Barack Obama calls himself a “progressive” or “liberal,” and we should take him at his word. He had the distinction of being the most liberal member of the United States Senate when he ran for President in 2008. The title had been conferred by National Journal, an inside-the-Beltway watchdog that annually assigns Senators (and Congressmen) an ideological rank based on their votes on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.
But what does it mean anymore to be a liberal?
Charles R. Kesler reveals the answer in his latest First Principles Essay, “Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.”
Modern liberalism, he argues, spread across the country in three powerful waves, interrupted by wars and by rather haphazard reactions to its excesses. Each wave of liberalism featured a different aspect of it—call them, for short, political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism—and each deposited on our shores a distinctive type of politics—the politics of progress, the politics of entitlements, and the politics of meaning.
These waves were so powerful that the 20th century can be described as the liberal century. But there’s another complicating factor: Liberalism is in crisis.
This kind of crisis is probably not their favorite kind—an emergency that presents an opportunity to enlarge government—but one that will find liberalism at a crossroads, a turning point. Liberalism can’t go on as it is, not for very long. According to Kesler, it faces difficulties both philosophical and fiscal that will compel it either to go out of business or to become something quite different from what it has been.
What will it mean to be a liberal then?
To find out more, read Charles R. Kesler’s latest First Principles essay, adapted from I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.