During a discussion of the decline of parties in America, a class discussion morphed into the value of parties, the decline of state representation (via the 17th Amendment) and the idea of progressivism. One student noted that she could not see really anything wrong with the situation today, and expressed some criticism at going back to, say, an older time placing the Constitution more in its original form. That would mean, a repeal of the 17th Amendment for starters.  The question, or objection, from the student is worthy of consideration!

Progressive/Bull Mooser--TR

One thing to note:  there are progressives in both parties; both parties have a progressive streak.  Obama, for example, self-identifies as a progressive.  But, so is John McCain.  We could add to the mix people like Hillary Clinton, who forcibly claims the title, and yes, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.  All of these people sport a certain progressive ideology and to varying degrees.  Now, of course, just because someone might say s/he is a progressive does not make it so, but neither does someone who never really claims to be a progressive, yet might have progressive ideas.  Suffice to say, there are many of the right who claim to be progressives, and many of the left that claim the same.  Republicans claim TR for their own good form of progressive, while Democrats point to Woodrow Wilson.

The most important thing here is to determine what is a progressive?  What does progressivism entail? There are a couple of very informative books by RJ Pestritto on progressivism.  We must wade through some of the ideological (and partisan) positioning in deciphering what makes a progressive.  There is a lot of political theory behind progressivism.  It has become so ingrained in our conscience, that it is almost natural to assent to the progressive impulse.


Perhaps the most important source of progressive thought comes from the European historicists.  The source of the intellectual thought of progressivism comes out of 18th-19th century thinkers.  People like G.W.F. Hegel are rather important here in their influence of political thought.  These thinkers did not believe there were any “self-evident truths.” This means that truth was relative, or that truth evolved.  There was a certain hearkening back to Jean Jacques Rousseau in all this–that most everything we know in society is a sort of temporary concoction that undergoes change as time marches on.  As Rousseau contended, one of the things that is artificial about this life is our very language.

Hegel essentially believed that we were progressing through time, and that, as we progress, we end closer to perfection.  Thus, what we think might be true today, could be discovered untrue later.  This process of evolution leads to the conclusion that there is no objective truth in life because all things evolve.  We are all a product of our time and cannot hope to understand truly the past.  But, we can say we are far more advanced than those who lived before us.

There is a bit of liberation in all this.  The individual self becomes the arbiter of right and wrong.  The individual becomes more important than a class of humans.  A person is a complete self when that person’s mind regards the self as self.  Whew!  Complicated stuff to be sure, but it means that, say, being fully human as the Ancients thought, does not require a life according to nature.  Why?  Because the German Idealists, like Hegel, believed there really was no nature, no forms, no common noun that points to a immutable and unchangeable idea.  Knowing comes from action and interaction with others, not necessarily though contemplation and Socratic dialectic.  It is this last thing that has continued to influence our modern k-12 education in the U.S.  But, the concept of the individual is an ever evolving process as well.  This has led to radical skepticism.

In the American formation, progressives believed that the U.S. Constitution was defective, in part because it was stuck in time.

The Constitution Gets in the Way

One thing to note about the progressive movement is that they believed the Constitution was too much an impediment. Indeed, they thought that the American Founding was deeply flawed because the American construction kept the U.S. from keeping up with the times.

Woodrow Wilson

More than anyone, Woodrow Wilson advanced the new Progressive theory of human nature and human institutions and the corresponding Progressive critique of the principles of the American Founding and the Founders’ Constitution. Wilson, who was president of Princeton and of the American Political Science Association before becoming President of the United States, was the first Chief Executive to openly criticize the Constitution, once comparing it to “political witchcraft.” So hostile was he to the self evident truths of the Founding that in a 1911 address he remarked, “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.”

Wilson above all others deserves credit for the notion that the Constitution is a “living” or “evolving” document. As he wrote in 1908, “Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin.” Insisting that the Constitution does not contain any theories or principles, Wilson argued that the Constitution has a “natural evolution” and is “one thing in one age, another in another.” “Living political constitutions,” he wrote, “must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.”

The question for us is if they (Hegel, Rousseau, TR, Wilson) are correct.  Are we in a sort of historical trajectory that cannot really be escaped from? Does the government need to conform to this path? We ought not get hung up on Darwin here, as there is a line of thought that places Darwin within the context of natural right.  However, the progressives are not speaking that way.  They believe natural right a kind of myth.

