Bench Memos

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Charles Kesler’s “The Crisis of Liberalism”


Claremont Review of Books editor Charles R. Kesler has a brilliant long essay of political constitutionalism, titled “The Crisis of Liberalism,” in the new summer issue of his invaluable quarterly journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Thanks to this intellectual rebirth [of conservatism], the case against Progressivism and in favor of the Constitution is stronger and deeper than it has ever been. Progressivism has never been in a fair fight, an equal fight, until now, because its political opponents had largely been educated in the same ideas, had lost touch, like Antaeus, with the ground of the Constitution in natural right, and so tended to offer only Progressivism Lite as an alternative. The sheer superficiality of Progressive scholarship is now evident. They could never take the ideas of the Declaration and Constitution seriously, for many of the same reasons that Obama cannot ultimately take them seriously. [Woodrow] Wilson never demonstrated that the Constitution was inadequate to the problems of his age—he asserted it, or rather assumed it. His references to The Federalist are shallow and general, never betraying a close familiarity with any paper or papers, and willfully ignorant of the separation of powers as an instrument to energize and hone, not merely limit, the national government. Like many of his contemporaries, his criticisms of the national government are based on an exaggeratedly negative reading of constitutional theory and practice, as though John C. Calhoun had been right to see it as a weak compact, devoted above all to inaction lest action harm the propertied interests. Though he thought of himself as picking up where Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln had left off, Wilson never investigated where they left off and why. Neither he nor his main contemporaries asked how far The Federalist’s or Lincoln’s reading of national powers and duties might take them, because they assumed it would not take them very far, that it reflected the political forces of its age and had to be superseded by new doctrines for a new age. They weren’t interested in Lincoln’s reasons, only in his results. Not right but historical might was the Progressives’ true focus.

Today liberalism looks increasingly, well, elderly. Hard of hearing, irascible, enamored of past glories, forgetful of mistakes and promises, prone to repeat the same stories over and over—it isn’t the youthful voice of tomorrow it once imagined itself to be.


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