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BOOK REVIEW: ‘I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism’
Charles R. Kesler is a nationally renowned professor of politics who has benefited from the tutelage of some great teachers. William F. Buckley is said to have discovered Mr. Kesler at the tender political age of 16, when the teen sent a well-beyond-his-years letter to the flame-spotting editor. He was a student of both Harvey Mansfield (Harvard) and Harry V. Jaffa (Claremont), founding fathers of the resurgent conservative thinking that has something to do with the “crisis of liberalism” that is the subject of “I Am the Change.”
To date, Mr. Kesler is known primarily as a rock-star teacher and respected editor and re-founder of the Claremont Review of Books — a conservative rival to the New York Times Book Review. “I Am the Change” is Mr. Kesler’s first book, and the greatest praise possible is that it was worth the wait; it is politically timely and of permanent importance to the study of the American mind.
Mr. Kesler has written a serious but accessible study of the thinking underpinning the modern liberal project, starting with the academic career of Woodrow Wilson, through Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, all the way to President Obama, who is fighting for a second term, the standard-bearer of “liberalism in crisis.” This book deserves its publication date of Sept. 11, a date perfectly timed for back to school and national self-reflection.
“I Am the Change” is for those who live in history and long to understand it. It’s not a light read, and you will threaten life and limb if you try to read it while on the treadmill. Its substance — a dialogic blend of liberalism’s founders coming into contact with Mr. Kesler’s conservatism — pushes your head away from the page to ponder, savor and say, “Wow!” He writes, “Faith in the future opened the door to doubt; and doubt to history’s order, the only authority supposedly left for modern man, opened the door to nihilism.”
For those on the right looking for an unimpeachable book that unlocks the radical historical agenda flowing just underneath Mr. Obama’s staid public persona and platitudinous but moving rhetoric, “I Am the Change” provides ample evidence drawn from scholarly examination of our president’s spoken and written word. More important, Mr. Kesler’s intellectual history shows that Mr. Obama did not light the fire but stands at the end of its history as commander and chief fanner. Mr. Obama represents the perfect embodiment of more than a century of increasingly radical progressive thought, but he didn’t build that.
Here is a summation of Mr. Kesler’s classic treatment of liberalism’s roots:
Liberalism was hatched in the academy by Woodrow Wilson and a committed cadre of Progressive disciples, as they first called themselves. Not only did Wilson come up with the theoretical game plan, the idea became real in his presidency. Whereas the smart guys of 1776 and 1789 looked to Enlightenment thinkers, including John Locke and Adam Smith, Wilson and company took as their guides Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Charles Darwin. History and evolution — not men with natural rights and governments that exist to protect them — are the authors of the destiny of democratic peoples.
Mr. Kesler shows this is a huge distinction with a profound constitutional difference — and his purpose is not simply to give a diagnosis and prognosis of liberalism in crisis. The enduring value of “I Am the Change” is that within its critique of liberalism are the building blocks of a new conservatism that can lead the American mind forward.
Liberalism found its historical stride and “liberal” brand with FDR. Whereas Wilson got the progressive nose under our constitutional tent, FDR pulled through most of its body — sans the hump of universal health care — with his New Freedoms and New Deal. The liberal project entered crisis territory with LBJ and the Great Society. With a booming economy — the consequence of John F. Kennedy’s tax cut — Johnson set out to actualize the welfare-state ambition of progressivism with his Great Society, but in the end, did not “root out poverty in the midst of plenty” as he promised, but drove out prosperity and made poverty more pathological.
“Poverty was not conquered but the spirt of self-government was.” Liberalism enters crisis mode when it goes beyond FDR’s safety net and aims for actualization of human happiness. “Just do it!” and we the people pay for it. Mr. Kesler captures its Sisyphean soul: “But human desires are infinite. They cannot be satisfied, unless they are first governed or moderated by reason and morality.”
Mr. Obama entered the political scene as liberalism’s redeemer. Unlike Johnson, Mr. Obama is young, in touch with and a product of liberalism’s lifestyle and cultural fetishism, and was opposed to war on his watch. To be aligned with history requires that you first be aligned with the avant-garde of the party. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama lacked LBJ’s tax cut and booming economy. Nonetheless, he pushed for and got what every Democratic politician since Roosevelt wanted: universal health care — earning his place “on the Mount Rushmore of Liberalism.”
But while Mr. Obama has been able to defy the logic of his party by keeping the Guantanamo Bay detention center open and continuing a war of necessity in Afghanistan replete with drone strikes, economics and a non-liberal human nature have a logic that threatens the liberal project at its core. While liberalism’s leaders are adept readers and salesmen of the signs of our time, their default for everything — government solutions manned by those who know better — has failed in achieving their vision from the beginning. This is why the standard-bearers have had to rebrand from progressive to liberal and then back again.
What is Mr. Kesler’s take on Obamacare? “Stop it — repeal it, we must now say — and you have a good chance of stopping the transformation he seeks. Fail or, worse, don’t even try, and you permit what can be called without exaggeration, gradual regime change at home.”
“I Am the Change” should be read as long as there is a political reality called liberalism, progressivism or the Democratic Party. In short, this is a title — and an author — with a long shelf life and much to teach.
By Brahma Chellaney
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