The American Founders had to rely on others to perpetuate their creation. Their confidence was only partly justified. The Founding understanding of human nature and American liberty and the politics that connected them were consciously assailed in the Progressive era, from the late 19th century into the present, and Progressivism has since become known as liberalism. This assault drew from science, a different understanding of theology and philosophy, a revision of American history, and a utopian confidence in the rule of experts. Progressivism is typically depicted as a reform movement—a moderate, good government path between reactionaries and revolutionaries. This depiction, as we shall demonstrate, is almost completely misleading and ignores the revolutionary understanding of America put forth by the leading Progressive thinkers and activists. The Progressives sought to overthrow the Constitution in all but name.
In an interview with Claremont Review of Books editor Charles Kesler, John Marini, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, explains the achievement of the Progressives—an administrative state or bureaucracy that cannot be ousted by an election or two and controls every aspect of our lives. As Marini states it most succinctly, “the proponents of the administrative state had to delegitimize the Constitution.”
The Progressive revolt had many captains, but the chief of them was that scholar-politician Woodrow Wilson. Thomas G. West summarizes the Wilson revolution in this brief contribution to a New York Times symposium on Wilson’s importance. Some of the major primary sources can be found in two collections, both edited by Claremont Institute Senior Fellow R.J. Pestritto: American Progressivism: A Reader, and Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings.
If we had to select one Progressive work, it would be Wilson’s 1912 Presidential campaign address, “What is Progress?.” Here we have the first attack on the Declaration of Independence by an American president, followed by a plea to replace the political science of the Founders with a new science based on Darwinian biology. Wilson, a prodigious albeit seriously flawed scholar of Congress, the presidency, parties, and the bureaucracy, made a bold call for revolutionary change. Professor Ronald J. Pestritto of Hillsdale College led the contemporary rediscovery of the radical importance of Wilson through his book, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, articles, and media appearances. Christopher Caldwell presents a witty sketch of Wilson in this Claremont Review of Books essay. Pestritto’s colleague, historian Paul Moreno, covers the growth of the state, the evolution from Progressivism to liberalism, and the decline of constitutionalism in a lively account of this era. All of these works begin to counter the damage done by Progressive historians such as Charles Beard, who denigrated the thought behind the Constitution in favor of an account that depicted their economic interests, as Herman Belz recounts.
To determine how to deal with Progressivism and retrieve constitutional government we must first see the relationship between these ideas and today’s politics. The political consequences of the Progressive movement are ably depicted in several publications on Claremont.org. Senior Fellow Michael Uhlmann exposes the Progressive roots of contemporary big government. The late Thomas Silver, who led the revival of scholarly interest in Calvin Coolidge, emphasized the conservative failure of ideas in the rise of Progressivism. In other words, conservatives need to rethink their understanding of politics, economics, and the law, and above all political philosophy, before they can confront Progressivism. Jonah Goldberg depicts the Progressive pathology well, in his book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change, as R.J. Pestritto notes in his review, “A Nicer Form of Tyranny.”
Casting out Progressivism is far more difficult than it seems, for we have become accustomed to its promises of clean, efficient government. John Marini, in "Abandoning the Constitution," and James Ceaser, in "Restoring the Constitution," discuss the perils of such promises in a 2012 CRB Symposium, growing out of a conference we held in Washington, D.C. Senior Fellow Edward Erler uses the California case to further illustrate this point: only by using Progressive measures such as the initiative and referendum has California minority of conservatives been able to rein in the Progressives who run State government.
And some Progressives have become intellectual and political heroes. Consider the abiding popularity of John Dewey on the liberal intellectual elite, not to speak of his influence on schools of education and hence on pedagogy throughout the nation and much of the rest of the world. Justice Holmes, influential on both the right and the left in law schools, is a prime example of Progressive thinking, as Uhlmann shows in this study of Holmes’s Darwinism. An even better example is Theodore Roosevelt, in a way the first great Progressive politician. Jean Yarbrough, author of a stunning study of TR, reviewed here by Pestritto, elaborated on her argument in this review for the Claremont Review of Books. An installment of "Upon Further Review," a special online feature of the CRB, provided a deeper follow-up discussion about TR’s legacy.
Those transfixed by Robin Williams’ depiction of TR might want to read the real TR’s “New Nationalism” speech, which argued for a revolutionary political change. The 1912 election was, as Sidney Milkis describes, an election that shaped and maintains some hold on our contemporary politics. In the three-sided affair, two Progressives battled each other, while Republican incumbent William Howard Taft finished a distant third. Progressivism had justified demagoguery and direct popular appeals, as a necessity of modern politics.
Following Wilson’s presidency, the major defense of the pre-Progressive tradition was by Calvin Coolidge, a most under-appreciated president. Milkis describes the abiding themes of two recent studies of Coolidge. Thomas Silver initiated the revival of Coolidge with this note, demonstrating the dishonesty in liberal treatment of him.
A series of books co-edited by RJ Pestritto and Thomas G. West make clear the comprehensive and thorough Progressive assault on and capture of our political and educational institutions—The American Founding and the Social Compact, Challenges to the American Founding, and Modern America and the Legacy of the Founding. Another useful work is the Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, co-edited by Marini and Claremont Institute senior fellow Ken Masugi, with contributions from several scholars associated with the Claremont Institute. Several of Masugi’s writings involving the Progressives can be found at the Liberty Fund’s website.