More than any Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama in his writings and speeches has worked out an impressive interpretation of American history that culminates in modern liberalism. It also culminates, not incidentally, in him. As a writer, Obama’s strength is telling tales, and his story of America mixes together social, intellectual, and political history. It begins and keeps contending with the Founding – with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He tries to tell a new story about the country that acknowledges, and then contextualizes, traditional views in ways that are meant to be reassuring but that point to very untraditional conclusions.
In The Audacity of Hope, his second book, in a chapter titled “Values,” he quotes the Declaration’s famous sentence on self-evident truths and then comments:
Those simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundations of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration — that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can’t be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will — is one that every American understands.
It sounds practically Lincolnian, until one notices that the rights in this “bundle” are not said to be natural, exactly, nor true, and certainly not self-evident; and he seems to go out of his way not to admit that the Declaration proclaims that all men are created equal as well as free. These rights are an outgrowth of 18th-century political thought, he emphasizes, too recondite for most Americans to explain or remember.
When Lincoln himself explained the Declaration, he traced its central idea to God and nature, not to 18th-century ideologies. He called for “all honor to Jefferson” for introducing “into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” When Jefferson was asked about the document’s meaning, he pointed to “the common sense of the subject” as well as to a philosophical tradition stretching back to Aristotle, Cicero, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney, among others. Although “abstract” in applying to human being qua human being, regardless of race, color, sex, religion, etc., the rights mentioned in the Declaration are based on a very obvious natural distinction. Jefferson wrote of “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” No human being may rightly rule another human being, in other words, the way any human being may rightly rule a horse or some other brute animal — buying it, selling it, working it for his own purposes. Justice is rooted in our human nature, our equality vis-à-vis one another and our inequality vis-à-vis lower and higher beings. That’s why, according to the Declaration (and according to Jefferson and Lincoln), slavery is wrong. Man is neither beast nor God, and must treat his fellow human beings accordingly. Is the difference between a human being and a horse an 18th-century distinction?
In speaking of the “liberal and republican” roots of the Declaration, Obama alludes to a scholarly debate over the interpretation of the Founding that was raging when he was at Harvard Law School. Ignited by, among other works, Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, published in 1969, the debate challenged the prevailing view that the Founding was primarily indebted to Locke’s political philosophy of economic and political liberalism (in the older sense), offering as the alternative a republican tradition that supposedly represented a communitarian, anti-capitalist road not taken, or perhaps a public philosophy, junior grade, that alternated or mingled with Lockeanism.
#page#Obama soon makes clear that despite their fine words, Jefferson and the other Founders were less than faithful to the idealistic inferences of the liberalism and republicanism they proclaimed. Like a good law-school professor, in The Audacity of Hope Obama lines up evidence and argument on both sides before concluding that, in fact, the Founders probably did not understand their principles as natural and universal, despite their soaring language, but rather as confined to the 18th-century ruling class — that is, to the white race.
The Declaration of Independence “may have been,” he writes artfully, a transformative moment in world history, a great breakthrough for freedom, but “that spirit of liberty didn’t extend, in the minds of the Founders, to the slaves who worked their fields, made their beds, and nursed their children.” As a result, the Constitution “provided no protection to those outside the constitutional circle,” to those who were not “deemed members of America’s political community”: “the Native American whose treaties proved worthless before the court of the conqueror, or the black man Dred Scott, who would walk into the Supreme Court a free man and leave a slave.” Obama doesn’t argue, as Lincoln did, that the Supreme Court majority was in error, that Dred Scott was wrongly and unjustly returned to slavery, and that Chief Justice Roger Taney’s dictum — that in the Founders’ view the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect — was a profound mistake. On the contrary, Obama accepts Dred Scott as rightly decided according to the standards of the time. He agrees, in effect, with Taney’s reading of the Declaration and the Constitution, and with Stephen Douglas’s as well. Despite his well-advertised admiration for Lincoln, Obama sides with Lincoln’s opponents in their pro-slavery interpretation of Jefferson and the Declaration.
Consider now Obama’s renowned speech on race, the one, delivered on March 18, 2008, devoted to starting a national conversation on the subject and to putting the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s notorious comments in their proper context. Wright had become an issue in the campaign when videos and recordings of his sermons surfaced, showing him vigorously swearing “God damn America!” for its sins against blacks and other minorities and arguing that the atrocities of 9/11 were payback for our imperialist and racist foreign policy in the Middle East — a case of America’s “chickens coming home to roost.” The dog that didn’t bark (to mix animal metaphors) was that the words of the Declaration that had been crucial in almost all such debates for 200 years — “all men are created equal” — do not appear in Obama’s carefully composed speech on race in America. And so that “already classic address,” as Harvard historian James Kloppenberg calls it, on a topic that Obama said he’d been thinking about for 20 years, exhibits a very different kind of argument, with a very different view of America, than one finds in, say, Martin Luther King’s great speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.
