| The Roots Of Liberalism
| Friday, June 05, 2009
|By Peter Robinson
"The 20th century was really the liberal century," says Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books. "Conservatives came on the scene very late--remember, there was no organized conservative movement until William F. Buckley Jr. in the '50s--but the liberal effort to expand the state dates back 100 years. What Barack Obama is trying to do is complete an old project."
Liberalism, Kesler argues, established itself in three distinct stages. The first wave, which Kesler calls "political liberalism," rolled in just after the turn of the last century.
The liberals in this first wave, also known as progressives, "regarded the Constitution and the old forms of American politics as outmoded," Kesler says. Whereas the old order valued "tranquility," a word that appears in the preamble to the Constitution, progressives valued movement, dynamism, change. They wanted "to take the American people in hand, showing them the New Jerusalem."
President Woodrow Wilson, a leading progressive, spoke often of his "vision," introducing a term that has now become central to our understanding of presidential politics. Wilson believed, as Kesler puts it, "that to become a leader you have to have a vision of the future and communicate that vision to the unanointed, mass public. You have to make them believe in your prophetic ability."
The second wave of liberalism, which Kesler calls "economic liberalism," crashed over the country during the Great Depression, informing Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Economic liberals quickly came to consider the original Bill of Rights insufficient. Americans, they believed, needed a second set of rights--economic rights. "A right to a job, a right to health care, a right to a home, a right to an education. All these things," says Kesler, "became as fundamental to liberals as the rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' that we find in the Declaration of Independence."
Kesler calls the third wave of liberalism "cultural liberalism." It roared in during the '60s, right along with the birth control pill, psychedelic drugs, no-fault divorce, free love and hippie festivals like Woodstock. Liberals, Kesler argues, now came to believe that "the purpose of government is to take charge of your necessities so you can live in a new kind of freedom, the freedom of liberation, which is really freedom from responsibilities."
They also came to believe in identity politics.
"Women's liberation," Kesler explains, "could not be the liberation of individual women alone. It had to be the liberation of the sisterhood. Individual homosexuals could not be fully liberated. They needed the support of their peers. So what began as individual kinds of liberation became group forms of liberation."
Which brings us back to Obama's agenda.
In his eagerness to expand the role of the federal government in the economy--the commandeering of the Detroit automakers, the plans to rush through national health care legislation and the whole list of outrages with which I began this column--Obama is simply elaborating an "economic liberalism" that dates back some eight decades.
In his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, a step calculated to appeal to Hispanics and women, the chief executive is merely playing upon the identity politics of a "cultural liberalism" that has been with us for almost half a century.
And in presenting himself as a transcendent, almost messianic figure--in championing "Change We Can Believe In"--Obama is displaying the style of leadership advocated by "political liberals" such as Woodrow Wilson, a man born four years before the Civil War.
"Conservatives," says Kesler, "made the mistake of assuming that the victory Reagan won was a permanent victory. But the liberal victories of the past century changed American politics deeply."
What, then, are conservatives to do?
"Conservatives today," says Kesler, "need to go back to the deeper sources of the American political tradition, rediscovering the founders, and Lincoln, who was always looking back at the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Conservatives need to go back to the order that liberalism was invented to replace."
Liberals have Woodrow Wilson, the welfare state and the hippie movement. Conservatives have the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln.
This is a fight from which conservatives need not shrink.
|posted by citizen jerk @ 11:20 AM