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How the Academics Made Progressivism All-American

with Bradley C. S. Watson,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:

Today we’re talking with Brad Watson about his new book, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea. Brad is a professor of politics at St. Vincent College. He’s the author and editor of many books. I’ll mention one that I’ve read. It came out in 2009, Living Constitution, Dying Faith. Brad is also a reformed Canadian patriot. He told me about some quality time he spent this past summer at the US/Canadian border. Not because of Trump’s fascist America but, I think, of incompetence of border officials. Brad’s also the Sage of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It’s not Arnold Palmer, it’s Brad. Welcome to the program.

Brad Watson:

Well, thank you, Richard, for that introduction and thank you for having me.

Richard Reinsch:

So, thinking about progressivism and maybe, just for the benefit of our listeners, maybe catch us up to speed a bit on progressivism. Give us a working definition of what it is and what it aims to do.

Brad Watson:

The definition that I use in this book, just to kind of set the table for what I’m talking about, which is how historians over the course of the 20th century systematically distorted the idea of progressivism. Progressivism, as I define it, is the idea that the principled American constitutionalism of fixed natural rights and limited and dispersed powers has to be overturned and replaced by an organic evolutionary model of the Constitution that facilitates the authority of experts dedicated to the expansion of the public sphere, the expansion of political control and especially at the national level.

Liberalism has never really had an honest conversation with itself about this because the liberal historians who define the progressive narratives in the 20th century didn’t really come clean.

The progressives in the late part of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century, were very suspicious of the Founders’ Constitution as limiting the power of the state, all the things that progressives want to do. So the story of my book is really the story of the academic biases and blind spots of professional academics, especially historians, who simply do not tell this story either honestly or completely. They make this what I claim is a radical progressive idea, hostility to the Founders’ Constitution.

They try to domesticate it, to make it non-threatening and therefore, I think, forward to this book, friend Charles Kesler said liberalism has never really had an honest conversation with itself about this because the liberal historians who define the progressive narratives in the 20th century didn’t really come clean. Sometimes I think they were willfully blind to these things and sometimes inadvertently blind.

Richard Reinsch:

What composes progressivism? The critique you present, I think, is well known or that they are at odds with the American Founders with the limited Constitution. But what are they drawing from? Where are they getting this?

Brad Watson:

Yeah. The progressives in the early going drew from a number of intellectual currents that were floating around, really, in America, and in Europe to a certain extent almost immediately after the age of Lincoln. So I trace the origins of progressivism to two or three distinct strains of thoughts but sort of related strains of thought. One is social Darwinism. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Darwinian concepts were just in the water, as it were, among the intellectual classes. Darwinism, of course, insists that evolution, change, growth, is always and everywhere good, a sign of strength. And stasis, or fixity, including the fixity of the Founders’ natural rights Constitution will get in the way of necessarily organic evolutionary growth.

Overlaid on top of that, where it was the philosophy of pragmatism, which was really a distinctly American philosophy, if there is a philosophy that owes its origins to Americans, it’s probably pragmatism. Which suggests that experimental methods and means are likely to prove the situation, anything that gets in the way of constant experimentation, again, and the fixed Constitution does that to a certain degree of political sphere.

Anything that gets in the way of that kind of experimentation is dangerous. And then, finally, some American progressives are influenced by categories of German idealism, a kind of worship of the state, the confidence that history is moving toward a concentrated, rational state and we shouldn’t get in the way of that inexorable political movement. All of these things cut against the old Founders’ Constitution view that certain things are fixed. The Constitution fixes the leaps and bounds of our common life together. And the way we effect change is through the consent of a republican people.

The progressives always want to displace the consent of the informed people with reported expertise, the people who understand the dynamic of history, the people in the tweed jackets who sit around academic offices and government offices, really understand where history is going. So social Darwinism, pragmatism, and German ideals put together form a potent intellectual cocktail which morphs into, by the early 20th century, into what we have come to see as intellectual progressivism and eventually that, of course, the father of modern liberalism, New Deal Liberalism, Great Society Liberalism.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking about progressivism, I want to get more into your book on how the historians and other academics have told the history of progressivism. But you would be a part of the notion that progressivism is a foreign import to these shores, Germany being a primary place where it starts. And American academics go to German universities and learn things and those ideas are then brought back to America universities, most notably John Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin.

