Barack Obama and the Bad Ideas of Progressivism

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine 

Barack Obama’s serial gross incompetence has elicited all sorts of explanatory theories. He’s a closet socialist, an Alinskyite radical, a secret Muslim, or an anti-American internationalist. Though some of Obama’s words and deeds give support to all these speculations, I prefer a simpler explanation. Obama is a Progressive––not a vague “progressive,” the elastic moniker liberals started using when the word “liberal” became politically toxic. I mean a Progressive of the sort that flourished between the 1890’s and 1920’s, and that laid down the principles and tactics that have animated modern Democrats for decades: faux populism laced with class warfare, disregard for the Constitution, and the desire for a mammoth federal government. These are just a few of the old Progressive ideals that comprise the political philosophy of Barack Obama and much of the Democratic Party.

Faux Populism and Class Warfare

Obama’s pose as a champion of populist democracy against elitist cabals of bankers, rich people, and corporations is consistent with Progressive rhetoric about the “people.” Theodore Roosevelt, for example, in 1910 touted “the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” But such anodyne phrases were in service to class warfare. A year later he railed against “those other men who distrust the people, and many of whom not merely distrust the people, but wish to keep them helpless so as to exploit them for their own benefit.” In contrast, the Progressives “propose to do away with whatever in our government tends to secure to privilege, and to the great sinister special interests, a rampart from behind which they can beat back the forces that strive for social and industrial justice, and frustrate the will of the people.” The Progressives’ aim is “adequately to guarantee the people against injustice by the mighty corporations.” Woodrow Wilson in his 1913 book The New Freedom agreed: “The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

No different are the many attacks by Obama on corporations and the rich. Remember in 2010 when he said, “I do think at a certain point, you’ve made enough money”? Or his constant harping on “millionaires and billionaires,” a category including those making $250,000 a year? Or his 2011 attack on oil companies, when he vowed that his Justice Department will “root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices, and that includes the role of traders and speculators. We’re going to make sure that nobody’s taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gains”? Or his claim during last year’s presidential election that Romney “thinks that someone who makes $20 million a year, like him, should pay a lower [tax] rate than a cop or a teacher who makes $50,000”? Such exploitation of envy and resentment was rife during the Progressive period.

Disregard for the Constitution

Obama’s selective obeisance to the Constitution he has sworn to uphold––refusing, for example, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (Article 2.3) when he delayed legal provisions of Obamacare ––has its precedence in the Progressive presidents and theorists. They believed that social, technological, and economic changes had made the Constitution an anachronism. “The old laws,” Theodore Roosevelt said, “and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.” Indeed, during the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, Roosevelt dismissed concerns that his interference was contrary to the Constitution by shouting, “To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!”

So too the most influential Progressive theorist, Herbert Croly. In 1909 he counseled that Americans discard the “strong, almost dominant, tendency to regard the existing Constitution with superstitious awe, and to shrink with horror from modifying it even in the smallest detail.” Woodrow Wilson agreed that the Constitution was outmoded. “The laws of this country have not kept up with the change of economic circumstances in this country; they have not kept up with the change of political circumstances.” Invoking Darwinian evolution, Wilson continued, “All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”

Obama exhibited the same critical view of the Constitution when he complained in 2001 that the highest law of the land “is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.” In office he has acted on this belief, selectively enforcing laws from the Defense of Marriage Act to immigration laws and the legal provisions of Obamacare. And he bragged about violating the Constitution’s defining principle of the separation of powers in his 2012 and 2013 State of the Union speeches when he said, “If Congress won’t act . . . I will.”

Big Government

Progressives were impatient with the Constitution’s dispersal of power through structural checks and balances and federalism. They thought the novel problems created by modernity needed a powerful central government wielding the power necessary to solve such problems without the cumbersome interference from the state governments. Theodore Roosevelt asserted, “The national government belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the national government. The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the national government.” In his address to Congress, Roosevelt said, “The danger to American democracy lies not in the least in the concentration of administrative power in responsible and accountable hands. It lies in having the power insufficiently concentrated, so that no one can be held responsible to the people for its use.”

Herbert Croly agreed: “The realization of a genuine social policy necessitates the aggrandizement of the administrative and legislative branches of the government.” Elsewhere he added, “Only by faith in an efficient national organization, and by an exclusive and aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good.” Another influential Progressive theorist, Mary Parker Follett, in 1918 similarly wrote, “The state has a higher function than either restraining individuals or protecting individuals. It is to have a great forward policy which shall follow the collective will of the people, a collective will which embodied through our state, in our life, shall be the basis of progress yet undreamed of . . . Democracy is every one building the single life, not my life and others, not the individual and the state, but my life bound up with others, the individual which is the state, the state which is the individual.”

Consistent with Follett’s remarks is Obama’s frequent “you didn’t build that” rhetoric in which he equates citizens with the federal government, and privileges the collective over the individual. In July he said, “We all have a stake in government’s success, because the government is us.” This attitude lurks as well in the rhetoric of his Ohio State commencement address earlier this year, when he decried the “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems” and “that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.” Of course, the Constitution is founded precisely on the opposite idea: the legitimate fear of centralized power, which as George Washington once said is “of an encroaching nature.” That’s why the Constitution created checks and balances, limited the power of the federal government, and preserved the sovereignty of the states, so that no one branch could become powerful enough to compromise the freedom of the rest of us.

Obama and the Democrats share many other tenets of Progressivism, which have penetrated our politics to the point that many people take them for granted. When Obama told Joe the plumber, “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,”  he was simply repeating the numerous Progressive demands to equalize incomes and redistribute property. At the 1912 Progressive Party presidential nominating convention, for example, former Indiana senator Albert Beveridge orated, “We mean not only to make prosperity steady, but to give to the many who earn it a just share of that prosperity instead of helping the few who do not earn it to take an unjust share. The Progressive motto is ‘Pass the prosperity around.’” Punitive taxation of the rich, metastasizing government regulations, creeping collectivism, all have their origins in the Progressive Party.

We need to recall this history to understand just how embedded in our political culture is the Progressive ideology, and just how outdated and reactionary it is. Doing so––and studying the responses of Progressivism’s now forgotten challengers like Calvin Coolidge, William Taft, and Elihu Root––can be useful for understanding and fighting the political ideology now running and ruining the country.

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