“I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union and building a better America,” declared a young senator from Illinois in February of 2007. “Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.”
These words, echoing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, began the unlikely campaign which would captivate a nation and allow Barack Obama to become 44th President of the United States. But there was an important question left unasked — one that, perhaps in a time of less national delusion, we would have presented: to what ends does this “new birth of freedom” aspire?
President Lincoln, after all, was engaged in a great civil war, one that had made “self-evident truths” into mere “propositions,” testing whether the principles of our founding could endure the critical test of slavery.
For President Obama, the test was a different one. It was not a test of principle, but a test of history – one not accountable to God, but to the demands of progress. It was a duty, as he understood it, for us “to remake the world as it should be.”
This charge is the theme of Charles Kesler’s new book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. It attempts to understand the president as he understands himself: as the inheritor of a progressive tradition dating back to the early 1900s.
That tradition, one hundred years later, is now in crisis. Americans are more and more wary of growing debts, an ever-expanding government, and an increasingly detached bureaucracy. For Obama, who assured us that he was the source of this new vision of hope and change, the test was whether or not he could keep progressive liberalism moving forward.
The book is divided into four major sections: one devoted to Woodrow Wilson (the “father” of progressivism and the “New Freedom”), one to FDR (with his “New Deal” and “Second Bill of Rights”), one to Lyndon Johnson (“Great Society”), and a final section devoted to President Obama himself.
In each, Kesler follows the argument of progressive liberalism as it upends the principles established by our founding and defended by Lincoln, laying the groundwork for a re-founding of the American regime.
In Wilson, we are shown a member of the intelligentsia. To this day, he remains the only president with a Ph. D. “Wilson spent three decades in the academy,” Kesler writes, “contemplating the failing of the old American constitutional system, testing his critique of it, and preparing the rhetorical case for its transformation.”
As a student of Charles Darwin, Wilson asserted that “government is not a machine, but a living thing… All that progressives ask or desire is permission… to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle” of evolution. Indeed, Wilson lamented that “some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence.”
This is an extremely important point: as much as President Obama wants to put the label of “Social Darwinism” on the free market, it was the progressives who first adopted Darwin’s thought to political life. They knew government was force, first and foremost, and they believed in using that force in order to plan a more efficient and dynamic society — one that could meet the demands of history.
It was Wilson, by the way, who first put down the justification for an administrative aspect of government, one “removed from the hurry and strife of politics; it at most points stands apart even from the debatable ground of constitutional study.” (So if you’re wondering who to blame for the unconstitutional and unelected “alphabet soup” of federal boards, agencies, administrations, and authorities that accelerated under FDR, there you go.)
Speaking of FDR, Kesler sees his reign as the effective implementation of Wilson’s political philosophy. “To Wilson,” he explains, “belonged credit for discovering and exploring the new continent of American politics; FDR colonized and held it.”
The link between the two is remarkably clear. In FDR’s nomination address to the DNC in 1932, he asked Democrats to “feel that in everything we do there still lives with us, if not the body, the great indomitable, unquenchable, progressive soul of our Commander-in-Chief, Woodrow Wilson.”
Kesler, however, makes note of an important contribution on FDR’s part. In his 1936 nomination acceptance speech, FDR saw the importance of seeking “not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” (We see this same sentiment in President Obama today, who often reminds us to “be our brother's keeper,” and to “let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”)
FDR's contributions culminated in the introduction of his “Second Bill of Rights,” or the “economic” bill of rights. With rights to a “decent home,” “adequate medical care,” and “good education,” the government’s ideal role became that of a warmhearted caregiver.
But this was still not enough. We need “not just equality as a right and a theory,” Lyndon Johnson reminded us, “but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” This put the country on a dangerous path, Kesler writes, where “equal opportunity was on the way to being replaced by equal results.”
But somewhere along the line, things started to go bad. Sure, we knew that the progressive Darwinism of Wilson led him into racism and eugenics, and we knew that the New Deal was more or less an economic failure, but these men were just relics of a time gone by. We had progressed beyond these old progressives, and now the progress was really progressing!
Alas, not quite. As Kesler points out, the philosophy of progressive liberalism made “the very possibility of a meaningful universe” into “folly.”
“Liberalism’s old-time religion,” Kesler writes of the late '60s, “that belief in rational progress, didn’t appeal because progressivism had been discredited… by the results of progress itself — the Bomb, not to mention the Holocaust, two world wars, Jim Crow, and now the Cold War and Vietnam.”
So all this reason and science gave way to the next best thing: young people taking “feelings as their guide to ethics.” We all know where that went – free love, the sexual revolution, the pill, abortions, and a mighty distrust of government that came to the fore during the Watergate scandal.
The feeling would be best expressed in then-President Jimmy Carter’s "Crisis of Confidence” speech, where he declared the threat to be “a crisis that strikes to the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity and of purpose for our nation.”
Barack Obama was going to change all that. He was an old-style progressive, sure — he thought the Founders were products of their times who didn’t see black people as having rights, he believed government would be more effective if it operated like the military — but he was cool. Young folks were excited as the prospect of a president that understood why government wasn’t working and was going to change it.
In the president, many saw the ultimate union of the old left and the new left, the re-coupling of government-first progressives and generations of the socially and sexually “liberated.”
And then reality set in. A “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, a re-escalation of Middle East radicalism and violence, record numbers of drone strikes, one of the slowest economic recoveries in history, unconstitutional use of the waiver authority to re-write the TANF welfare law, abuse of executive discretion to avoid enforcing immigration laws, a brutal fight to pass Obamacare that culminated in one of the most complex laws in American history (underwritten by big pharmaceutical companies), record deficits and debt, and a looming “fiscal cliff” that grew out of an inability to effectively compromise with congressional leaders.
For Charles Kesler, the great crisis facing progressive liberalism is that 100 years after the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson, President Obama has failed to bring together the great union of the left that his candidacy promised. Without that union, confidence in the left will continue to decline and their political philosophy will continue to fail.
The book is dedicated to the late William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review and one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement. Kesler’s subtle message seems to be that Buckley, the great fusionist who brought together traditional conservatives, libertarians, and anti-communists, was able to build the united front which progressives currently lack.
Now, with liberalism sinking into an existential crisis, perhaps it’s time for the left to admit that they have failed the test of history.