‘He was much more liberal than his presidential campaign let on,” Charles Kesler writes of Barack Obama in 2008. You can say that again. “Liberals like crises, and one shouldn’t spoil them by handing them another on a silver salver. The kind of crisis that is approaching . . . is probably not their favorite kind, an emergency that presents an opportunity to enlarge government, but one that will find liberalism at a crossroads, a turning point,” he argues in I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism. “Liberalism can’t go on as it is, not for very long. It faces difficulties both philosophical and fiscal that will compel it either to go out of business or to become something quite different from what it has been.” As we approach President Obama’s second inaugural, is this really so? Kesler looks at the president’s first term and the future of liberalism with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You wrote a whole book about “Barack Obama and the crisis of liberalism” before the 2012 election, which he won fairly easily. Is your analysis still relevant?
CHARLES KESLER: Highly relevant, alas. I began writing about Obama in 2007, when his speeches struck me as more interesting and ambitious than the usual Democratic pablum. His two books — one a strikingly postmodern memoir, the other a more conventional campaign book that displayed his highly unconventional view of how to transform our politics — confirmed my judgment that conservatives (and at the time, the Clintons) were dangerously underestimating him. By the time I began I Am the Change in 2011, he had run the table, winning on the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank the kind of liberal legislative breakthroughs that bring to mind the New Deal or the Great Society.
LOPEZ: Isn’t the crisis over? Liberalism has won.
KESLER: As I wrote in the book, Obama was poised to be either liberalism’s savior or its gravedigger. His own view was that Ronald Reagan had been a transformative figure in American politics and that no Democrat since had had the gumption, the vision, and the discipline to challenge Reaganism. But Obama thought it challengeable, and his 2008 campaign was all about restoring liberals’ Hope that sweeping political Change was still possible, despite the Reagan Revolution. He had to restore liberals’ faith in liberalism, and then translate that faith into works, which he did in his first term. By unleashing a new New Deal, as it were, he showed his followers that Reagan had merely interrupted, not overturned, the country’s destiny to move ever leftward.
LOPEZ: So what was at stake in 2012 wasn’t just the fate of one liberal administration but of liberalism itself?
KESLER: Yes, to the extent that a repudiation of Obama and his agenda would have led to a very deep crisis of confidence on the left. To paraphrase Woody Allen, liberalism is like a shark. It has to move forward constantly or it dies. Think, for example, of the liberals’ so-called living Constitution, which has to be continually adjusted (by them) to keep up with the times. The alternative to the living Constitution is, by implication, a dead one. As a form of progressivism, liberalism has to conceive of itself as being on the right side of history, which means the winning side. Anything that shakes that confidence — a long series of defeats and policy reversals, e.g., if Obama had lost, Obamacare had gone on to be repealed and replaced, and the Bush tax cuts made permanent — shakes liberals’ belief in their own inevitability, which is key to their own sense of their right to rule.
LOPEZ: But they didn’t lose in 2012. It’s conservatism that now seems to be an endangered species.
KESLER: Exactly, and Obama’s ambition to be liberalism’s reviver and savior appears to have been realized. But the emphasis is on “appears.” Obama thinks he has saved liberalism because he’s put it on the winning side again, and in a big way. He takes pride in showing that the era of big government is not over, that in fact the future belongs to much higher taxes and to much more activist government. I think he’s profoundly wrong about that. Before suggesting why, may I say something briefly about how differently conservatives think, or ought to think, about the relation between principles and politics?
For us, to put it simply, principles are rooted in what our fathers called the laws of nature and of nature’s God. These are timeless, that is, they call to us in every age. Some ages live up to the minimal demands of moral decency and the maximum demands of political excellence better than others; no age lives up to them perfectly. That’s why conservatives are inherently moderate in their demands and expectations of politics, recognizing that neither political defeat nor victory affects the inherent authority and goodness of first principles. Our losses in 2012 are therefore not cause for despair. Like everything in politics they are temporary. We shouldn’t run around like liberals, afraid that the times are against us and that we need to exchange old principles for new ones that allegedly fit the times better. Our calling is, so far as possible, to keep the times in tune with our principles, not to adjust our principles to match the times. As Churchill put it, it isn’t possible to guarantee success in politics or war; it’s possible only to deserve it. By contrast, progressives believe in happy endings, in the inevitability of progress. They cannot separate might from right, success from legitimacy, and so don’t have the consolation of believing in principles in the conservative sense. They insist that the good guys must always or at least eventually win, a standard which elides easily into the deeply immoral belief that, in the end, whoever wins must be right.
LOPEZ: What you call the crisis of liberalism isn’t over, then?
KESLER: I think it’s just beginning. Obama thinks it’s over, of course. With his usual modesty, he regards his reelection as the sign that liberalism has returned to its natural role as modern America’s public philosophy or established religion. Reaganism was a blip, an anomaly. But the Democrats’ very successes are intensifying liberalism’s contradictions, both fiscal and philosophical.