Brad Watson:

Right. Hopkins, Wisconsin. I talk about these places a little bit in my book, and some of the people who were there. In terms of it being a foreign import to American shores, yes and no. There are certainly strains of, as I say, there’s this German idealism among some of the progressives. But others I would say are picking up on more what I would characterize as indigenously American intellectual phenomena, such as pragmatism, social Darwinism. In some ways, social Darwinism had its most prominent adherence in the late 19th century in the United States. So you can’t simply ascribe it to a kind of foreign virus infecting America or something like that.

Richard Reinsch:

The German invasion.

Brad Watson:

The German invasion, right. I don’t want to overstate the German invasion. I know some people broadly on my side of things want to attribute all of this progressive phenomenon to the German invasion but there’s a good deal of, I think, indigenous roots to this, too.

Richard Reinsch:

On this point of the German invasion, I guess I ask that question because I agree with you. I think there’s an indigenous part of this. There’s also Americans writing much sooner than the later, than the last quarter of the 19th century. One that sticks out in my mind is Orestes Brownson, who was a major public figure, writer, in the 19th century in America who, in the 1820s, in the 1830s, is sort of channeling a lot of liberation theology, a lot of humanism. He’s a disciple of Kant at one point in his career and, I know, broadly articulates a progressive approach, a very muscular, progressive approach to government and sort of a rejection, in his writings, of how American government is understood at that time and the way he interprets the Declaration of Independence as being not necessarily about natural rights but about some sort of broad humanitarian emancipation.

So I agree with you there. I’m thinking the ideas do seem to come together in a very powerful way, though, with academic learning from Germans. So here’s my question. Why have they been… Or I don’t know if you agree with this. They seem to have been very successful in the academy, in American universities in the 20th century, and very successful politically. Not yet having remade our Constitution into their image but, at times it seems, getting closer and closer and closer.

Brad Watson:

Yes. The academy, I think we all know, has long been dominated by what many of us would call liberals or even radicals, in some cases. But, really, the origins of modern American academic disciplines, I’m thinking now about political science. I’m a political scientist. I’m thinking also about history, and in this book I’m dealing mostly with historians. I like to say I’m not a historian but I play one for the purposes of this book. I’m really dissecting and deconstructing the peripheral or progressive historian’s approach to things.

These disciplines were really founded, invented, the Modern American Political Science Association, the American Historical Association. These were founded in the late 19th or early 20th century as adjuncts of ways of channeling progressive ideologies, specifically into the American academies. So in a way it’s not accidental. The progressives were there at the foundation of modern American academic disciplines. The disciplines, primarily among the academic disciplines that really try to transmit the American story, history political science. So in a way it’s not something accidental that so many liberals inhabit these disciplines because the disciplines were set up precisely to channel progressive ideology, at least in the United States.

In Teddy Roosevelt you see this interesting mixture of progressive elements with, to a certain extent, the old language of American politics.

Richard Reinsch:

On the point of just the success of progressivism politically, one thought that I’ve had, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts, it arises in the, politically, as we’ve been discussing, turn of the 20th century, later part of the 19th, and then sort of explodes. Teddy Roosevelt referred to it as Hegel on horseback. Woodrow Wilson. And then we have the 1920s where the brakes get put on. Is there something quintessentially American about progressivism in the sense of a people who settle a continent, who set up commerce throughout the continent, who build railroads, who settle it, who have experienced amazing gains in wealth in industry and technology and the whole American settlement story?

Is it not then the case that you would then take, “And we can do this in government,” or, “We can improve government. We can make it stronger, more precise. We can make it do more.” What do you think of that?

Brad Watson:

Yeah. Well, I’ll say something about Teddy Roosevelt. It’s not quite as poetic as Hegel on horseback, but he’s really more of a kind of social Darwinist/pragmatist on horseback, I think, than Hegel. Now, Woodrow Wilson is a progressive successor. He’s more influenced by Hegel, I think. But in Teddy Roosevelt you see this interesting mixture of progressive elements with, to a certain extent, the old language of American politics, which I think you’re alluding to, which is a kind of sense of the possibilities, the fluidity of American society and the openness of the frontier, the striving that defines Americans.

