Book review: I Am the Change – Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism

Escape from Utopia

Utopian rhetoric is so commonplace in our political life that we scarcely question or even notice it. Part of Charles Kesler’s achievement in I Am the Change is to help us see that familiar utopianism in all its strangeness.

Consider a commencement address by newly elected senator Barack Obama at Knox College in 2005. “So let’s dream,” said our future president. Make sure that college is “affordable for everyone who wants to go,” among other things, and “that old Maytag plant could re-open its doors as an Ethanol refinery that turned corn into fuel. Down the street, a biotechnology research lab could open up on the cusp of discovering a cure for cancer.” How did we reach the point where a politician could, as Kesler writes, “dangle before the citizens of Galesburg, Illinois, home of Knox College, the prospect not merely of a biotech research lab opening up down the street, but one that is on the verge of curing cancer”?

The answer lies in the three waves of progressivism that have washed over America in the last century. Kesler — a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and longtime ornament of these pages — has been studying this history for his entire career. He illuminates it mostly through close and characteristically wry attention to the words of the progressive presidents associated with each of those waves: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. He identifies them as the leaders of attempts to transform the country’s politics, economics, and culture, respectively.

Wilson, Kesler notes, was the first president to criticize the Constitution and its premises, treating checks and balances as outmoded and natural rights as a fiction. He was rhetorically crafty, misleading listeners then and since with his remark that “the history of liberty is the history of the limitation of governmental power.” He did not say that liberty’s future would follow this pattern. He cast the state as the “‘Family’ writ large” and adopted the image of the “perfected, coordinated beehive” (these are all Wilson’s own words) as the goal of political community.

Wilson was the first president, as well, to indulge in the now-familiar celebration of political “leadership,” a term the Founders had regarded with suspicion, never more so than when that leadership was “visionary.” Presidents prior to Wilson had spoken to the public on rare and brief occasions. “Even most of the inaugural addresses avoided politics in the sense of policy agendas or partisan appeals,” Kesler writes. Wilson began the chatterbox presidency, which would in time yield presidents (and senators, like Obama at Knox College) who tell us all about the futures they “see.” They also tell us about the crises we must pass through to get there: Wilson argued that leaders should keep the public in a sense of crisis at all times, the better to perfect the beehive.

Like Wilson, whom he revered, FDR was impatient with the Constitution. In his first inaugural address he suggested that it might be a good idea for Congress to grant him “broad executive power to wage a war against” the Depression. FDR said he would use his power to engage in “bold, persistent experimentation,” and ever since then pragmatic improvisation has been part of the liberal self-image. It was always a canard: FDR’s policies were mostly nostrums retrieved from the Progressive shelf, and few of them were ever discarded except under duress.

Under FDR, the president added to his job description the task of moving all of us to a morally better world, especially a less selfish and materialistic one. The president was no longer one among many government officials charged with protecting the natural rights, and especially property rights, of citizens. Instead he was to redefine those rights, renegotiating the contract between “rulers” and citizens for each generation. (In an endnote, Kesler cites Federalist 84, in which Alexander Hamilton explicitly rejects the metaphor of a contract with a ruler.)

FDR preferred the term “liberal” to “progressive,” in part because it aided the political project of presenting his ideas as rooted in the country’s classical-liberal past. With government now the source rather than protector of rights, the older liberal wariness about government had to go. Kesler paraphrases: “Since our rights are dependent on government, why shouldn’t we be?”

FDR redefined the opposition to progressivism too, and with a degree of demagoguery that has been airbrushed out of the popular history of the era. In his 1944 annual message to Congress, he warned that if “we were to return to the so-called normalcy of the 1920s . . . we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home.”

Johnson wanted to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt,” and was president at the high tide of liberal confidence. The promises he made were extravagant: “to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.” In addition, he wished to improve “the quality of our American civilization.” In the Great Society, he said, “leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.”

Liberal intellectuals and student activists were surprisingly unappreciative. Kesler comments: “In the Great Society [Johnson] thought he was giving them all they could have asked for, and much more than JFK would ever have managed; but he had little idea of how much they were prepared to ask for.” The unboundedness of progressive aspirations was Johnson’s undoing: “The lower the poverty rate or the unemployment rate, the more intolerable it seemed.” The results of the Great Society included “a bigger and bigger government we trust less and less,” and a progressivism that began to lose faith in the American people, with their selfish reluctance to transform themselves.

The traces of all of Obama’s progressive predecessors can be found in his presidency. Like the earliest progressives, he creates a mock alternative to his creed in Social Darwinism — erasing more than a century of debate about the purposes of government that started with natural right rather than survival of the fittest. His metaphors date from Wilson: He frequently describes the state as the instrument by which we act as “our brother’s keeper” and occasionally suggests that our politics would improve if we all saw ourselves as part of the armed forces.

Like FDR, he does not struggle with constitutional niceties. Kesler avoids the error of thinking that Obamacare’s individual mandate is its only constitutional deficiency. At least as hostile to constitutionalism is the “Independent Payment Advisory Board” the law creates, grants sweeping legislative powers, and insulates from accountability. (The legislative language is murky, but it appears to tell Congress that it cannot abolish the board unless it introduces legislation between January and February of 2017 and passes it by a three-fifths vote of both chambers by mid-August.) In general, both that law and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation are “administrative to-do lists” rather than laws in the sense of the rule of law.

And like the progressives of the late Sixties, Obama has his doubts about America’s founding principles. Kesler argues that Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope implicitly concludes — and that nothing else Obama has said revises the conclusion — that those principles were “racist and even proslavery.” On this basic question Obama sides with Lincoln’s opponents, not the Great Emancipator he spent the early days of his presidency ostentatiously invoking.

Obama’s stated reason for nonetheless rejecting the views of Jeremiah Wright is that the country can change — indeed, change is its fundamental principle. In announcing his presidential campaign Obama said that the “genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed,” which does not actually sound like an accomplishment that requires genius. Coupled with this exaltation of change is what Obama calls “a rejection of absolute truth,” which he claims is “implicit” in the concept of liberty. Kesler is perhaps too polite in discussing these Obama tropes. (They’re hardly ideas.)

Kesler views Obama’s health-care law as “the centerpiece of [his] whole political enterprise.” Its repeal, he argues, would deal a body blow to the progressive project by calling into question whether “change” is really headed inexorably in the direction it desires. He even suggests that the explosion of government spending on health care may cause the progressive cause to go bankrupt — before the country does, let’s hope, though Kesler wisely declines to speculate.

Kesler is the reader for whom Obama has long been asking, in the sense of “asking for it,” and this book is the examination of the One we’ve been waiting for.

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