‘To Hell With the Constitution!’

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine 

Photo via www.newrepublic.com
Photo via www.newrepublic.com

In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt intervened in a strike by Pennsylvania coal miners, exceeding his Constitutional authority as president. When this was pointed out to him by Republican House whip James E. Watson, Roosevelt allegedly yelled, “To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!”

This outburst reflected the novel Progressive view of the Chief Executive. Instead of the Constitution’s limited powers focused on specific needs, such as national defense, beyond the capacity of the individual states or local governments to address, the President needed more expansive authority in order to serve the “people.” Over 100 years later, Barack Obama has governed on the same assumption, one that undermines the Constitution’s structure of balanced powers and limited government, and puts at risk our political freedom and autonomy.

In January of this year Obama famously asserted, much less honestly than did T.R., his willingness to shed Constitutional limits: “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got phone.” And he’s been true to his belief during his nearly six years in office. He has changed his own signature legislation, Obamacare, 42 times. He has also used his “pen and phone” to change immigration laws, gun laws, labor laws, environmental policy, and many other statutes that should be the purview of the legislative branch, to which the Constitution gives the law-making power.

Other presidents, of course, have used signing statements and executive orders. But Obama has pushed this traditional prerogative far beyond the bounds that presidents in the past were usually careful to respect. But the ideas behind this expansion of power are not peculiar to Obama, and transcend any one man. They come from the Progressive worldview that rejects the Constitution’s philosophical vision of humans as driven by conflicting “passions and interests,” and eager to amass power in order to gratify both. The Progressives, on the contrary, believe that human nature can be improved, and that technocrats armed with new knowledge of human behavior and motivations can be entrusted with the concentrated power necessary for managing that improvement and solving the new problems created by industrialism, technology, and the other novelties of modernity.

In terms of the federal government, the key to this new vision is the executive branch, led by an activist president. Woodrow Wilson was quite explicit about these ideas. In 1890 he wrote of the need for a “leader of men” who has “such sympathetic and penetrative insight as shall enable him to discern quite unerringly the motives which move other men in the mass.” He knows “what it is that lies waiting to be stirred in the minds and purposes of groups and masses of men.” This sympathy is one “whose power is to command, to command by knowing its instrument,” and the leader possessing this “sympathy” cares only “for the external uses to which they [people] may be put.”

More frightening still are Wilson’s comments further expanding on this “sympathy.” “Whoever would effect a change in a modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listens to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.” Gone are the notions that free people decide their own political fate and choose representatives to serve their interests and principles, their autonomy protected by the Constitutional structure of checks and balances. Now an empowered elite presumably wiser about human nature will, like Plato’s Guardians, manipulate the people’s opinions so that they make the “right” choice. These ideas are on a continuum that at the extreme end lie Mussolini’s fascism and Lenin’s communism.

The president, then, must transcend the Constitution’s outmoded limits on government power. In 1908, for example, Wilson complained that the president was merely a “legal executive” and “guiding authority in the application of the law and the execution of policy,” which is the Constitution’s charge that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” For Wilson, this was too limited an authority, for the president could only veto bad laws, and was not “given an opportunity to make good ones.” And explicitly rejecting the Constitution’s vision of clashing “factions” driven by conflicting “passions and interests,” Wilson writes, “You cannot compound a successful government out of antagonisms.” So much for Madison’s governing principle in Federalist 51 that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The Progressive collectivist “people” possessing uniform interests must have a “President as the unifying force in our complex system.”

We see in Wilson’s writings another Progressive assumption still with us today: defining Americans as an abstract, collectivist “people.” This unitary “people” rejects the Founders’ recognition of America’s great variety of economic interests, passions such as religion, and regional folkways that characterize the citizens of the United States. Indeed, it is just this variety that threatened political freedom, for a flawed human nature is intoxicated by power, and always seeks more power in order to gratify its peculiar needs and interests by forming “factions” of the like-minded. As John Adams wrote in 1787, the “selfish passions in the generality of men” are the “strongest.” Knowing that this selfish inclination is rooted in a human nature unchanged since the days of Athens, and so cannot be improved or eliminated, the Founders sought merely to balance faction against faction so that no one faction can amass enough power to threaten the freedom of all.

The proponents of centralized power, however, require a more homogeneous “people” to justify expanding government power. Such a “people” will have similar interests that only the central government can effectively identify and serve. Interests like “social justice,” “social duties,” and “social efficiency,” cannot be fulfilled by local or state governments, or by the parochial aims of civil society or the market, or by churches divided by sectarian beliefs. The federal technocrats of government agencies, more knowledgeable than the people about what they really want and need, must be given the power to trump those clashing local interests and manage polices that serve the larger “social” good––as defined not by the people in all their variety and complexity, but by federal bureaucrats and technocrats.

Go back to Obama’s “pen and phone” statement and read what follows to see this same collectivist vision at work: “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance, to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating.” The president assumes that in a country of some 330 million people, “the help they need” and their views on improving job creation, education, or job training are all the same, and thus one man can formulate policies that advance them, cutting out the several hundred representative of Congress, and state and local governments.

The obvious danger is one evident from the 20th century’s history of totalitarianism from the Bolsheviks to the Khmer Rouge. Elites convinced of their superior knowledge and insight into human behavior and the proper aims people should pursue, demand the coercive power to achieve these goods. But true to the Founders’ vision of a flawed human nature, power is “of an encroaching nature,” as Madison and Washington both warned. It intoxicates and corrupts those who possess it. Moreover, it requires weakening the autonomy and freedom of the people, whose various interests will contradict the “vision of the anointed,” as Thomas Sowell dubs them, who claim to know what’s best for everybody, and use their power to neutralize or eliminate those who resist this superior wisdom.

We need to recognize that for over a century this Progressive vision has revolutionized the federal government, which now has a size, scope, cost, and coercive power that would have horrified the Founders. The ideas underlying this vision––for example, the notion that the federal government and its agencies are better able to “solve problems” than are local and state governments, or civil society––are taken for granted as self-evident even by many Republicans. Thus focusing on the spectacular incompetence of Barack Obama can blind us to the dangers that will continue after he has left office. Obama vowed to “fundamentally transform America,” but that transformation had started long before he became president.

Copyright © 2009 FrontPage Magazine. All rights reserved.

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14 thoughts on “‘To Hell With the Constitution!’”

  1. Proudly Unaffiliated

    “Obama vowed to “fundamentally transform America,” but that transformation had started long before he became president.”

    True. But what Obama meant was he would put the pedal to the metal, getting away from this gradualism. Wait until after this Nov. election to see what I mean. He goes full OJ.

    1. Yes he will and let’s face it nobody will step up and stop him. I used to think Obama was an anomaly but he’s what a majority of the voting public identifies with. It may be a repubelican that wins in 2016 but the trajectory will be the same as the last 25 years. Ever expanding government and diminishing liberties.

  2. I’m not going to debate Mr. Hanson’s description of Wilson’s Progressive-ness or his (Hanson’s) suggestion that this Progressive “pen & phone” movement is designed to circumvent the Constitution and be the downfall of all things American. That’s his bailiwick to bolster. But in doing just a little bit of research regarding the presidents being the most prolific with presidential orders it seems the numbers don’t quite support Mr. Hanson’s alarmist pontifications.
    Referring to this site, University of California… http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php I just did a little number crunching of my own.
    It seems Woodrow Wilson was indeed a prolific president with presidential orders, using his pen some 1803 times (avg. 225/yr). But that record was a distant second to FDR’s 3522 orders, but that was for 12 years (avg. 290/yr). At the time of this UofC chart Obama was 5.5 years into his presidency. To date he has used his “pen & phone” 187 times (or avg. 33/yr). Not even close to the bad-est of the Progressive bads.
    Let’s do some more math.
    Including and since Truman there have been 37.5 years of democratic administrations and 35.5 years of republican administrations. The Dems can claim using the pen 2,317 times (avg. 68/yr).. and the GOP can claim 1,837 times (avg. 52/yr).
    It seems Obama’s record, thus far, is far less that any president’s average since Truman. Again, this by no means suggests that Obama is the better president. But it does question the entire crux of Mr. Hanson’s credibility when trying to assign some level of Progressive conspiracy to Obama. I fail to see the alarm… but I do readily see yet another baseless accusation meant to just cloud the facts in favor of generating more hate.

    1. Its not the number but the scope Mr kool aid. Did you not read his article? Have you not read leftist law scholar Jonathan Turley who is troubled by this President overstepping his bounds? But he’s a hater too right? Head to Home Depot for a new pair of knee pads buddy

    2. This is a typical rebuttal which takes one numerical indicator and attempts to pretend that an entire well written essay is hereby dis proven because “the numbers don’t add up.” Re-read the essay. It is not about the quantity of executive actions, it is about the intent behind them. Regardless of which president signed the most, or the least, the essay is about the erosion of democracy through the deliberate and repeated use of fiat to bypass the representatives of the people who are elected to create and pass laws. If you pay more attention to what Hanson is asserting you would see that his logic is supported by the intent and effect of the executive actions, not by a tally of how many were written and signed. I cannot in my lifetime recall a president creating as much division in our populace by bypassing the wishes of the people to implement policies which his party wants but cannot get the legislative votes to pass legally. You fail to see the alarm because you are beside yourself with glee that the progressive agenda no longer requires the consent of the other half to make it reality. To those of us who don’t agree with your beliefs that IS the cause for alarm; it’s neither baseless nor meant to generate hate. The essay is meant to bring to light the danger of a single political party forever removing democracy from this nation while the progressive media heralds the change with open arms. Just picture Obama as a Republican railroading through changes you don’t agree with, and you might begin to get the point.

    3. Not sure how this article brings into question “the crux of Mr. Hanson’s credibility”, as it was written by contributor Bruce S. Thornton for FrontPage Magazine, as is easily discernible from the byline, rather than by Dr. Hanson.

  3. Yes to limited government,
    yes to US soverignty,
    yes to constitutional originalism…

    The USA is exceptional, though even our President is trying to “fundamentally transform” that belief.

  4. “I’m not going to debate Mr. Hanson’s description of Wilson’s Progressive-ness or his (Hanson’s) suggestion that this Progressive “pen & phone…”

    Doug, good research includes a good bibliography. You should check your sources before posting. Victor Davis Hanson who you thoroughly criticize did not even author the article. Bruce S. Thornton is the author and no where in Mr. Thorton’s words do I detect “hate” as you ascribe. This is healthy debate topic. Attributing the extreme passion of hate to dissenters is a common tactic of the left. When individuals disagree and challenges the left’s position, we often see them labeled as an extremists. As an example, just look at how the Tea Party movement is falsely portrayed.

  5. Kenneth Duke Masters

    Doug: Your focus on the raw number of “pen strokes” is pettifogging the issue. The content of them is what is important. To be fair a comparison of the content of thousands of executive orders would require volumes. KDM

  6. Doug,
    The article was written by Thornton. You should read before you comment.
    It’s not the shear number of executive orders that is the issue, it’s when the order violates the constitution by usurping powers granted only to the congress.

  7. The “masses” is a Marxist word. Further, it is a code word that denies the sense of the individual. As such, it is not an American governmental concept. The correct American term is the “public.” Leaders give away their leanings by using such code words.

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