The fourth wave of liberalism

Anyone seriously trying to understand American politics must reckon with what Claremont Review of Books editor 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 its own impetus. 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.” Professor Kesler now returns to the subject of the three waves of liberalism in an important column suggesting how Obama’s liberalism will shape America’s future. Professor Kesler concludes with thoughts on Obama’s inaugural speech:

His ambitions are clear: The speech was a pastiche of themes adapted from FDR and Ronald Reagan, the last two presidents to pull off major electoral realignments (less enduring in Reagan’s case). What Obama hopes for is a similar breakthrough for the forces of liberalism in this generation.

An enduring Democratic majority is not out of the question. The wild scramble to stop the economic and financial downturn may well leave America with a politically controlled economy that would corrupt the relationship between citizens and the federal government – sapping entrepreneurship and encouraging new forms of dependence on the state, as in much of Europe. That would be consistent with the more socialized democracy that liberalism has been striving for ever since the Progressive Era.

Obama likes to emphasize that America is more like the world than we realize, and must become still more like it if the US is to remain the world’s leader. Despite his summoning oratory, his sense of American exceptionalism thus is far less lofty, far more constrained, than Reagan’s or FDR’s. The greatest stumbling block to Obama’s ambition is likely to be the inability of this exceptional president to persuade Americans to follow him into so unexceptional a future.

Via CSM opinion editor Joshua Burek.

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