The Coming Liberal Crisis

Professor Charles Kesler ponders Obama’s—and liberalism’s—fate at the Heritage Foundation

Charles Kesler
September 21, 2012

Charles Kesler argued Wednesday night at the Heritage Foundation that "the crisis of liberalism is Obama’s crisis" during a lecture based on his book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.

Heritage Vice President Matthew Spalding introduced Kesler as a "tower of conservative thought" and said the Claremont McKenna College professor has done something "liberal, if not downright revolutionary" with the book by writing about President Barack Obama as the president "understands and explains himself."

Kesler opened his talk with this theme, saying that it is "fairer and more useful" to call Obama "what he calls himself: a progressive or a liberal."

He said that liberalism is approaching a "crisis," a "turning point" where it will either "go out of business" or change entirely.

Kesler said that the 20th century was "very much the liberal century." It was marked by three great presidents who enacted sweeping liberal public policies: Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Obama’s presidency stands in the same tradition as these 20th-century presidents, Kesler argued.

"All the alluvial silt from this stream of liberalism deposited itself in Barack Obama’s formation," he said.

Kesler used Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, to discuss Obama’s life and his place in American liberalism. Obama, Kesler said, is a "child of the 60s" who "shared the 60s existentialist mood." He noted that, while many politicians fabricate parts of their autobiographies, Obama is the first to boast openly of such fictionalizing.

"Self-creation is a very important word to Obama," Kesler said.

Kesler structures his book around Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson. After an opening chapter on "The Audacity of Barack Obama," Kesler devotes a chapter to each the three great liberal presidents—"explaining and criticizing" each installment of the "liberal advance," he said, before culminating in a final chapter titled "Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism."

Conservatism’s victories have come late in the liberal century, Kesler said, "coming only in the last act," with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.

Kesler said that, despite its success, liberalism might be nearing the end of its run. In an essay adapted from his book in the latest edition of the Claremont Review of Books, he writes:

Is it just wishful thinking to imagine the end of liberalism? Few things in politics are permanent. … Some elements of liberalism are inherent to American democracy, but the compound, the peculiar combination that is contemporary liberalism, is not. … Under the pressure of ideas and events, that compound could come apart. Liberals’ confidence in being on the right, the winning side of history could crumble, perhaps has already begun to crumble. Trust in government, which really means in the State, is at all-time lows. … The Democratic Party is unlikely to go poof, but it’s possible that modern liberalism will.

In his talk, Kesler discussed both the philosophical and fiscal elements of liberalism. Liberals, Kesler said, hold a particular doctrine of history, based on ideas of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel, which leads them to "believe in the inevitability of human progress."

Liberalism’s ideas also lead to the concept of "entitlement rights," Kesler said, of which Obamacare is the "latest installment," generating greater spending by the government.

This specific philosophical system, Kesler said, undermines the liberal self-description of being non-ideological and purely practical. He pointed out that, while liberals might claim to be "pragmatists," this self-understanding is a "noble lie" that is meant to shield liberals from "charges of radicalism" and to "protect the movement."

After presenting his lecture on the ideas in his book, he fielded questions about his talk and the book for about 15 minutes.

Kesler said that his book is "the first to put the story of liberalism between two covers." Broadside Books, a division of HarperCollins, published I Am the Change, which came out September 11.