthroughs that bring to mind the New Deal or the Great Society.
LOPEZ: Isn’t the crisis over? Liberalism has won.
KESLER: As I wrote in the book, Obama was poised to be either liberalism’s savior or its gravedigger. His own view was that Ronald Reagan had been a transformative figure in American politics and that no Democrat since had had the gumption, the vision, and the discipline to challenge Reaganism. But Obama thought it challengeable, and his 2008 campaign was all about restoring liberals’ Hope that sweeping political Change was still possible, despite the Reagan Revolution. He had to restore liberals’ faith in liberalism, and then translate that faith into works, which he did in his first term. By unleashing a new New Deal, as it were, he showed his followers that Reagan had merely interrupted, not overturned, the country’s destiny to move ever leftward.
LOPEZ: So what was at stake in 2012 wasn’t just the fate of one liberal administration but of liberalism itself?
KESLER: Yes, to the extent that a repudiation of Obama and his agenda would have led to a very deep crisis of confidence on the left. To paraphrase Woody Allen, liberalism is like a shark. It has to move forward constantly or it dies. Think, for example, of the liberals’ so-called living Constitution, which has to be continually adjusted (by them) to keep up with the times. The alternative to the living Constitution is, by implication, a dead one. As a form of progressivism, liberalism has to conceive of itself as being on the right side of history, which means the winning side. Anything that shakes that confidence — a long series of defeats and policy reversals, e.g., if Obama had lost, Obamacare had gone on to be repealed and replaced, and the Bush tax cuts made permanent — shakes liberals’ belief in their own inevitability, which is key to their own sense of their right to rule.
LOPEZ: But they didn’t lose in 2012. It’s conservatism that now seems to be an endangered species.
KESLER: Exactly, and Obama’s ambition to be liberalism’s reviver and savior appears to have been realized. But the emphasis is on “appears.” Obama thinks he has saved liberalism because he’s put it on the winning side again, and in a big way. He takes pride in showing that the era of big government is not over, that in fact the future belongs to much higher taxes and to much more activist government. I think he’s profoundly wrong about that. Before suggesting why, may I say something briefly about how differently conservatives think, or ought to think, about the relation between principles and politics?
For us, to put it simply, principles are rooted in what our fathers called the laws of nature and of nature’s God. These are timeless, that is, they call to us in every age. Some ages live up to the minimal demands of moral decency and the maximum demands of political excellence better than others; no age lives up to them perfectly. That’s why conservatives are inherently moderate in their demands and expectations of politics, recognizing that neither political defeat nor victory affects the inherent authority and goodness of first principles. Our losses in 2012 are therefore not cause for despair. Like everything in politics they are temporary. We shouldn’t run around like liberals, afraid that the times are against us and that we need to exchange old principles for new ones that allegedly fit the times better. Our calling is, so far as possible, to keep the times in tune with our principles, not to adjust our principles to match the times. As Churchill put it, it isn’t possible to guarantee success in politics or war; it’s possible only to deserve it. By contrast, progressives believe in happy endings, in the inevitability of progress. They cannot separate might from right, success from legitimacy, and so don’t have the consolation of believing in principles in the conservative sense. They insist that the good guys must always or at least eventually win, a standard which elides easily into the deeply immoral belief that, in the end, whoever wins must be right.
LOPEZ: What you call the crisis of liberalism isn’t over, then?
KESLER: I think it’s just beginning. Obama thinks it’s over, of course. With his usual modesty, he regards his reelection as the sign that liberalism has returned to its natural role as modern America’s public philosophy or established religion. Reaganism was a blip, an anomaly. But the Democrats’ very successes are intensifying liberalism’s contradictions, both fiscal and philosophical.
LOPEZ: This is the grave-digging part?
KESLER: Yes! The fiscal danger is now obvious: We can’t afford all the promises the welfare state has already made, much less the ones it will add in coming years. It’s almost impossible for liberals to limit spending because every promise becomes a program, and every program stands for a new right to health care, child care, and so forth. You can’t put a price on human rights! The result is that the federal government, driven by what is candidly called “uncontrollable” spending, is bankrupt or soon will be. Liberalism can’t go on very much longer without unleashing its socialist id and imposing, among other things, a comprehensive and oppressive new regime of middle-class taxation. Faced with that illiberal future, many liberals may balk.
And philosophically, American liberals are coming to the end of their rope. Though President Obama likes to be called a Progressive, he doesn’t believe in progress in the way, say, Woodrow Wilson did as something scientifically and rationally certain, benign, and steerable. For Obama, strains of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and relativism have crept in. Progress, both as to both means and ends, is in this view more a matter of will than of reason. It’s not a question anymore of following or finding history’s meaning but of creating it. In its purest and most academic form, this revelation has pulled the philosophical rug out from under liberalism, exposing it as neither true nor just, because neither Truth nor Justice exists (ask any postmodernist). Obama doesn’t go that far; he wants to believe in social justice, I think. For instance, he sometimes quotes Martin Luther King’s line that the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice. Yet Obama asserts at the same time that democracy depends on the rejection of every form of “absolute truth.” If you reject absolute truth absolutely, you are not only incoherent but in danger of becoming the worst kind of dogmatist.
LOPEZ: Your book is as much about liberalism as it is about Obama. It has meaty chapters on Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, for example. Why the double focus?
KESLER: Because Obama personifies modern liberalism and its crisis. He compares himself frequently to FDR and Lincoln, and occasionally to LBJ, and he calls himself “progressive.” All that’s well known, but no one had thought it through. That’s what I try to do in I Am the Change, put between two covers, for the first time, the story of modern American liberalism, its evolution and devolution.
Conservatives have spent generations pondering the relation of modern liberalism to the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, abolitionism, the Enlightenment, medieval nominalism — all things worth thinking about, by the way — but we had largely ignored the obvious point that in America the liberal movement traces itself back through a series of prophet-leaders (LBJ, JFK, FDR, etc.) to Wilsonian-style Progressivism. (TR was also important, and Jean Yarbrough’s new book on him is splendid. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism tells the story brilliantly, but from a different angle.) That’s the liberalism we suffer from. The “living constitution,” the cult of the charismatic leader who mesmerizes the masses with a “vision” of the future, entitlement rights and programs, the State that replaces God by offering complete material and spiritual fulfillment in this life, the disillusionment that follows that hubris — all these familiar tropes of our contemporary politics emerge from the century of liberalism that in a way culminates in Barack Obama.
LOPEZ: Was it satisfying to have the New York Times notice your book, whatever it happened to say?
KESLER: It was a negative review, the only one the book’s gotten so far, but it was long, reasonably serious, and on the cover of the Sunday book review, so I’m not complaining. As they say in real estate, it’s location, location, location! And I’m grateful for the thoughtful reviews from the many critics who found more to admire in the book, including the lovely notice in National Review from Ramesh Ponnuru.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.