So the question really becomes if these old categories are close or not to the new progressive categories. And I don’t think they are that close because progressivism as it comes down to us really embodies not just good old fashioned American striving or desire for economic improvement, advancement, the settlement of the frontier, whatever. But, really, a philosophy of history. A belief that history is unfolding inexorably and inevitably in a certain direction and it requires expert superintendents in order to get it there.

The older language of American politics had, I think, a more bottom-up flavor, a self-governing people striving for greatness, as it we’re, whereas the progressive vision is bound up with this philosophy of history and this top-down model. TR is interesting because he’s kind of a transitional figure between these two worlds, the old language of American politics and the new, whereas Woodrow Wilson is more explicitly the new language of the enlightened administration.

Richard Reinsch:

On the enlightened administration point, do we still believe in that? We have the sort of inertia of massive bureaucracy and administration and we have, as I ask you that question, no small amount of ink is spilled on, including in Law & Liberty, on the decline of self government, the decline of Congress. And yet do Americans really believe in rule by experts or the best and the brightest? Isn’t that a point of mockery now? Is that aspect of progressivism still alive?

Brad Watson:

Yeah. This is interesting. Functionally, of course, we’re stuck with this legacy of progressivism. But one of the interesting things about the United States, I think, compared to, frankly, most other advanced liberal democracies, which you’re aware I’m originally a native of Canada, as you mentioned. It seems to me there is less resistance among the people in most advanced liberal democracies to this idea of expert rule, top-down rule. They’re more complacent. But the Americans are less complacent. So that raises the question, what accounts for our, at least residual, distrust of expertise? I think, at least relative to other countries.

And I think part of the answer to that is simply the enduring power of the American Founders’ Constitution, the enduring power of republican ideas, the enduring power of American imagery linked to the Founders’ notions of a self-governing people who take responsibility for their own affairs. I think whether America has become a fully progressive nation, it kind of depends I think on where you’re coming from. When I first moved to the United States I used to say to some of my lamenting conservative friends who always think the American cup is half empty. Coming from Canada, I think it’s half full.

Americans are not quite as comfortable with this model of top-down government that some other people are. So there’s a battle for the American soul, I think, still going on. In broad terms you can describe it as the Founders’ America versus progressive America. We’ve moved a lot in the direction of progressive America, toward a vision of expert rule, but we’re not fully there yet. There’s a lot of Americans who still resent it or are still willing to fight against it. To some extent I think the Trump phenomenon is a reflection of this, right?

The peasants are out and they have their pitchforks. They’re as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore, even if it’s a little bit inchoate in some instances. It’s there. It runs through and through, I think, American politics and always has. Although recently we’re told by our betters that we have to behave ourselves and, in some respect, our betters are now on the Supreme Court and we just have to accept whatever these experts hand down to us. A lot of Americans still don’t buy it, so it’s a complicated question.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah, I know. And a part of that, too, I think is the institutions progressives have built increasingly don’t look so lovely and don’t seem to have-

Brad Watson:

Exactly. They’re not working.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah, they’re not working very well. They don’t seem to have, I don’t know, inspiration, imagination, a hold on people. Particularly higher education, I think a lot about you’re obviously invested in greatly.

And even if we think about the most progressive states in this country, the moving van test, which way are the moving vans pointed. They’re pointed towards the benighted conservative red states. There’s where most economic growth and population growth is happening in this country, including for our left-wing millennials. They’re moving to these states, also, to find a job. So I think that all should be said. Now, tell the story or help us understand how academics wrote about the progressive emergence.

Brad Watson:

Yeah. I’m looking, as I said, mostly at historians in this book. Historians became, some of the big-wig historians that many people would be at least passingly familiar with, the Richard Hofstadters, the Arthur Schlesingers, people like that, big-wig historians of the 20th century, but many lesser lights, too, how they told the story of American progressivism. And pretty much systematically I conclude, after going through them all in this book, they downplay the hostility to the Founders’ Constitution, that the early progressives exhibited, or the Constitution is simply absent in some cases in their story. It seemed to be a quaintly irrelevant anachronism. They also downplay the kind of fervid, secular millenarianism, if you will, of some progressives. Some of the early progressives were actually Christians but they pointed Christianity towards-

Richard Reinsch:

Social justice.

