Rahm Emanuel famously admonished his party to never let a crisis go to waste. This advice should come in handy for conservatives, since according to Charles R. Kesler’s new book, liberalism is in crisis.
By crisis, Kesler doesn’t mean a national emergency that enables the expansion of government. Instead, he means a turning point. In I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, he writes that “Liberalism can’t go on as it is, not for very long. It faces difficulties both philosophical and fiscal that will compel it either to go out of business or to become something quite different from what it has been.”
Liberalism is in this predicament for philosophical and practical reasons. Philosophically, liberalism rejected eternal truths in favor of the promise of perpetual progress. Over the years, they lost faith in progress and devolved into nihilism. Practically, liberal programs failed to fix society’s problems and instead produced huge deficits, debt, and an entitlement crisis. The continued growth of government is fiscally unsustainable.
A professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the Editor of the Claremont Review of Books, Kesler pioneered the study of progressive liberalism as a radical break with the principles of the American Founding. In I am the Change, he traces the history of liberalism to explain how the movement found itself this mess. He identifies three waves of radical political, economic, and cultural transformation.
Woodrow Wilson is the godfather of liberalism. Our first professor-turned-President, Wilson disdained the Constitution for being a limited government document. There is no permanent human nature or self-evident eternal truths that limit government, he argued. Instead, man’s nature progresses as History unfolds, and the purpose and duties of government evolve according to the times. He encouraged Americans to shed their affection for the separation of powers and instead embrace a “living Constitution” of expanded governmental powers.
“Not only one of its supreme theorists,” Kesler writes, Wilson was the “principal model” for future progressive leadership. Indeed, Wilson introduced “leadership” into politics. The Founders were suspicious of the term—“leaders” headed factions and incited revolutions. But, Wilson argued that a leader identifies the path of progress and sets the pace for the American people to achieve it. The leader of the second wave, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first to fight under the banner of liberalism. FDR’s massive electoral and legislative victories made “liberal public policies and, even more important, assumptions behind those policies . . . ruling elements in our public life.”
There is no reason to fear government, he argued, no matter how strong it becomes. That’s because the bigger the government is, the more rights it can grant to people. And FDR had many “rights” to “give”: a right to a good job, a decent home, and protection from the “economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” These rights were meant to spell security—to free people from necessity and create a new liberal age unmarred by selfishness and materialism. Instead, he created a special interest scramble for more power, benefits, and rights.
Lyndon Johnson launched the third wave of liberalism which devolved into a civil war between the academic-cultural left and the political-reformist left. Essentially, LBJ’s Great Society was supposed to conquer scarcity, poverty, and war, thereby freeing us to make and remake ourselves in accordance with our own desires and will. What resulted was a bigger government that people trusted less. New interest groups developed and warred with the older New Deal-era interest groups. The new academic Left lost faith in Progress and grew suspicious of the old Left, dubbed “the System.”
And that brings us to modern day America under President Obama. The President inherited a “frayed liberalism.” “Against long odds, he’s tried to reunite its dissonant parts and restore its political élan.” Kesler writes. “He brought America to the verge of a fourth wave of political and social transformation, something that neither Democrats nor Republicans thought possible.” But he has not been entirely successful at solving liberalism’s grave ills.
In response to an exploding deficit, Obama proposed: more spending. In response to an exploding entitlement crisis, Obama promised: a massive new entitlement. Though Obamacare was a victory for the left, it’s hated by the rest of America and still a financial boondoggle. Life of Julia aside, soulless bureaucracies still can’t give meaning to life. And our current President may be cool, but Obama’s life-story is a scant alternative to Liberalism’s now-defunct religion of faith in Progress.
Kesler’s argument offers glimmers of hope to conservatives. Where liberalism lacks philosophic bearings, conservatism can articulate on the self-evident truths of equality, natural rights, and consent grounded in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the Constitution. Liberalism had a monopoly on social science, but Conservatives broke it and offer policy solutions to address our current predicaments. Obamacare could have been written by FDR’s brain trust, Kesler wryly notes. But conservatives have myriad new policy solutions for health care, entitlements, and welfare state. Our policies are grounded in America’s principles, not excuses to move beyond them.
Yes, liberalism is in crisis. And it’s one that conservatives shouldn’t let go to waste.
Julia Shaw is research associate and program manager at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire