Is This Progress?

President Obama is a man of history—that is, he places himself quite deliberately in historical context. His much-derided self-comparisons with Abraham Lincoln come immediately to mind. But those are clearly superficial. More telling is his choice of Osawatomie, Kansas for a speech that drew comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech delivered there 101 years before.  Roosevelt called for a vast expansion of federal government responsibility—a Bureau of Corporations and legislation involving families. Obama claims the legacy of both the Great Emancipator and the Rough Rider to justify his own dramatically more radical schemes.

Obama struck again in his recent speech at Roanoke, Virginia, with a speech that begs comparison with Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” address from his triumphant 1912 presidential campaign.  That speech, plus his many academic writings as a professor of political science, gave Wilson the fair reputation of being the first President to attack the American founding. Obama just exceeded Wilson’s hubris by being the first President to attack the American work ethic. Commentators have blasted Obama on this point and many others, but they have not appreciated the extent to which his thinking reflects tired Progressive doctrines. He is recycling Progressives such as TR, Wilson, and John Dewey. This becomes clear when we review his offending text.

His now-notorious rhetoric socializes human action to absurd lengths:

 [I]f you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Despite Obama’s protestations that his words were twisted, it is clear that he is urging people to adopt an essentially socialist understanding of who they are—our identity is as much social as individual or familial.  Moreover, all of Obama’s examples of “somebody else” come from government—the people who “do things together” with individuals aren’t parents, neighbors, boy scout troops, sorority sisters, or churches.  He could not have mentioned these most obvious examples (plus teachers) of helpers without spoiling the point of his narrative—to give more power to the national government over individuals. Hence Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic Democracy in America emphasized these voluntary associations as essential parts of a free American society, which would otherwise surrender all their responsibility to a centralized bureaucracy.

In various writings, including “The Future of Liberalism” (1935), John Dewey argued that natural rights, like human nature itself, are not fixed. Far from being merely inherent in the individual, “human nature” is malleable and socially created and socially responsive. Dewey’s writings on psychology and education were intended to aid in the socializing of individuals from childhood on, to make them more pliable to environmental manipulation—a “continuous reconstruction” of the self through social and political “experimentation” guided by social scientists. Dewey was echoing Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives, who wanted to transform America from a nation focused on individual rights.

But what if people fail? Should they blame their parents, teachers, churches, or neighbors? Or should it be the failure of unimaginative politicians, who won’t expand the role of government to meet people’s wants? As Woodrow Wilson put it, 100 years ago, “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.” And thus we must recognize, Wilson argues, that the Declaration of Independence is not relevant for our time, as we have evolved beyond it. All that we previously valued politically, such as rights, freedom, and equality, must be understood in a new way, Professor Wilson insists.  Professor Obama follows the Wilson argument and redoubles it and more.

Obama obscures what young scholar Woodrow Wilson wrote in an unpublished paper in 1887, in which he argued that there was no fundamental difference between socialism and democracy—for each claimed unlimited power over the definition of the common or public good.  “[F]or  it is very clear that, in fundamental theory, socialism and democracy are almost, if not quite, one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Men as communities are supreme over men as individuals.”

Thus, in attacking the Obama update on socialism, the focus should not only be on business success, or the success of great entrepreneurs, but on the successful lives of most Americans. Obama is not only out to attack the 1% but transform the 100% in their understanding of the meaning of America and its fundamental ideals. The response to Obama that he’s waging “class warfare” merely plays into Progressive hands—it assumes with Progressivism that there are two warring classes instead of one overarching, uniting principle of individual rights.

Abraham Lincoln stated the core of the objection to Obama, when he described the work of a slave black woman, his initial speech on the Dred Scott opinion: “in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.” Obama would have to tell that slave black woman her labors too did indeed belong to “somebody else.” But she knew that to begin with.