Professor Thomas West, writing in the New York Times, has a brief few paragraphs about progressives and progressivism. Snip:
Here is Wilson’s description of the Founders’ view in his “New Freedom”: The ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else.” Wilson was exaggerating (the Founders favored government support of education, for example), but he is right about the gist of their approach.
Referring to his own time period, Wilson continues, “Life is so complicated that we are not dealing with the old conditions, and that the law has to step in and create new conditions under which we may live.” In other words, the Founders’ idea of protecting property rights is outmoded. We need a government that intrudes into and even micromanages the private sphere.
Wilson anticipates today’s liberals by telling Americans to follow the example of Europe: “In the city of Glasgow, for example (Glasgow is one of the model cities of the world), they have made up their minds that the entries and the hallways of [apartment buildings] are public streets. Therefore, … the lighting department of the city sees to it that the lights are abundantly lighted.”
Glasgow is Wilson’s ideal. Government knows best. This was a leading feature of Progressivism, as it is of liberalism today — to get government involved in every detail of private life, wherever the private sphere fails to live up to the standard that government demands.
The post by West has generated three pages, and counting, of comments. The progressives are getting another look in part because of the popularity of Glenn Beck and his show on Fox. It might be difficult for some to separate the two, but before Beck discovered the problems with progressivism, there was serious, and better, scholarship being done on the progressives.
There is a nice roundup of some of this scholarship at Heritage, here. One of the scholars who have studied the progressive era is Prof. Charles Kesler, who has been writing on these matters for nearly 30 years:
Kesler has a nice piece on the progressives here. The progressives sought to change fundamentally the idea of America, but also our attachment to the laws and institutions:
Nothing could be further removed from the reverence for the Constitution recommended by the Framers and encouraged by the separation of powers than the tone adopted by the chief architect of the administrative state, Woodrow Wilson. In his first book, Congressional Government, published in 1885, he acknowledged that “opposition to the Constitution as a constitution, and even hostile criticisms of its provisions, ceased almost immediately upon its adoption; and not only ceased, but gave place to an undiscriminating and almost blind worship of its principles….” Reverence for the Constitution would be “blind worship” only if reason’s say in political life had been gravely underestimated by the Framers, and the Constitution’s rationality greatly overestimated. This was exactly Wilson’s position. He attributed “the charm of our constitutional ideal” to a kind of “political witchcraft,” and advised his countrymen to undertake an unsentimental and “fearless criticism” of the Constitution. “The more open-eyed we become, as a nation, to its defects, and the prompter we grow in applying with the unhesitating courage of conviction all thoroughly tested or well-considered expedients necessary to make self-government among us a straightforward thing of simple method, single, unstinted power, and clear responsibility,” he counseled, “the better.”
The progressives were proto-historicists who believed that the law was prohibiting the ride into a new and grand future. Nature was rejected for history–hence the witchcraft of the Constitution that seemed to cast a spell on the American people. In order to defeat Nature, America must be reinterpreted. Enter the Living Constitution:
Rights are no longer determined by Nature, but by government–rights are dispensed, not inalienable. But, structurally, as it pertains to the Constitution, the separation of powers must be struck down in favor of the vision of the one–the president:
Wilson’s political thought, like that of many of the leading American political scientists and reformers in the Progressive era, rejected the separation of powers in favor of the allegedly more fundamental and modern separation between politics and administration. Separation of powers, in his view, was the product of an outmoded theory of politics. At the time of the founding, men thought of politics on the model of Newtonian physics, imagining that the departments of government could be held in place by the countervailing forces of interest and ambition, even as the stars and planets were kept in their orbits by the force of gravity. The “theory of checks and balances” was at bottom “a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe.”
A century or so later; however, the limitations of this eighteenth-century world view were apparent. Government is “not a machine, but a living thing,” wrote Wilson, in lines that he would incorporate into his presidential campaign speeches in 1912. “It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.” Consequently, government must constantly adjust to changes in its environment; its purposes and structure are not ordained by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” (as the Declaration of Independence states) or limited by a written constitution. In particular, government has no use for separated powers. “No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live,” he declared. “There can be no successful government without leadership or without the intimate, almost instinctive, coordination of the organs of life and action.”
In order to make the government move, and grow, and catch up to History, there needs to be a president who can act, and lead. This demands an action of one person, not a body of people. Only one person can act with dispatch, and only the executive can embody the will of the whole people:
Presidential leadership has therefore a certain hollow ring to it, of which Wilson was well aware. The President is the only truly national leader, chosen by the whole people; and if he rightly interprets the people’s inchoate desire for progress, “he is irresistible,” for the people’s “instinct is for unified action, and it craves a single leader.” Therefore, in Wilson’s famous phrase, the President’s office “is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it.”
This means the separation of powers must give way to the national leader (not national statesman!). This leads to unlimited government and away from limited government. No longer does the president receive his authority from the constitution. His authority rests with what he can make of his office himself. However, the Constitution is a stubborn thing, and it nevertheless has been a stumbling block to progressive reformers. Nevertheless, we are today, then, living with the consequences of progressivism of which the welfare state is a result.
Another way progressives sought to bypass the Constitution was to increase direct democracy influences in our politics. Prof. Sidney Milkis explains one way this was accomplished:
Progressives tended to agree on the need for direct democracy. No less than the Wilsonians, New Nationalist reformers championed institutions and practices that would nurture a direct system of popular rule on a national scale. Thus T.R. joined Wilson in calling for the use of school-houses as neighborhood headquarters for political discussion. Indeed, T.R.’s bolt from the Republican party freed him to make a bolder, more consistent defense of “pure democracy” than Wilson, who, as the nominee of the Democrats, was necessarily more constrained by the structure and organizational practices of the traditional two-party system. In disdaining party politics, and the local self-government it embodied, T.R. gave voice to progressive faith in the American people’s aspiration for social justice, and to the responsibility of leaders to give effect to these aspirations. As he stated this creed in his campaign address at Carnegie Hall:
In order to succeed we need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls. The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit in order that victory may be won. In the long fight for righteousness the watchword for all of us is, spend and be spent. It is of little matter whether any one man fails or succeeds; but the cause shall not fail, for it is the cause of mankind.
Ostensibly, the cause of Progressivism—the platform’s commitment to direct democracy and social and industrial justice—gave reform leadership its dignity, indeed its heroic quality. But the celebration of public opinion left leaders at the beck and call of the people. As the influential Wisconsin reformer, Charles McCarthy, warned Roosevelt, the American people were “jealous of losing control” over their political destiny, and four years of Taft had only served to intensify their desire to “have greater control over the presidency.” T.R.’s 1912 campaign exalted this desire into a creed. Sensing that “pure democracy” was the glue that held together the movement he sought to lead, Roosevelt made the cause of popular rule the centerpiece of his frantic run for the White House. As Roosevelt said in his “Confession of Faith,” delivered at the Progressive Party convention, “the first essential of the Progressive programme is the right of the people to rule.” This right demanded more than writing into law measures such as the direct primary, recall, and referendum. It also required rooting firmly in custom the unwritten law that the representatives derived their authority “directly” from the people.
The way to weaken the Constitution, and our attachments to the idea of America, was to make the people the center of political power in a much more bold way than the Founders believed they should be allowed. In other words, the people, not the Constitution, would be the author of presidential power. Democracy, not republicanism, would be more important.
The Progressives were found in both parties, and their ideals harken to a European style of thinking popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was similar to that which the slaveholding South began to attach themselves in the early 1820s. There is thus a great historicist influence that runs through progressive thought–not Nature, but History was the truth of life. The last word should go to TR in this regard:
I do not for one moment believe that the Americanism of today should be a mere submission to the American ideals of the period of the Declaration of Independence . . . Such action would be not only to stand still, but to go back. American democracy, of course, must mean an opportunity for everyone to contribute his own ideas to the working out of the future. But I will go further than you have done. I have actively fought in favor of grafting on our social life, no less than our industrial life, many of the German ideals.