Progressivism Come to Fruition

Posted on May 25, 2014 by


President Obama, in a speech at a fundraiser this week, made the comment that ““Obviously, the nature of the Senate means that California has the same number of Senate seats as Wyoming. That puts us at a disadvantage,” (Read more:  Now he may have meant it simply as a fact that Democrats must deal with, but I am a bit skeptical of that explanation.  A statement such as his just seems perfectly consistent both with other laments about the “difficulty of getting things done” and hos own executive actions.  Even if Obama only meant to state a fact, the mere expression indicated a frustration with our governmental structure.  President Obama said further, “So there are some structural reasons why, despite the fact that Republican ideas are largely rejected by the public, it’s still hard for us to break through,”  He wasn’t too familiar here with public opinion, or chose to ignore it, but that isn’t the point.  Once again, Obama states that our institutional structure gets in the way of his policies.

Where does this attitude come from?  What did our Founding Fathers have to say about it?  Who is right?  Beginning back in the late 1800s, a kind of political ideology originated among the “intelligent class,” which came to be called Progressivism.  In Europe its counterparts were Modern Liberalism and Social Democracy, and all three did indeed have contact with each other through their main proponents.  The Progressives in America just couldn’t resist the urge to reform society, and not just to reform but to re-make it in their own image.  Most of them believed quite strongly that they had the answers to the current problems raised by industrialism and urbanization.  They weren’t bothered too much by traditional Christian approaches, though some used Christian theology in a liberal way to make their argument.  They were bothered by the persistent opposition to the implementation of their ideas, especially in the form of Federal and state court decisions that didn’t favor them.  

To summarize the Progressives, they believed:

1.  they were the experts in any field to be reformed–government, economics, education, etc.

2.  markets were a major cause of social problems, and ought to be significantly regulated or abolished.

3.  the United States Constitution was a obstacle to achieving policy success, and should be ignored or reinterpreted.

4.  the state, especially the Federal government, should have much greater power to deal with what they perceived as social problems.

5.  power ought to be as consolidated as possible, mainly at the Federal level, and the President should have the greatest authority of all branches of government.

6.  bureaucracy was the best way to organize all problem-solving for society–bureaucrats were experts, were unbiased, not tainted by the political process, and always acted, if well-trained, efficiently and for the public welfare.

If you noticed a few parallels between Progressivism and our modern liberals, it isn’t accidental.  If you noticed similarities to President Obama’s rhetoric and actions, that is perfectly understandable.  Probably the most well-known of Progressives was Woodrow Wilson, himself a United States president, who held pretty much all the ideas I listed above.  He hit especially hard the Constitution itself, seeing it as preventing swift action on his part to remedy all,the social evils he perceived.  Wilson wrote, “The makers of the Constitution constructed the federal government upon a theory of checks and balances which was meant to limit the operation of each part and to allow to no single part or organ of it a dominating force; but no government can be successfully conducted upon so mechanical a theory.” (Constitutional Government in the United States, 1908).  Wilson, like Obama, considered the branches of the federal government as obstacles to his actions.  Wilson disdained the old order of the Founders.  He wanted instead a power sufficient to get things done; he speaks of leadership, action, control.  In other works, Wilson writes about how bureaucracies and bureaucrats ought to operate under the powerful executive.  

It may be possible that Obama has never studied Wilson, but his rhetoric and actions would certainly cause one to think he had.  So what did those old fuddy-duddy Founders think about such “archaic” ideas as separation of powers and checks and balances?  In particular what did they think about Congress and its allegedly inconvenient division into two houses?  Even more specifically, what did they have to say about the Senate with its selection of senators not be population but on an equal basis per state?  Federalist 47 is a good place to begin. The author states, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”  The consolidation of power very simply makes a nation the same as a monarchy in practice, and therefore subject to the same potential for arbitrary government.  Given human nature as it is, not how it might be or whether some elites might know better for the rest–a dubious assumption–the Founders believed that separating powers would prevent or minimize abuse of power but at the same time that that structure would not make decision-making impossible.  Federalist 39 specifically addresses the Senate in some detail.  

Power and its exercise is the crucial issue.  It seems President Obama wishes simply, as Wilson did, to do what he wants, without any opposition.  This is a dangerous vision for any politician.  It is dangerous for any individual to believe that his ideas about the best policies are so much better than everyone else’s that no opposition ought to be permitted.  From a Christian standpoint, it is even more dangerous, given the effects of the Fall and the resultant sin nature that so permeates all human beings.  We can never afford absolute and potentially capricious exercise of power.  Though it might seem to be a trifling statement made by President Obama, it has to be taken seriously and vociferously rejected.