LOPEZ: This is the grave-digging part?
KESLER: Yes! The fiscal danger is now obvious: We can’t afford all the promises the welfare state has already made, much less the ones it will add in coming years. It’s almost impossible for liberals to limit spending because every promise becomes a program, and every program stands for a new right to health care, child care, and so forth. You can’t put a price on human rights! The result is that the federal government, driven by what is candidly called “uncontrollable” spending, is bankrupt or soon will be. Liberalism can’t go on very much longer without unleashing its socialist id and imposing, among other things, a comprehensive and oppressive new regime of middle-class taxation. Faced with that illiberal future, many liberals may balk.
And philosophically, American liberals are coming to the end of their rope. Though President Obama likes to be called a Progressive, he doesn’t believe in progress in the way, say, Woodrow Wilson did as something scientifically and rationally certain, benign, and steerable. For Obama, strains of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and relativism have crept in. Progress, both as to both means and ends, is in this view more a matter of will than of reason. It’s not a question anymore of following or finding history’s meaning but of creating it. In its purest and most academic form, this revelation has pulled the philosophical rug out from under liberalism, exposing it as neither true nor just, because neither Truth nor Justice exists (ask any postmodernist). Obama doesn’t go that far; he wants to believe in social justice, I think. For instance, he sometimes quotes Martin Luther King’s line that the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice. Yet Obama asserts at the same time that democracy depends on the rejection of every form of “absolute truth.” If you reject absolute truth absolutely, you are not only incoherent but in danger of becoming the worst kind of dogmatist.
LOPEZ: Your book is as much about liberalism as it is about Obama. It has meaty chapters on Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, for example. Why the double focus?
KESLER: Because Obama personifies modern liberalism and its crisis. He compares himself frequently to FDR and Lincoln, and occasionally to LBJ, and he calls himself “progressive.” All that’s well known, but no one had thought it through. That’s what I try to do in I Am the Change, put between two covers, for the first time, the story of modern American liberalism, its evolution and devolution.
Conservatives have spent generations pondering the relation of modern liberalism to the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, abolitionism, the Enlightenment, medieval nominalism — all things worth thinking about, by the way — but we had largely ignored the obvious point that in America the liberal movement traces itself back through a series of prophet-leaders (LBJ, JFK, FDR, etc.) to Wilsonian-style Progressivism. (TR was also important, and Jean Yarbrough’s new book on him is splendid. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism tells the story brilliantly, but from a different angle.) That’s the liberalism we suffer from. The “living constitution,” the cult of the charismatic leader who mesmerizes the masses with a “vision” of the future, entitlement rights and programs, the State that replaces God by offering complete material and spiritual fulfillment in this life, the disillusionment that follows that hubris — all these familiar tropes of our contemporary politics emerge from the century of liberalism that in a way culminates in Barack Obama.
LOPEZ: Was it satisfying to have the New York Times notice your book, whatever it happened to say?
KESLER: It was a negative review, the only one the book’s gotten so far, but it was long, reasonably serious, and on the cover of the Sunday book review, so I’m not complaining. As they say in real estate, it’s location, location, location! And I’m grateful for the thoughtful reviews from the many critics who found more to admire in the book, including the lovely notice in National Review from Ramesh Ponnuru.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.