Brad Watson:

… the social justice, as we would now call it, sort of immediate economic concerns. And to the extent that, in some of the early progressive theologians on the Protestant side, people like Walter Rauschenbusch, who I’m going to talk about on campus sites. People like Father John Ryan.

Richard Reinsch:

John Ryan.

Brad Watson:

It’s almost as if traditional Christianity, or Christianity concerned with individual sin and salvation, is replaced entirely by social Christians. That is to say, a Christian who is concerned about economic policy, in this case. The historians don’t tell this story. They don’t tell the story of the hostility of the progressives to the Founders’ Constitution or this, I like to think of it as a kind of secular millenarianism that goes along with modern progressivism. Modern progressives who’ve lost all connection to their Christian roots, nonetheless still have this sort of self-righteous edge to them, which I think in some ways they derive from the earlier more explicitly Christian fore bearers.

But the historians don’t tell this story at all. Progressivism is kind of hollowed out. It’s told as the phenomenon that is somehow organically compatible with American political categories. And, for some of the reasons that we’ve already discussed. America, they’re telling at least, has always been a kind of progressive nation. There’s nothing to see here. Move along. The progressives just tried some social reforms. Some of them succeeded. Some of them failed.

So progressivism comes across as a warm and fuzzy social movement to improve whatever labor laws, factory conditions, things the progressives were concerned about. What it doesn’t come across as is a coherent intellectual movement that is so fundamentally hostile to the notion of a fixed Constitution, fundamentally hostile to the Founders’ Constitution. And you can read book after book after book, somebody defining history of the 20th century, and believe me, I did this in writing this book, and is some cases see nary a mention of the Constitution or what the progressives themselves agreed on. I’m not trying to be polemical in this book, at all.

Richard Reinsch:

Do you attribute that to the discipline of history and how they understand what they’re doing? Do you attribute that to they themselves, many of these historians, didn’t take the American founding that seriously as its own coherent set of ideas and principles and/or, and maybe these are all running together, these guys are themselves progressives and, of course, don’t see anything there?

Brad Watson:

Yeah. A little bit of both. I open the book with the notion of confirmation bias, as I call it. That is the tendency of investigators to seek and elevate those things which confirm their pre-existing hypotheses. In modern psychology this is a real thing and I suggest that professional academics, especially historians, were nominally dedicated to objectivity, having to prove immune to confirmation bias or professional deformation, if you will, in their attempt to transmit the progressive idea. They are themselves progressives. They share some of the progressive assumptions about the inevitability of historical progress, the desirability of expert rule, suspicion of the peasants with pitchforks, the ordinary people for America.

So when they’re looking at and purporting to describe as professional historians, progressive phenomenon, they just see it as American as apple pie. They think so. So it’s partly the fact they are progressives. It’s also partly, as I suggested earlier, baked into the cake of the American historical profession. The formative orthodoxy of the early historians with the formation of professional associations, the AHA, was this belief in scientific history. That is to say, what evolutionary categories, Darwinian categories, the suspicion of transcendental principles of, with a suspicion on fixed truth. And I’m talking about discipline-wide now, with the foundation of the modern historical profession. Faith in progress.

Richard Reinsch:

That ideas are epiphenomenal to-

Brad Watson:

… historical forces.

Richard Reinsch:

Right. And you see in ideas are also relative or fixed to their time and place, to specific groups and people. So they really aren’t ideas.

Brad Watson:

Absolutely. And the historians and… historical profession, it tends to, like most of the intellectual classes of their day, emphasize the utility of statism, the chimerical status of natural rights in the face of what? Well, Darwinian and pragmatic criticisms, especially. The anachronistic nature of the Constitution that is rooted in natural rights, rights that don’t change with time. So both the historical profession and individual historians are thoroughly infected with these ideas. So when they look at the progressive phenomenon, they see themselves reflected. They see nothing hostile to the American constitutional order.

