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.”