Twilight of the Sort-Of Gods

When Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy in 2007 — two years into his first term as senator — he set forth a bold goal: “Let us transform this nation.” He asked people to “join me … if you feel destiny calling.” Each step thereafter was a “defining moment”: (1) the night he secured the nomination (a “defining moment” — the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow”); (2) the night he addressed the convention (a “defining moment” — people had insisted on “a new politics”); (3) election night (a “defining moment” — because “change has come to America”); and (4) his inauguration day (“a moment that will define a generation”).

Before he spent a day in office, he had slowed the rise of the oceans, produced a new politics, brought change to America, and defined a generation. He was change personified, destiny in person, the prophet of a new post-partisan era that he had promised in the speech that made him famous.

But as Claremont professor Charles R. Kesler demonstrates in his erudite new book I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, Obama was not really something new; he was the culmination of a long historical process, which has now produced a predictable crisis. Kesler discards pejorative labels of Obama (“a third-world daddy’s boy, Alinskyist agitator, deep-cover Muslim, or undocumented alien”) and argues he should be taken at his word: he is a “progressive” or “liberal,” and should thus be evaluated as part of the history of modern American liberalism. The result is an analysis far more devastating than any label could be.

Modern American liberalism has always had a streak of political messianism, a Great Man view of the presidency, and impatience with a government slowed by the checks and balances created by the Founders. The history of modern liberalism begins with Woodrow Wilson, the father of the movement to create a “living Constitution” in place of the written one. He sought to end what he called “blind worship” of the Constitution, taking pride in the fact that:

We are the first Americans to hear our own countrymen ask whether the Constitution is still adapted to serve the purposes for which it was intended; the first to entertain any serious doubts about the superiority of our own institutions as compared with the systems of Europe; the first to think of remodeling the administrative machinery of the federal government, and of forcing new forms of responsibility on Congress.

The Founders considered the Constitution a structure necessary to preserve freedom; the Progressives considered it an 18th century contraption ill-equipped to deal with 20th century problems. Wilson thought checks and balances created a “fatal” warfare among the branches; he considered the state the “‘Family’ writ large” that should have the power to do “whatever experience permits or the times demand” (emphasis by Wilson). His view of government went far beyond what the Founders contemplated: “Every means, therefore, by which society may be perfected through the instrumentality of government … ought certainly to be diligently sought.”

The distinctive mark of the Progressive movement was reliance on the university as effectively a fourth branch of government, employing new fields of “social science” to define the state’s goals and to prescribe cures for social problems. The state and the university became a joint reform project — government by academic and administrative experts, using a centralized bureaucracy, to transcend politics. Sociology replaced philosophy as the highest form of human wisdom. It was social science, after all, and it needed only forward-thinking politicians to implement it.

Wilson envisioned a nation “led by a man who hears more than [common opinions] … understands them better, unites them, puts them into a common meaning; speaks … a new principle for a new age.” The Founders had built a governmental structure that would protect citizens from well-meaning leaders with concentrated power; Wilson was the apostle of the president as the agent of social perfection.

The second stage of modern liberalism came with FDR, who as a young man had been an ardent Progressive and had served in the Wilson administration. In his 1932 acceptance speech, FDR called on the country to “feel that in everything we do there still lives with us … the great, indomitable, unquenchable, progressive soul of our Commander-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson.” In the famous phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., FDR had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament,” and temperament was what the second stage needed.

Wilson laid the intellectual foundation; the second stage required a more effective teacher, and FDR believed “the greatest duty of a statesman is to educate” the public. He endorsed what he called “militant liberalism” as the means to electoral success, promising to give government “the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” His message was that the more power government got, the more rights it could give; expanding the power of government thus did not threaten rights, but enhanced them. It is not a theory the Founders would have endorsed.

