The year 2012 is an election year; concurrently, President Barack Obama and his challenger, Former Governor Mitt Romney, face intense scrutiny regarding their ideas and plans for improving the United States. In an age of skepticism complicated by mass media and the spread of rumors, accomplishing said goals can be a difficult task.
Speaking at the Eck Hall of Law, Claremont McKenna professor Dr. Charles Kesler attempted to explain President Obama with regard to his ideology – liberalism. The lecture was hosted by Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies Minor in partnership with the Federalist Society at Notre Dame Law School.
Kesler’s theory, as the speaker remarked, differs from the idea offered by Dinesh D’Souza in his new film, 2016: Obama’s America. While respecting D’Souza, Kesler disagreed that the President’s actions are best explained by an anti-colonial attitude, “I don’t think these third world viewpoints explain national healthcare, etc.”
Rather, to understand the president, Kesler explained that one must first understand liberalism and, subsequently, the president’s role within the theory’s development.
Kesler began the lecture, Barack Obama and the Crisis of American Liberalism, by first defining liberalism: “Liberalism means nothing more than a bold attitude of persistent experimentation in policies.”
Historically, Kesler stated that American liberalism can be divided into three waves: progressive, economic and cultural. The theory itself emerged as a theory of the progressivism – “liberalism as a political phenomenon is about 100 years old” – and through the guidance of former President Woodrow Wilson.
Kesler remarked that Wilson was the “first president to criticize the constitution”; in summary, Wilson believed that we have learned much about human nature since the 18th century. Consequently, “The founders, according to Wilson, didn’t understand that people experience Darwinian change.”
Kesler further explained that the living constitution is the epitome of the progressive ideology and an idea meant not only as a judicial model but for the whole government. Such an ideology also presents its adversaries with unfavorable language, such as statements like the “alternative to a living constitution is a dead constitution,” as Kesler demonstrated.
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt headed the second wave of liberalism: “‘Rights,’ FDR said, ‘belonged in the second Bill of Rights.’” Kesler emphasized that President Roosevelt’s definition of rights differed from the Founder’s views.
“Together these rights form a new view of the social contract…The contract is between what he calls the people and their rulers.” Subsequently, the liberal definition of rights is “closer to Magna Carta than the Lockean contract that the Declaration of Independence assumes.”
The professor further argued that this shift in defining rights also resulted in a shift of people’s view of government. There is “no reason to fear government because the bigger government is the more rights it can give us,” Kesler said.
Finally, liberalism’s third wave was cultural: “Liberals have always been impatient with American culture.” The 1960s epitomizes this revolution. This wave – in addition to the others – is manifested in the policies of President Obama.
Explaining the president, Kesler emphasized the importance of remembering that Obama followed the 1980s conservative revolution guided by former President Ronald Regan; more specifically, unlike “the Clinton’s administration decision to triangulate,” Obama attempted to undo said revolution, “Obama confronted the political legacy of the 1960s…and Ronald Reagan.”
Kesler concluded that in 2008, “Obama’s breakthrough was the breakthrough of this generation.” While acknowledging that the president is “very bright” and that “conservatives (made) a mistake in underestimating him as both a politician and political thinker,” Kesler believes that President Obama and liberalism face a dire challenge. In short, the money is running out to fulfill the promises and new rights his administration has made and guaranteed to Americans.
Consequently, the “Crisis of Liberalism,” Kesler said, is a “crisis in the old-fashioned sense of a turning point.” Liberalism will either end or change into something more radical.
Scott Englert is a senior political science and economics major. He encourages students interested in learning more about political philosophy and constitutional issues to contact Dr. Philip Muñoz regarding Notre Dame’s new Constitutional Studies minor. Please contact Scott with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.