To begin with, Obama invokes neither Jefferson nor Lincoln. He refers to the Constitution briefly, noting its “ideal of equal citizenship” and that it “promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.” But he doesn’t mention the conclusion that he had announced in his book, namely, that the Declaration’s and the Constitution’s “people” did not include blacks, especially not black slaves. In short, Obama regards the original intention of both the Declaration and the Constitution to be racist, even pro-slavery. But he refrains from making the point explicit because it would confirm the Reverend Wright’s fundamental charge, that America is racist all the way down, a racist country based on a racist idea. And the point of the speech in Philadelphia, at the National Constitution Center, close to Independence Hall, the scene of the great events of 1776 and 1787, was not merely to repeat his condemnation of Wright’s remarks “in unequivocal terms” but to put the whole controversy behind him without acknowledging his fundamental agreement with Wright’s interpretation of American principles.
#page#In truth, Obama’s repudiation of Wright’s statements was extremely equivocal. He calls the reverend’s charges “not only wrong but divisive” – that is, untimely – because the American people are “hungry” for a “message of unity” right now. Wright expressed “a profoundly distorted view of this country,” Obama says, “a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” What that means becomes clearer a little later, when Obama declares, “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is . . . that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.” Yet Obama’s own candidacy confirms “that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.” In blunt terms, Wright wasn’t wrong that America was, and was intended to be, a racist or unjust nation; he was wrong, however, to speak as though the country were as racist or unjust as it used to be. “America can change” not in the sense of living up to its first principles but in the opposite sense, of moving away from them. Except, that is, from the deepest principle of all, which expresses “the true genius of this nation”– our belief in change itself, or in the deliberative process that produces such change. Only the “narrative” of America, the movement away from its founding principles as originally understood, deserves liberals’ allegiance.
Wright’s eruptions were dangerous to Obama not merely because they raised questions about his judgment in having Wright as his pastor and raised doubts about the candidate’s ability to be a unifying, post-racial figure. They were dangerous above all because they represented a particularly virulent strain of the spirit of Sixties radicalism and shook Obama’s claim to have left all that behind him and his candidacy. As he said in his second, more decisive repudiation of his old friend on April 29, 2008, “The reason our campaign has been so successful is because we had moved beyond these old arguments.” Because he did not actually disagree with his pastor’s fundamental charge but could not say so openly, Obama’s reasons for denouncing Wright became oddly personal. “I don’t think that he showed much concern for me,” Obama told reporters. Indeed, Wright’s performance at the National Press Club was “a show of disrespect to me. It’s . . . also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.”
American history has moved far beyond America’s original principles, and Obama is glad of it. His understanding of the past thus pays lip service to such things as self-evident truths, original intent, and the Founders’ views but quickly changes the subject to values, visions, dreams, ideals, myths, and narratives. This is a postmodern “move.” We can’t know or share truth, postmodernists assert, because there is no truth “out there,” but we can share stories and thus construct a community of shared meaning. It’s these ideas that mark his farthest departure from FDR’s liberalism and a fortiori from the American idea. “Usually designated by a bundle of multisyllabic terms that signal their complexity, these ideas — antifoundationalism, particularism, perspectivalism, and historicism — also decisively shaped Obama’s sensibility,” writes Kloppenberg, his shrewdest liberal interpreter, who in Reading Obama provides some helpful definitions.
By antifoundationalism and particularism I mean the denial of universal principles. According to this way of thinking, human cultures are human constructions; different people exhibit different forms of behavior because they cherish different values. By perspectivalism I mean the belief that everything we see is conditioned by where we stand. There is no privileged, objective vantage point free from the perspective of particular cultural values. By historicism I mean the conviction that all human values and practices are products of historical processes and must be interpreted within historical frameworks. All principles and social patterns change; none stands outside the flow of history. These ideas come in different flavors, more and less radical and more and less nihilist.
Kloppenberg should be praised for his candor. “Obama’s sensibility, his ways of thinking about culture and politics, rests on the hidden strata of these ideas,” he explains.
#page#More and less radical, more and less nihilist — Obama comes in on the “less” side, but then a little bit of nihilism goes a long way. To quote from The Audacity of Hope:
Implicit . . . in the very idea of ordered liberty was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad.
There is no absolute truth — and that’s the absolute truth, he argues. Such feeble, self-contradictory reasoning is at the heart of Obama’s very private and yet very public struggle with himself to determine whether there is anything anywhere that can truly be known, or even that it is rational to have faith in. Anyone who believes, really believes, in absolute truth, he asserts, is a fanatic or in imminent danger of becoming a fanatic; absolute truth is the mother of extremism everywhere.
