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Professor analyzes liberalism

Christian Myers | Friday, September 14, 2012

Charles Kesler, political philosopher, author and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, discussed President Barack Obama’s place in the history of liberalism during his lecture in the Eck Hall of Law on Thursday.

Kesler recently published a book on the same subject. Vincent Muñoz, director of the Tocqueville Program and one of the event’s organizers, said Kesler’s book went on sale Tuesday and is titled, “I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.”

The Law School’s Federalist Society, the Tocqueville Program and the Constitutional Studies Minor all sponsored the event, Muñozsaid.

To begin his talk, Kesler said his book does not advance any theories about Obama suggesting he is a socialist, a Kenyan anti-colonialist or a Muslim.

“The thesis of my book runs counter to a lot of conservative views of Obama,” Kesler said. “I think he’s very bright and very intelligent. … I think conservatives make a mistake in underestimating Obama.”

Kesler said he bases his assessment of Obama’s self-conception as a political progressive.

“The way to understand Obama is as he understands himself: as a liberal, or rather a progressive, as he likes to be called,” he said.

Kesler said the crisis of liberalism, to which the subtitle of his book refers, is a two-fold crisis Obama, and all political liberals, must face.

“The crisis of liberalism is also the crisis of Barack Obama,” he said. “There are two reasons liberalism has reached a crisis point: one fiscal and one philosophical.”

Kesler said the fiscal reason hinges on the government’s inability to pay for social programs and entitlements.

“It has become so easy for political interest groups to manufacture rights, in the political sense, and it is impossible or nearly impossible to pay for them all,” Kesler said. “We see this problem in Europe as well as here. These are promises that have been made to people, so what do we do when they justly ask for the benefits they are entitled to? It is a crisis of public credit that leads to the moral question: can you trust the government to keep its promises?”

Kesler said this fiscal problem relates to President Obama’s health care policies.

“He sold Obamacare as a way of cutting down costs while expanding coverage, and that’s the problem Obama cannot solve,” he said.

The philosophical aspect of the crisis is one of moral relativism as a part of liberal political philosophy, and Obama accepts this line of thought, Kesler said.

“The philosophical part of the crisis has to do with the influence of post-modernism in liberal thought – liberalism doesn’t rest on moral truth,” he said. “The President is stuck believing there is no absolute truth, and that this is absolutely true.”

Kesler said liberalism, as an American political movement, is 100 years old and began with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Over the course of the 100 years there have been four “waves” of liberalism, with President Obama’s efforts representing the fourth wave, he said.

The first three waves were the New Freedom concept advanced by Wilson, the New Deal legislation under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Great Society legislation under Lyndon B. Johnson.

“You can call these three waves political liberalism under Wilson, economic liberalism with the New Deal and cultural liberalism in the 60s,” he said.

The first wave was the source of the idea of a living constitution. Wilson was the first president to criticize the constitution and called it obsolete, Kesler said.

“The founders, according to Wilson, didn’t understand that human politics are governed by Darwinian laws of change,” he said. “They didn’t realize that human nature was changeable.”

The liberal position was that the constitution had to be made up-to-date with a changing society and had to be positioned on the right side of history, Kesler said.

He said the liberals did not recognize the founding fathers’ conception of a constitution resistant to change as a viable alternative to a living constitution.

“The founders, because they had a static natural law theory, created a constitution that would be very hard to change, hard to amend,” he said. “For liberals, the only alternative to their living constitution is a dead constitution.”

Kesler noted the second wave, under President Roosevelt, advanced the idea of a social contract between the government and the people, in which the people exchange their power for rights.

The idea of exchanging of rights for power leads to an argument in favor of a more powerful government, he said.

“This leads to what I like to call the first law of big government,” Kesler said. “There’s no reason to fear government growing, because more government means more rights.”

The third wave brought about a change from quantitative to qualitative liberalism, Kesler said.

This was brought about in part by President Johnson’s efforts to further Roosevelt’s policies from keeping citizens above a certain level economically to providing for everyone to have a spiritually fulfilling life, he said.

“The New Deal was about meeting the needs of the body, but the Great Society wanted to address the soul,” Kesler said.

He added the problem was the government programs of the Great Society were too costly and unsuccessful.

A second aspect of the move toward qualitative liberalism was the cultural liberalism that led those who were very liberal to chastise the majority culture.

“When liberalism turned on the majority, the majority turned on liberalism,” he said.

The 2012 election cycle will have a great deal to say about the duration and the legacy of the fourth wave of liberalism that Obama represents, Kesler said.

“He took us in a very brief time where the first two years of his term were the breakthrough, sharply to the left,” Kesler said. “The elections of 2010 brought us sharply to the right. Where we go from here will be determined by this year’s election.