Modern medical science keeps people alive longer. Liberals hope they can do the same thing in political science: keep their dying ideas alive for just another election or two.
No, this isn’t a comment on President Barack Obama’s listless performance in the first presidential debate. It is, perhaps, an explanation for that performance; why should Obama be energetic when his ideas so decidedly aren’t?
“Today liberalism looks increasingly, well, elderly. Hard of hearing, irascible, enamored of past glories, forgetful of mistakes and promises, prone to repeat the same stories over and over,” writes Charles Kesler in his new book: I am the Change, Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.
But Kesler predicts that real change is close at hand. “Only a rhetorician of Obama’s youth and artfulness could breathe life into the old tropes again. Even he can’t repeat the performance in 2012,” he writes.
But he’s trying. From “end tax breaks for oil companies” to “invest in renewable energy” to “hire 100,000 more teachers,” we’ve heard these ideas before: from Obama in 2008. If they were so great, why haven’t they worked (or even been tried) the last four years?
Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, traces the rise of progressivism/liberalism/progressivism (practitioners change the name each time their creed falls out of favor with voters) over the last century.
Kesler’s “change” begins with Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to explicitly repudiate the nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He saw himself taking the country into a brighter future. Where the Framers had been fearful of “leaders,” associating them “with factions, vice, assaults on the law, and demagoguery in general,” Wilson proclaimed his leadership, which he defined “as something peaceful, rational, and beneficent.”
Under Wilson, Kesler writes, Americans would supposedly begin moving toward complete human development. “Government’s new purpose was partly to provide the conditions for that self-development, and partly to equalize the existing, unequal condition that the capitalist economy provided to individuals and families.” A federal thumb on the scales, if you will.
Kesler then traces the rhetorical switch “from Progressivism to Liberalism” under Franklin Roosevelt. “Ours must be a party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened international outlook, and of the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens,” FDR declared. In practice, that meant becoming the party of big centralized government.
Roosevelt didn’t aim to simply expand government’s economic reach, although he did that with massive spending plans and programs such as Social Security. He also redefined government. Instead of protecting rights, such as the right to free speech and the right to own property, government would actually bestow rights. “Among these,” he explained in a proposed second Bill of Rights, would be:
Finally, Kesler details the high-water mark of liberalism, the Great Society.
“We’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all, if we’re not too greedy,” Lyndon Johnson said early in his presidency. “Man has in his possession the capacities 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.” And by “man,” LBJ meant “liberal government.”
The U.S. has been fighting a never-ending “War on Poverty” ever since, spending some $16 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) on means-tested welfare since 1964. Despite the spending, “poverty won,” as President Ronald Reagan quipped, “in part because instead of helping the poor, government programs ruptured the bonds holding poor families together.”
And then Kesler brings us to 2012, and the lack of liberal ideas. Take Obamacare. “President Obama’s solution to the problem of two healthcare entitlement programs quickly going bankrupt -- Medicare and Medicaid -- is to add a third?” Kesler suggests this is simply the “reflexive liberal solution to any social problem: Spend more.”
Thus Kesler ends his book on an optimistic note.
Our government has run out of money, and thus the clock must soon run out on big government liberalism. “If the people remain attached to their government and laws, and American statesmen do their part, the country may yet take the path leading up from liberalism,” he concludes.
A major test looms. Time will tell.