Richard Reinsch:

Do you see this primarily mid-century academics, and one can also see they themselves, Richard Hofstadter, which you open the book with a long quotation from him, where he basically calls himself a man of the progressive wing, writing about progressives. So they themselves certainly don’t want to highlight and just don’t see any dramatic change here between their ideas and the founding and all of that.

Does that hold true, though, with the new left scholars? Does that hold true as we move into getting into the beginning of the 21st century, to the extent their scholarship, progressivism. It seems to me they now want to play it up. And maybe a popular indication of that was Hillary Clinton saying, “I’m not a liberal. I’m a progressive,” and progressivism now being something worth building an intellectual defense around.

Contemporary liberals believe that we must live under a living constitution but, of course, to live under a living constitution, which lives and breathes and grows and changes with the winds of progressive elites, is to live under no constitution at all. The very nature of a living constitution is to not fix things, or put certain things beyond the bounds of ordinary political change.

Brad Watson:

Right. That’s a good question. I move chronologically in this book, sort of following the historical accountings of progressivism from the 1940s through the 1950s, then through the ’60s and ’70s. And the original new left scholars, those who were originally associated with that term, came on the scene in the 1960s. And they were operating in neo or fuzzy Marxist categories. And, like the more consensus historians, like Hofstadter, Schlesinger, they also claimed that progressivism was of a piece with the American historical tradition. Their sort of more Marxist analysis simply said that progressives were only trying to grease the wheels of capitalism, basically.

Again, there was nothing to see here but from a hard-left point of view, as it were, there’s nothing to see here. Everyone, including the progressive reformers, is trying to further economic expansionism, et cetera. Some of these more contemporary progressive, or new new-left, if you will, thinkers of the current century, they do try to reinvigorate the label of progressivism and hold it up as something to be proud of. Hillary Clinton certainly tried to do that.

Brad Watson:

And their understanding, though, I think, is, again, that progressivism essentially is America. The Constitution has always been, of necessity, must be a living constitution and the early progressives understood this, and later progressives like the Fells, merely make clear this truth against the fuddy-duddy conservative right that they hold up as straw men who want to make us live like we lived in the 18th century and all these nonsensical notions of what a fixed constitution is.

So the contemporary, there is some effort to revivify the label of progressive to make it useful to contemporary liberals. Liberalism fell out of fashion and Hillary Clinton I think got the idea that she’d call herself a progressive. That would be better than liberal somehow. But, really, contemporary liberalism is the natural outgrowth of early 20th century progressivism. Contemporary liberals believe that we must live under a living constitution but, of course, to live under a living constitution, which lives and breathes and grows and changes with the winds of progressive elites, is to live under no constitution at all. The very nature of a living constitution is to not fix things, or put certain things beyond the bounds of ordinary political change.

Richard Reinsch:

Let me go in a different direction a little bit but still kind of staying with the academy and the intellectuals. You think about progressivism, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and then moving up to LBJ and the great society, and then the new left. I guess I want to try and see or think about the connections there, and also academic connections because clearly that will remake the American academy in a major way. It takes a generation to do it. But the connections, though, have to be with the earlier progressivism. How do you see that happening?

Brad Watson:

Yeah. As we were discussing earlier, in many of the most important disciplines in humanities and social sciences in American universities you see the disciplines themselves orient towards the progressive project from the get-go. Obviously hiring over the last, oh, my gosh, I’m tempted to say 100 years in the American academy, but at least over the last 50 years, has been very much hiring from the left, by people in the disciplines that I’m most interested in, like political science, history-

Richard Reinsch:

Sociology.

Brad Watson:

… law, and sociology. Yeah. Believers in what? Growth, change, often evolutionary growth, pragmatic experimentation. The rejection of transcendent truths. And, in this sense, there is a broad compatibility of the direction of the contemporary American academy with progressive early 20th century progressive premises. The idea that, for example, within political science, that would want to teach the Constitution as a fixed document embodying truths, nature and nature is God, is really, really weird in most places. And I teach at a fairly traditional liberal arts college.

