Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler sat down last summer to read the books and speeches of Barack Obama. Professor Kesler concluded that Obama is a serious and ambitious politician who has set about to engineer a transformative leftward shift in American politics and government. Professor Kesler set forth the conclusions he drew from his reading of Obama in “The audacity of Barack Obama.”
Anyone seriously trying to understand American politics must reckon with what Kesler calls “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 describe the three waves, he associated Franklin Roosevelt with the second wave and LBJ with the third wave. (The published version of the lecture 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 nevertheless deduce how LBJ initiated it.)
This past February Professor Kesler returned 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 concluded 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.
Peter Robinson recently drew on Kesler’s account of the three waves to explore the roots of Obama’s liberalism. Now Robinson is pursuing the subject with Kesler himself this week in a must-watch five-part interview posted on Uncommon Knowledge at NRO. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here.
As the history of the Reagan administration tends to show, each wave of liberalism has produced results that are extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to reverse. 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.”