Claremont Review of Books editor and Claremont McKenna Professor Charles Kesler sat down during the summer of 2008 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 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 describe the three waves, he associated Franklin Roosevelt with the second wave and LBJ with the third wave. (The published version of the lecture linked above does not discuss LBJ. Rather, in his discussion of the third wave Kesler discusses Bill Clinton. In Kesler’s discussion of the third wave, however, one can nevertheless deduce how LBJ initiated it.)
Last year Professor Kesler returned to the subject of the three waves of liberalism in an important column suggesting how Obama’s liberalism would 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.
Now Professor Kesler returns to the subject of Obama’s project in “The New New Deal” (in PDF, or here on the Hillsdale/Imprimis online site). It is essential reading in its entirety and I urge you to take the time to read it through.
In his conclusion, Professor Kesler considers the “signs of a few new or distinctive principles in [Obama’s] current leftward lurch[.]” The first is “the postmodernism that crops up here and there” in Obama’s reflections. The second is Obama’s aversion to American exceptionalism — “and thus to America itself.” Kesler does not specifically mention Obama’s incessant apologies for the United States, or his bowing and scraping to certain heads of state, but they make perfect sense in this context. Kesler writes:
President Obama considers this country deeply flawed from its very beginnings. He means not simply that slavery and other kinds of fundamental injustice existed, which everyone would admit. He means that the Declaration of Independence, when it said that all men are created equal, did not mean to include blacks or anyone else who is not a property-holding, white, European male–an argument put forward infamously by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision, and one that was powerfully refuted by Abraham Lincoln.
In short, President Obama agrees with his former minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, much more than he let on as a presidential candidate. Read closely, his famous speech on that subject in March 2008 doesn’t hide his conclusion that Wright was correct–that America is a racist and ungodly country (hence, not “God Bless America,” but “God Damn America!”). Obama agrees with Wright that in its origin, and for most of its history, America was racist, sexist, and in various ways vicious. Wright’s mistake, Obama said, was underestimating America’s capacity for change–a change strikingly illustrated by Obama’s own advances and his later election. For Obama, Wright’s mistake turned on not what America was, but what America could become–especially after the growth of liberalism in our politics in the course of the 20th century. It was only liberalism that finally made America into a decent country, whereas for most of its history it was detestable.
Unlike most Americans, President Obama still bristles at any suggestion that our nation is better or even luckier than other nations. To be blunt, he despises the notion that Americans consider themselves special among the peoples of the world. This strikes him as the worst sort of ignorance and ethnocentrism, which is why it was so difficult for him to decide to wear an American flag lapel pin when he started running for president, even though he knew it was political suicide to refuse wearing it.
As President Obama hinted in his Berlin speech during the campaign, he really thinks of himself as a multiculturalist, as a citizen of the world, first, and only incidentally as an American. To put it differently, he regards patriotism as morally and intellectually inferior to cosmopolitanism. And, of course, he is never so much a citizen of the world as when defending the world’s environment against mankind’s depredations, and perhaps especially America’s depredations. In general, the emotionalist defense of the earth–think of Al Gore–is now a vital part of the liberalism of our day. It’s a kind of substitute for earlier liberals’ belief in progress. Although his own election–and secondarily liberalism’s achievements over the past century or so–help to redeem America in his view, Obama remains, in many ways, profoundly disconnected from his own land.
This is a very different state of mind and character from that of Franklin Roosevelt, who was the kind of progressive who thought that America was precisely the vanguard of moral progress in the world. This was the way Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and every great liberal captain before Obama thought about his country–as a profoundly moral force in the world, leading the nations of the world toward a better and more moral end point. Obama doesn’t think that way, and therefore his mantle as an American popular leader–despite his flights of oratorical prowess–doesn’t quite fit him in the way that FDR’s fit him. One can see this in the tinges of irony that creep into Obama’s rhetoric now and then–the sense that even he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying; and he knows that but hopes that you don’t.
Obama’s ambivalence is, in many ways, the perfect symbol of the dilemma of the contemporary liberal. How can Obama argue that America and liberalism reject absolute truths, and in the same breath affirm–as he did recently to the United Nations–that human rights are self-evidently true? You can’t have it both ways, though he desperately wants and tries to. Here, surely, is the deepest crisis of 20th-century American liberalism–that it can no longer understand, or defend, its principles as true anymore. It knows that, but knows as well that to say so would doom it politically. Liberals are increasingly left with an amoral pragmatism that is hard to justify to themselves, much less to the American public. The problem for liberals today is that they risk becoming confidence men, and nothing but confidence men.
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 gives rise to the thought that Obama is contributing a powerful undertow in addition to the action on the surface. To borrow from Bob Dylan’s restatement of the creed: “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.”