But when you get students out of high school, it is simply the belief that the Constitution, changes evolve over time. It’s like mother’s milk. Everybody, to the extent they’ve thought about it at all, believes this is obviously the case. You have to kind of spend some time explaining what the Constitution is, what a written constitution is and isn’t and if we’re going to have changes, obviously we are, then we should have the through consensual public mechanisms, legislation, not through pretending the Constitution guarantees every fashionable preference of the day.

But now this is everywhere. It’s in the high schools, it’s in higher education. You can blame a lot of this, I think frankly, on the progressives, on early 20th century progressivism. There are a million people to blame here but certainly the progressive intellectual movement has played a big role in defining the academic disciplines which, in turn, defined what high school teachers have been taught, what people through and through education circles have been taught. So that’s a great story to be told.

Richard Reinsch:

You made an interesting observation in the introduction that the rise of progressivism, paradoxically, even though they are always claiming to be exalting the individual, diminishes the realm of the private and diminishes the conscience. I wanted to talk about that and you spend a lot of time talking about religion. Mainly what has come to be called mainline Protestantism, but also Catholicism to a certain extent, as in a way, and I don’t know if this holds true with Catholicism in the period, but definitely with Protestantism, a falling away or I think it starts in the seminaries, a dismissal of what would be thought of as orthodox doctrines of Christianity.

Dismissing those, that’s not really the point of Christianity. It becomes something else. More immanent, more involved with things of the city, of equity, of distribution of wealth, things like that. But that filters out. It goes in the seminary. It then goes with those students as they go out in the pulpits. You’ve got the leading voices of Protestantism saying this. And then you get this great split in Protestantism in the early 20th century in America where you have more conservative churches form and they’re much smaller and they don’t have nearly the cultural influence.

Just sort of drawing a line with that observation, the diminishment of the realm of conscience. It’s almost like the evacuation that there’s any ground or metaphysical substance or good to freedom or to human action. Americans don’t articulate it like that, but I guess more and more I tend to think it’s what happens in Protestantism in the 19th century in America that really starts to shape the American mind. And now we have the complete loss of mainline Protestantism in America, basically, certainly as a contributor to public discussion. And then anything about what’s left and you have a diminished Christianity. I was just going to make that observation to see what you make of it.

Brad Watson:

Yeah. I think the early Christian progressives, Rauschenbusch, Father John Ryan, as I mentioned, they really lay the groundwork for the kind of nowadays explicitly secular but, frankly, very self-righteous elite progressivism of the day, which speaks in moralistic terms, minus God. So, as I look to say, the early Christian progressives seem to believe when the fullness of time was come, God sent the administrative state.

Progressive theorists embraced this notion that you get material and spiritual fulfillment through the good graces of the state, essentially. So the idea is of an organic political whole which makes us whole, which solves all human problems in the here and now.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah, yeah. That was a great line. And you quote Teddy Roosevelt. I had not seen that quote in quite a while “Let us battle for the Lord, as in the day of Armageddon.” Something like that. That’s powerful.

Brad Watson:

Yeah. And that religious language ran everyone through progressive political gatherings.

Richard Reinsch:

It’s inverted, though. The symbols of Christianity are being inverted, yeah.

Brad Watson:

Let me address your question this way. When you start to think as the early Christian progressives do, and now the later secular ones do certainly, that all aspects of the state really should be understood to be the means to human welfare and, frankly, all aspects of moral and theological thought direct themselves to the immediacies of the here and now. The early progressives thought you could cleave to essentially the good judgment of Christian rulers. Vast amounts of discretion as to what constitutes the public welfare.

The main thing you have to overcome, whether it’s people’s attachments to the right to property and things like that that talk about the social good, the purposes of government come to be seen in very broad terms. The furtherance of general welfare in the light of God’s purposes. So what happens? Well, any notion of natural rights or fixed rights, including property rights, have to be done away with. Natural rights are seen as less natural, less fixed. Less protective of the irreducible spheres of human thought and activity, certainly than would have been acceptable to America’s founders.

