Tuesday, August 20, 2013
I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism by Charles R. Kesler
I learned so much about Progressivism from the book I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism by Charles Kesler and didn’t even realize it. I just kept referring to parts of the book and the history of Progressivism and forgot it came from here. That’s why I keep this book blog! I want to be able to remember where I read this stuff now in my head!
First, a definition: “This trust in ‘fundamental’ but never final transformations, in continual progress toward an unspecified but ever egalitarian condition of social justice and political wholeness, inspired and guided by visionary and compassionate leaders, themselves inspired and guided by history with a capital H and the entire cosmic process culminating in the growth of the State with its master class of expert administrators -- this is modern liberalism in a nutshell.”
So how did we get to this place? It starts with Woodrow Wilson, our first Progressive president. He became fascinated with Progressivism and the idea of a utopian future while in college. He saw the birth of the modern sciences and the thought that we were capable of applying scientific principles to everyday life proved a large temptation. He began to believe, that with the right leadership and run by the right experts, government could meet the all the needs of the citizens and lead to perfect self-actualization of every individual. Although this sounds creepy to our post-1984 ears, it sounded not only possible, but inevitable to Progressives like Wilson.
He based his thinking on the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel preached the idea of “the end of History.” He believed all of History was propelling mankind forward toward a time which “culminated in wisdom and true morality.” Each successive epoch of History passed on the essential truths it had gleaned which were then incorporated and improved upon in subsequent epochs. “Change” therefore is always beneficial because it is always propelling us onward towards the final destination. Moderation becomes the coward’s way out. Why not push for bigger and more radical changes? They would only get us to our destination that much faster.
Therefore, Wilson pushed the idea of a living and evolving Constitution. After all, if History was pushing us forward, why should we stayed anchored to a document written over a hundred years before his time? In fact, Wilson felt that politiciand owed it to History to, if not rule as an overlord, at least exercise strong leadership to steer History in the right direction. Little noted today, is that Wilson also believed only certain races has the requisite History behind them which enabled them to lead. Oddly enough, it was the Germanic (after all, Hegel was German) race, or whites who thought like Germans who were the best equipped in the Progressives’ minds to lead. Clearly History had left Africa and South America behind.
Even though Wilson lived to see the horrors unleashed by the 20th century, he believed these to be momentary blips in the great march forward. “He clung to his faith that the antagonisms in human nature were being overcome, that selfishness would eventually, inevitably yield to the love of justice.” He believed right would always win and if you won, you must have been right. “Deeply wrought in Progressivism, this confusion of morality with history and this blindness to human nature and natural right would haunt the subsequent waves of American liberalism.”
FDR ushered in new wave of Progressivism. He dropped the Germanic influence, and clothed the vision in solidly American religious language. He “expressed the higher ethical life to which liberalism pointed... in relatively unassuming, vaguely Protestant and vaguely Progressivism terms that could appeal to almost everyone.” He even changed the label from Progressivism to liberal so as to connect back to the founding rather than seek to disassociate from it as Wilson tried to do. FDR was a political genius at selling revolutionary Progressive ideas wrapped in mantle of traditionalism. Wilson completely rewrote the description of the Executive and FDR put it into practice claiming, “We are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.”
At the end of his long tenure in office, (he eschewed the precedent set by Washington to limit himself to two terms in office to avoid the whiff of monarchy) FDR boldly proclaimed a “Second Bill of Rights”. Once again availing himself of familiar language and insisting these new “rights” were self-evident, Roosevelt promoted the right to a “useful and remunerative job”, “adequate food and clothing”, the rights of farmers to sell and raise crops at a guaranteed profit, the right of businessmen to profit as well, the right to a home and medical care. Despite the internal contradictions and the not-quite-self-evident part of who will guarantee these rights and where do they come from, they have found their way into our language and laws today. Unlike our original Bill of Rights, these “rights” come with an extremely high price tag. They eat up the lion’s share of our Federal budget today and are toppling nations around the world.
When the liberal agenda began to crack up in the sixties, LBJ entered with a whole new wave of liberalism which he called “The Great Society.” “The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” Government would finally give ordinary citizen’s lives meaning. How creepy and totalitarian. But he set out to do just that. Knowing the work would never be completed, but with liberals in charge he knew we would move ever closer to heaven on earth.
Unfortunately, heaven did not materialize exactly how LBJ envisioned it. With the War on Poverty ramping up, agitation began for more and more benefits. After passing the Voting Rights Act, and officially ending the struggle for civil rights, the ante was upped to include not only equal opportunities, but equal outcomes. The cultural wars soon followed with the abolishment of prayer in schools and the legalization of abortion. Self-government became passé and poverty got worse. With the failure of The New Deal and now The Great Society to fundamentally change society and human nature for the better, liberals began to become more radical, trusting government less, but at the same time insisting on a larger and larger government to solve societies ill with no limits on where it could intrude. After all, this generation adopted the slogan, “If it feels good, do it.” They became unmoored from any philosophical underpinnings but rather resorted to their feelings as justification for more programs.
Enter Obama, channeling the three great Progressives before him, Wilson, FDR, and LBJ. Obama promised the old Progressive hope of change, and hope in change. He dangled dreams ofa bright future so close we could almost taste it, if we only had the vision and courage to dream along with him. He left nothing to refute for he promised to magically convert the obstacles into stepping stones and lead all the world into a beautiful tomorrow.
Herein lies the crisis mentioned in the subtitle. Progressivism has failed to deliver. Despite all the Progressive reforms and programs most Americans believe we are clearly on the wrong track. Most Americans look back to a time of true community and basic civility. We are farther away from the envisioned utopia than anyone can remember. Liberalism is looking old and tired and discredited. The modern welfare state is imploding. “If communism, armed with millions of troops and thousands of megatons of nuclear weapons could collapse of its own deadweight and implausibility, why not American liberalism?”
“Liberals’ confidence in being on the right, the winning side of history could crumble, perhaps has already begun to crumble. Thrust in government, which really means the State, is at all-time lows.” We may soon begin to see the danger of following the Great Leader into a never-quite-attained future utopia. Maybe.