Monday, June 15, 2009
Kesler's three waves of liberalism
Charles Kesler, editor of Claremont Review of Books, was interviewed by Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge. He argues there are three waves of liberalism: political, economic, and cultural.
Political Liberalism, championed by Woodrow Wilson, seeks to supplant the Founders' Constitution with a living one. The belief is institutional devices such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances impedes government activity. This might have been necessary in a previous age, Wilson and Progressives contend, but it is harmful in a complex, modern society.
Economic Liberalism emerged during the New Deal era. FDR believed the natural rights the Founders described in the Declaration of Independence were meaningless unless the government actively provided materials to exercise those rights. What use is my rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness if I don't have a job? This is the rationale for public unemployment insurance and social security.
The final stage is cultural liberalism which came to fruition during the Sexual Revolution of the 1960's. Like the earlier stages, a rejection of the Founders' views sets up the new framework. The repudiated claim is found again in the Declaration of Independence which says there is a "law of nature and nature's God." Since we no longer defined by that, the logic goes, we are now free to define ourselves. We are no longer "one nation under God" but a collection of individuals who "express ourselves."
Kesler's presentation of classical (the Founders) versus modern liberalism seems spot on. What is not brought up in the interview is that Kesler's framework is borrowed from the political philosopher Leo Strauss who taught at Claremont. The difference between the two is Kesler's three waves are within the last stage of American liberalism while Strauss saw the three waves in terms of liberalism or modern thought per se. Let me put it another way: Kesler sees the dividing line as between the Founders and Progressives while Strauss argued the line is actually further back, between the Ancients and the Moderns. For Strauss, John Adams and Ted Kennedy would be on the same side of the line. Kesler, like other thinkers from Claremont, have incorporated and revised the ideas of their late great mentor in a subtle but provocative way. Patrick Deneen discusses this revision in greater detail; the difference is he is not as sanguine about it as I am.