Progressive theorists embraced this notion that you get material and spiritual fulfillment through the good graces of the state, essentially. So the idea is of an organic political whole which makes us whole, which solves all human problems in the here and now. So you get some extraordinary statements from these early Christian progressives about how Jesus was misinterpreted when he said the Kingdom was not of this world. The Kingdom really is of this world. You actually find Walter Rauschenbusch saying, he writes socialized love, as he calls it, is necessary in this world.

So what becomes important? Well, the idea of the realm of the private, even the realm of conscience is diminished because the only things that are measurable and manipulable by the experts are things that the state controls. So economic data start to replace theological teachings. During his teaching time at St. Paul seminary, Father John Ryan, for example, I discovered some interesting little things like this. He devoted more than a quarter of his course on moral theology to what? Economic history and political economy. That is moral theology for the early Christian progressives.

So the realm of conscience is diminished because the only things that are important are the things that are manipulable and controllable by the state. And we see the ramifications of this today in mandates on religious institutions. The only things that are of importance. I think these are all kind of outgrowth of this early millenarian progressivism which was rooted in progressive Christianity but has become secularized over the last 100 years. And, again, the historians forget about that, telling the story. They just don’t do it. They don’t see it.

Richard Reinsch:

Well, and the way in which, if you kind of diminish the idea, or do away with the idea, of their being natural rights or a pre-political aspect that the government should recognize and protect, you quickly then get to the view, well, whatever you have you don’t have it without the state.

Brad Watson:

Exactly.

Richard Reinsch:

You then reintroduce almost like a feudalistic notion of being a subject, of course, famously expressed by Barack Obama. “You didn’t build that.” That’s a core progressive notion that your wealth was made possible by the state, building the roads, educating your workers, all this, and refusing to see any value add from capital or entrepreneurialism or skill or daring or courage of someone starting a business. That doesn’t really matter.

So, yeah, you can see it even in that expression, as well. The diminishment of conscience also, everything is evolving obviously. Nothing’s fixed. You’ve kind of talked about that. So I guess my question for you now, thinking about progressivism in 2020. In many respects, we’re sort of dealing with a metastasizing program. We kind of said Americans no longer believe in rule by experts.

But the goals, I think, for the descendants of progressivism are now to completely wipe away any veneration for the founding, any notion of a core American nation culture. Samuel Huntington sort of touched on this in his… sort of did in his last book, Who Are We? That, in a sense, the promotion now is to sort of destabilize America as having any sort of coherent identity and goodness.

Brad Watson:

Yeah. I think that’s right. And there’s a parallelism between the early progressives and contemporary progressives or post-modern liberals, whatever you want to call them. The early progressives saw the Founders’ Constitution and the older notion of Christianity as standing in the way of what? Economic reform and political reform. So you have to overcome these things to move history to the next stage. Which was largely understood in economic policy terms. The contemporary progressives, or the post-modern progressives, are doing the same thing.

The Founders’ Constitution, and certainly the older notion of Christianity, stood in the way of what? Culture reform. Culture reformation. So economic radicalism, or economic growth, has now been replaced with culture radicalism or cultural growth and evolution toward the next stage. But it’s interesting how progressives of 100 years ago and progressives today, both see the Founders’ Constitution as getting in the way of this, which is why so much effort is expended by contemporary, liberal especially, in the academy trying to destabilize, trying to undermine people’s confidence in their political institutions, trying simply to dismiss the Founders’-

Richard Reinsch:

The 1619 Project.

Brad Watson:

The 1619 Project. The proximate goals, you might say, are different. One, to affect economic and political change, the other to affect radical cultural change. But both groups see, from a spread 100 years apart from each other, both groups see that the Founders’ Constitution gets in the way of this. The American Founders’ political philosophy gets in the way of this. Old fashioned Christianity gets in the way of these transformations. So you have to reconfigure these things.

And now, of course, it’s liberal Christianity, progressive Christianity, says you have to reconfigure old Christian categories, else be deemed a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. The same way early progressives said you have to reconfigure Christian categories or you’re mired in the past in terms of economic and social policies. But they see the same enemies, even though their objects have shifted. Which shows, again, the power of these things, I think. That is to say, the importance, the defining character of the Founders’ Constitution despite all the assaults against it. All the progressives understand it stands in the way of their radical project.