Democratic Reform

The consequence of all this is unlimited government.  But before we consider that, we should adress this quandary.  To many, the very democratic developments in our politics–the rise of primaries, decline of parties, use of recall, initiative, referendum–have all been positive developments.  On the surface, it probably seems like progressivism and democratic reform do not go together.  They do, as Prof Sidney Milkis notes:

“More than any single leader,” the Progressive thinker and editor Herbert Croly wrote, “Theodore Roosevelt contributed decisively to the combination of political and social reform and to the building up a body of national public opinion behind the combination. Under his leadership as president [from 1901-1908], reform began to assume the characteristics, if not the name, of progressivism.” By bestowing national prominence on progressive objectives, T.R.’s presidency ushered in a new form of statesmanship—one that transformed the chief executive into “the steward of the public welfare,” giving expression and effect to the American people’s aspirations for social improvement. Roosevelt’s concept of leadership and his great talent for taking the American people into his confidence made him virtually irresistible to reformers. “Roosevelt bit me and I went mad,” the journalist William Allen White wrote about his participation in the Bull Moose campaign. He was not alone. Jane Addams, the renowned social worker who seconded Roosevelt’s Progressive Party nomination for president (the first woman to nominate a major candidate for the presidency), declared that reformers supported T.R.’s candidacy because they viewed him as “one of the few men in public life who has responded to the social appeal, who has caught the significance of the modern movement.” He was a leader, she added, “of invincible courage, of open mind, of democratic sympathies, one endowed with power to interpret the common man and to identify himself with the common lot.”

Yet as Robert La Follette, one of T.R.’s critics, objected, “No party successfully organized around a man. Principles and issues must constitute the basis of this great movement.” Thus the Progressive Party’s political program was especially important in defining its collective mission; these proposals unified the movement and ensured its lasting legacy. Above all, the party stood for “pure democracy,” that is, democracy purged of the impure influence of the special interests. The party platform’s endorsement of “pure democracy” was sanctified as a “covenant with the people,” a deep and abiding pledge to make the people the “masters of their constitution.” Like the Populist Party of the late 19th century, the Progressives invoked the Constitution’s preamble (“We the People”) in proclaiming their purpose to strengthen the federal government’s regulatory authority over the society and economy. Unlike the Populists, however, Progressives sought to hitch the will of the people to a strengthened national administrative power. Animated by the radical agrarianism that had accompanied the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian assaults on monopolistic power, the Populists had sought to mobilize the states and the Congress for an assault on the centralizing, plutocratic alliance between the national parties and the large corporations or “trusts.” By contrast, the Progressives, with their “gospel of efficiency” drawn from the latest discoveries of political and social science, could not abide the Populists’ localized, backward-looking democratic faith.

Today, scholars puzzle over the apparent contradiction between the Progressives’ celebration of direct democracy and their hope to achieve more disinterested government, which seemed to demand a powerful and expert national bureaucracy. But Progressives came to see that the expansion of social welfare and “pure democracy,” as they understood it, were inextricably linked. Reforms such as the direct primary, as well as the initiative and referendum, were designed to overthrow the localized two-party system in the United States, which for generations had restrained the growth of the national government. By the same token, the triumph of “progressive” over “pioneer” democracy, as Croly framed it, would put the American people directly in touch with the councils of power, thus strengthening their demands for government support and requiring the federal government to expand and transform itself in order to realize the goals of Progressive social welfare policy.

The government power over our daily lives should be expanded to deliver benefits, and bring to heel certain interests.  This required a decrease in the power of those interests–like the parties–and an increase in the power, or authority of the government.  Democracy would expand, but how to harness the less constrained majority?  The leader.

If history is truly moving in a direction, then we need the government to have more authority to keep up with it.  And, we need a leader who can see the future, so to speak.  We need a leader who is able to direct the will of the people–or at least guide it–to where history wants us to go.  Note Woodrow Wilson on this count:

For he is also the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country. He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people. When he speaks in his true character, he speaks for no special interest. If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when its President is of such insight and calibre. Its instinct is for unified action, and it craves a single leader. It is for this reason that it will often prefer to choose a man rather than a party. A President who it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.

This is serious stuff, and a serious departure from the Founding.  No longer is the protection of rights a goal, but getting stuff done is the new goal.  Presidential powers do not flow from the Constitution, but from the unfiltered will of the people, and the power of the individual President.  This is significant because, well, what happens when the protection of the rights of man are no longer a goal of legitimate government?  Separation of powers, checks and balances, Federalism all suffer in the wake of progressive populism.  It could also give rise to factions.  A large, and unlimited, government is needed with few checks and balances in the way, to make government able to keep up with history.  We cannot allow history to pass us by.


For students thinking about these matters, it deserves serious thought which argument is most persuasive to you?  The Federalist Papers, or the progressive spirit?  A government, and a people, looks different pending that choice.  The choice is yours.  Which is more persuasive?