Liberalism’s goals resonated, but Kesler notes that it did not necessarily follow “that the best way to furnish these pleasant, useful, and occasionally noble things was through a planned economy and government ukases.” On the contrary, once the federal government mandated new economic rights, there was a corresponding duty to supply the jobs, living wages, education, health insurance, pensions, etc., necessary to effectuate them, and to do so indefinitely into the future. Once declared to be “rights,” they became entitlements; once entitlements, spending on them became “non-discretionary”; and the government subjected itself to endless lobbying for still more “rights.”

LBJ ushered in the third wave of modern liberalism. He wanted, in the words of his speechwriter Richard Goodwin, “to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt.” He initiated a “war on poverty” and sought to construct through government a “Great Society” to improve “the quality of our American civilization.” He promised “to assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America,” telling students at the University of Michigan that “your generation has been appointed by history” to “build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the nation.”

At a commencement address at Howard University, LBJ said “freedom is not enough.” His goal, he said, was “not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” The means would be more programs, run by more experts, in more federal agencies, leading to an ever-expanding bureaucracy and the emergence of group rights and identity politics in the continuing battle to effectuate asserted “rights.” The “living Constitution” set no effective limits on the goals or powers of liberal government; once rights were identified, the “living Constitution” was interpreted to permit or mandate government to effectuate them.

Obama represented the fourth wave of this process. He set as his primary goal in his first year the establishment of a massive new entitlement. Faced with two health care entitlement programs that were approaching bankruptcy — Medicare and Medicaid — Obama set about adding a third one, extended not simply to the elderly or the poor but to the entire country. The new legislation created a panoply of new boards and agencies to mandate coverage and control costs, largely shielded from oversight by Congress, with broad powers to prescribe coverage by regulations.

Many people were surprised by ObamaCare, once they found out what was in it. They included: (1) Catholics with religious objections to plans they were now mandated to provide or fund; (2) people who hadn’t thought free contraceptives for law students (or other mandated micro-coverage) was part of the health care “crisis;” (3) thousands of companies that needed “waivers” from unworkable provisions of the new law; and (4) people who found “death panels” endorsed on the New York Times op-ed page as eventually necessary under ObamaCare. There will undoubtedly be more surprises after the election, when new taxes under ObamaCare take effect, the real costs emerge, and serious side effects and unintended consequences become evident.

Passed with a hyper-partisan vote, using a hyper-partisan procedure, complete with cynical arguments that it was a cost-saving initiative not affecting those who liked their existing plans; financed with money taken from Medicare or from new taxes deemed “Medicare contributions” but that had nothing to do with Medicare; rushed through without waiting for public hearings; defying adverse reactions in town hall meetings, public opinion polls, and the Massachusetts election (which was effectively a referendum on it), Obamacare was emblematic of the manner in which modern liberalism sought to effectuate its goals. Kesler concludes it may signal “the twilight of the liberal welfare state”:

To the extent that liberalism is the welfare state, and the welfare state is entitlement spending, and entitlements are mostly spent effecting the right to health care, the insolvency of the health care entitlement programs is rightly regarded as a major part of the economic, and moral, crisis of liberalism. … According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2025 Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the interest on the federal debt will consume all — all — federal revenues, leaving defense and all other expenditures to be paid for by borrowing; and the debt will be approaching twice the country’s annual GDP.

The problem with actually-existing liberalism is that it has an inherent contradiction within it: it involves endless government interventions in the lives of its citizens (since the perfect society is always in the future), using mandates from a government freed from prior constitutional restrictions (since the “living Constitution” is an evolving one, not limited by the original understanding of the words in it), creating a government economy on top of the private one, while depending on the latter for the revenues necessary to fulfill its promises (since the government does not generate any revenue of its own). At some point, the weight of the governmental economy on the private economy becomes too much.

The path Obama sought for the country is clearer now than it was four years ago — now that the rhetoric has been replaced by a record. November 6, 2012, will be a moment different than the one Obama envisioned in 2008; less a “defining moment” than an opportunity for voters to prevent the nation from reaching a tipping point. In a sense, it will be our destiny calling, giving us a second chance, having shown us the culmination of modern liberalism in a smooth-talking great-man president.

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