Richard Reinsch:

Brad, as you think about the American academy, which we’ve talked about on this interview, being so decisively shaped by progressivism and its ideas for how the state should regulate higher education, as you look ahead, as you look forward, how do you see things shaping up? Do you see any reform efforts happening? Or is, as I think, the best that could be done would be immediate deregulation and trying to return something like a market to higher education, apart from any thinking about curriculum or all that stuff.

Brad Watson:

Yeah. It’s very difficult to know what should be done. One of the things that is being undertaken, of course, people are forming, developing, promoting enclaves within the existing academic structure. Certainly we’ve done that at my institution, whether it’s a center for political thought or a politics program, and a number of places within the college where we’re trying to reinvigorate the study of what? The serious book. The great book of Western civilization, the great writings of the American political tradition.

And these things now exist at all kinds of institutions large and small. So people are working within the existing framework. But, I think it’s important, as you suggest, to think outside the existing framework, how to create a market in higher education, given the stranglehold, even if we agree that’s a good thing, given the stranglehold of regulatory agencies, especially accrediting agencies which operate under the color of right, the Federal Department of Education, things like this.

It’s bureaucratically almost impossible under the current conditions to imagine a real market for American higher education. So the first thing we do politically, I think, and republicans have talked about it for a long time, but we’ve got to destroy the Department of Education in its current configuration and the ridiculous bureaucratic accrediting agencies, which hand down increasing numbers of mandates that get imposed so forth and really prevent entry into anything like a real market for higher education. But this is a political problem. Ultimately it’s a problem of federal control of education, or largely a problem, at least the federal control of education. Which, in turn, is a progressive goal. Let the feds control everything, right?

Richard Reinsch:

Brad Watson, thank you so much for your time today. We’ve been talking with the author of Progressivism: the Strange History of a Radical Idea, published by Notre Dame Press. Thank you so much.

Brad Watson:

Richard, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Reader Discussion

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on May 01, 2020 at 18:23:37 pm

I thought this was a fascinating discussion, and virtually everything Brad Watson said rings true to me. I would add one point: the decline (or maybe outright disappearance) of noblesse oblige. Today's elites seem not merely indifferent to ordinary citizens but actively contemptuous of and hostile to them. How to account for this, and is it a sustainable schism? Perhaps it has served a function in smoothing the sell-out to China over the past 40 years. The elites are completely on the hook for that disaster, as far as I'm concerned. They've done a bad job in running the country, nowhere more so than in China policy. A reckoning and recalibration are imminent.

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Paul Reidinger
on May 07, 2020 at 15:27:23 pm

Progressivism aside, Professor Watson is onto somethings that are important, the writing of a history of the writing of bad history and the history of how bad history is passed on so as to make for more bad history and how bad history is written as academic propaganda to serve political ends. The Left in America seems particularly adept at writing bad history, passing it on as grounds for more bad history and, thus, using bad history as an ideological weapon.

Besides the example of Progressivism, we have the decades-long distortion/demonization of Alexander Hamilton by the Democrat Party, the Democrat Party's century-long fiction of the ''Lost Cause" distorting the history both of the origins and nature of the Civil War and the moral character of Reconstruction, the Democrat Party's unfounded ideological elevation followed by its racially-fueled devaluation of Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson, the factually unwarranted hagiography of FDR and JFK ( the toady, Schlesinger, Jr., seems to have specialized in writing bad histories with politics in mind) and, most recently, the Left's Jon Meacham discovering (Shazzam!) that GHW Bush was ''that good Republican." I am suspicious, based only on listening to him, that Douglas Brinkley, also, may write fluffed-up stuff that serves the Left's agenda.
Besides the defective substance bad history, what I have read is also badly written. It's all 2d rate on content and style, and it should be called out for shaming, as Watson has done with Progressivism's fake history.

I think that more histories should be written of the history of bad history, of politicized history, of history written for ideological purposes, whether of biography or historical periods.

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Paladin
on May 13, 2020 at 11:27:53 am

Professor Watson is describing the left's effort to obtain what Antonio Gramsci called "cultural hegemony", which in his mind was the necessary predicate for the rise of the socialist state--it was his major disagreement with Marxist Leninist thought.

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Ron

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