The three waves of liberalism

The Forgotten Man is the important new history of the New Deal by Amity Shlaes. I wrote briefly about the book and posted Amity Shlaes’s summary here last weekend. In that post I observed that anyone seriously trying to understand American politics must reckon with what Charles Kesler has called “the three waves of liberalism,” beginning with Woodrow Wilson. Kesler characterizes the three waves as political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism.
In the version of the lecture in which I first heard Kesler discuss the three waves, he associated Franklin Roosevelt with the second wave and LBJ with the third wave. In the only published version of the lecture that I have been able to locate, Kesler does not discuss LBJ. Rather, in his discussion of the third wave Kesler discusses Bill Clinton. When you get to Kesler’s discussion of the third wave, however, you may want to think about how LBJ inaugurated it.
One point made by Kesler in the original version of the lecture is that succeeding liberal presidents deepen and extend the innovations of their forebears, picking up from where they left off. The liberal program has an impetus that is difficult to resist. Here Kesler’s metaphor of the waves has its own power. To borrow from Bob Dylan’s restatement of the creed, “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.”
If you seek to deepen your understanding of American politics, you can’t do much better than to print out and study Kesler’s 1998 lecture “Statesmanship for America’s future.” Thanks to Joseph Tartakovsky of the Claremont Institute for helping me dig it out.
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