Although it’s certainly a good thing that America avoided religious and political tyranny, no previous president has ever credited this achievement to the Founders’ rejection of absolute truth, previously known as “truth.” Is the idea that human freedom is right, and slavery wrong, thus to be rejected lest we embrace an “absolute truth”? What becomes of the “universal truths” Obama himself celebrates on occasion? Surely the problem is not with the degree of belief, but with the falseness of the causes for which the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, and the jihad stood. A fervent belief in religious liberty is not equivalent to a fervent belief in religious tyranny, any more than a passionate belief in democracy is equivalent to a passionate longing for dictatorship. Has he forgotten Martin Luther King’s reflections on this question in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? After drawing on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to distinguish between just and unjust laws — a distinction postmodernism makes impossible to uphold except ironically — King offers a defense against exactly the kind of charge of extremism that underlies Obama’s renunciation of absolute truth.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” . . . And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or for the extension of justice?
Nothing like the moral clarity and moral reasoning of this passage will be found in Obama’s speech on race. It was hailed for its comprehensive empathy with black Americans who have long suffered racial scorn and discrimination, as well as with working-class whites who resent affirmative action and immigration. Predictably, it called for a national conversation on the issue, with a view to mutual understanding and to all factions’ discovering their need for a sympathetic state to recognize their grievances. His predilection for such conversations is the reverse side of his rejection of absolute truth. In The Audacity of Hope, within two pages of his criticism of the Founders for allegedly excluding black Americans from constitutional protection as equal human beings and citizens, he warns against all such sweeping truth claims, and indeed praises the Founders for being “suspicious of abstraction.” On every major question in America’s early history, he writes, “theory yielded to fact and necessity. . . . It may be the vision of the Founders that inspires us, but it was their realism, their practicality and flexibility and curiosity, that ensured the Union’s survival.” Obama cannot decide whether to blame the Founders as racists or to celebrate them as relativists; to assail them for not applying their truths absolutely to blacks and Indians along with whites, or to praise them for compromising their too-absolute principles for the sake of something concrete.
His attempt to resolve this contradiction carries him into still deeper and murkier waters.
The best I can do in the face of our history is remind myself that it has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty. The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison who first sounded the clarion call for justice; that it was slaves and former slaves, men like . . . Frederick Douglass and women like Harriet Tubman, who recognized power would concede nothing without a fight. It was the wild-eyed prophecies of John Brown, his willingness to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions, that helped force the issue of a nation half slave and half free. I’m reminded that deliberation and the constitutional order may sometimes be the luxury of the powerful, and that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable — in other words, the absolutists — that have fought for a new order.
Obama turns for inspiration to the abolitionists, drawing no distinction between a superb publicist and reasoner like Frederick Douglass and a butcher like John Brown, who was happy “to spill blood and not just words on behalf of his visions.” Both were “absolutists,” which by Obama’s definition means they were “unreasonable,” but they were willing to fight for “a new order.” He goes on to confess he has a soft spot for “those possessed of similar certainty today,” for example, the “antiabortion activist” or the “animal rights activist” who is willing to break the law. He seems to suffer from certainty envy. He respects passionate, even fanatic commitment as such. Though he may “disagree with their views,” he admits that “I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty — for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute.” Not true, necessarily, but absolute. It’s hard to know what he means exactly. That the “truths” are fit for the times, are destined to win out and forge a “new order”? That they are willed absolutely, not pragmatically or contingently? Even his rejection of absolute truth is now uncertain.
So finally, in his perplexity, he turns again to Lincoln. Like “no man before or since,” Lincoln “understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation.” His presidency combined firm convictions with practicality or expediency. Obama seems never to have heard of prudence, the way a statesman (or any reasonable and decent person) moves from universal principles to particular conclusions in particular circumstances. The 16th president, he ventures, was humble and self-aware, “maintaining within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas,” that on the one hand we are all imperfect and thus must reach for “common understandings,” and on the other that at times “we must act nonetheless, as if we are certain, protected from error only by providence.” For a man like Lincoln there is no such thing, he says in effect, as acting with moral certainty, only acting “as if we are certain,” God help us. Unlike John Brown, Lincoln was an absolutist who realized the limitations of absolutism, yet he still brought forth a new order. “Lincoln, and those buried at Gettysburg,” Obama concludes, “remind us that we should pursue our own absolute truths only if we acknowledge that there may be a terrible price to pay.”
Our own absolute truths? Those words ought to send a shudder down Americans’ constitutional spine, assuming we still have one.
– Mr. Kesler is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, the editor of The Claremont Review of Books, and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. This article is adapted from his new book, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, published by HarperCollins.