Progressivism and the Historians

I thank Richard Gamble for his generous review of my new book, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea. Gamble is a historian, and my book is nothing less than a full-frontal assault on historians and the discipline of history as a whole. Gamble correctly notes my emphasis on progressivism as the fusion of “radicalized millennial Christianity and modern statism,” and the fact that the bigwig American historians of the 20th century downplayed, misrepresented, or simply missed this reality. In so doing they were guilty of a complicity of understatement. And they were also utterly incapable of identifying progressivism’s hostility to the founders’ Constitution. This is because they were far from impartial interpreters, but were rather fellow-travelers of the progressive movement.

Gamble agrees with my indictment of these historians and allows that my book is an important “call to action” to right their wrongs. He disagrees with me insofar as he claims I promote a “Straussian narrative,” and more particularly a “Claremont narrative.”

That I am associated with the Claremont or “West Coast” school of Straussian political thought is true, as far as it goes (last I checked, Wikipedia identified me as a West Coast Straussian, so it must be true), but it’s not clear how far this gets Gamble in his critique of my revisionist interpretation of American history and historiography. Whatever the views of others associated with the Claremont school of thought, my arguments are my own, and they are not quite as Gamble portrays them.

He claims I ignore attacks on progressivism and the New Deal made by the “New Conservatives of the 1950s” who “did battle with Progressivism long before the emergence of Straussian critiques.” He does not name these conservatives or say exactly what their attacks were, so the reader is left to surmise. While it is certainly true that much of modern American conservatism was born in that period, it is also true that the founders’ Constitution as the founders understood it—my central concern—was incidental to that conservatism. With few exceptions, those conservatives were worried about the very real menace of communism abroad, and what they identified as centralizing, ideological tendencies at home. But on the whole, they did not recognize what the progressives themselves recognized: that they—the progressives—were promoting new “natural laws” of evolutionary growth and change, to supplant the outmoded, fixed “natural rights” that the founders insisted were the principled basis of republican self-government. A new conception of the “natural” was central to the progressives, from philosophers such as John Dewey to political actors such as Woodrow Wilson. As I detail in my book, it was in fact a new generation of political theorists—not historians, and not the “New [now perhaps old] Conservatives”—who recovered exactly what the progressives were rebelling against.

It is also true, as Gamble notes, that American progressivism had antecedents; it did not emerge ex nihilo after the Civil War. I certainly agree with this. What intellectual movement does not have antecedents? I would place its antecedents well before anything in American history. Yet the fact is, in America, the main ingredients came together to form the potent intellectual cocktail known as progressivism just after the age of Lincoln. A new, coherent intellectual movement was born—a fact which the progressives of the day were unafraid to proclaim.

Gamble further claims that “understanding and explaining the adoption of [German] ideas” in early America is “indispensable” to understanding Progressivism, and he says that I have not put enough emphasis on such ideas. As I argue in the book (and have argued for many years), however, American progressivism had—and continues to exhibit—more indigenous roots than German idealism. It was never simply a “foreign virus” wafting in from Berlin. Too much of progressivism, then and now, is traceable to American social Darwinism and pragmatism, rather than to foreign influences. As I have said elsewhere, the age of high Hegelianism (or relatively high, by American standards) died with Woodrow Wilson on February 3, 1924.

Gamble also says that the logic of my argument “depends on the Founding not being indebted much to the colonial and British constitutionalism that preceded it.” I certainly did not say, and would not say, any such thing. That the American Founding is a refraction, as it were, of English constitutionalism through republican lenses is something I have long maintained. This in no way diminishes the originality of American republicanism, especially spread as it was, and is, across an extended sphere wherein the people are sovereign. It does suggest that America would not have been America had it not been settled largely by those familiar with, sympathetic to, and willing to draw the best from, the English constitutional tradition (not to mention traditional Christianity).

I agree with Gamble that progressivism, in its various incarnations, is at war with much more than the American constitutional tradition: it is at war with the idea of original sin, and therefore with permanent limits on political power. It is at war with human nature. I would maintain, however, that this war comes to sight clearly, perhaps most clearly, in American history. But understanding it, and just what the stakes of the war are, requires understanding the founders and their progressive critics on their own terms. And when it comes to this, many historians continue to have blind spots.

Reader Discussion

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on March 25, 2020 at 08:14:58 am

I fail to see why Gamble and Watson are fighting. What exactly are they are fighting about that's worth fighting about? And does it make any significant difference to their common attack on Progressivism?
I think not.

The rather pointless, ill-advised dispute between two conservative allies is, of course, important to their common enemy, Progressivism. The anti-American Left benefits here, as always, when conservatives attack and undermine each other, as they too-often do and, as here, pointlessly.

Stop it! And instead focus your fire on the enemy, the anti-American Left and its founders, America's Progressives who gave us a plethora of needless wars and the constitutionally-destructive, unconstitutional, supra-constitutional, extra-constitutional politics of Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, the deplorable Clintons, Barack Hussein Obama, the anti-democratic, elitist Administrative State and the conspiratorial, clandestine, dictatorial, unaccountable, uncontrollable, deeply unlawful Deep State.

Their Progressive wreckage is near-total, so it would seem a moral imperative for conservatives to fight them and not each other, an admonition, by the way, that applies as much to Republican politicians today fighting America's modern arch enemy, the Democrat Party, as to conservative scholars writing about America's enemies of yesterday, Progressivism and Communism.

Finally, I would note the failure of both anti-Progressive authors, Gamble and Watson (sounds almost Arthur Conan Doylean) to highlight the importance to their common cause of our adorable Calvin Coolidge. To study the life and political career of this exemplary American conservative is to appreciate his seminal importance as a man and a politician for living a life of anti-Progressivism and leading the political fight against Progressivism's deadly anti-Americanism. Indeed, that Coolidge lived is an assault on the fantastical tenets and insidious tactics of Progressivism, which is no doubt why Leftist historians and journalist have besmirched the man for 100 years.

If one knows little about Coolidge and has little time to read up deeply on the man, then one need read at least Amity Shlaes fine biography, "Coolidge" and President Coolidge's magnificent, scholarly, deeply-American "Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence."

Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not well informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes. We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general. Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.

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on March 25, 2020 at 12:25:35 pm

Mr. Watson:

Agreed on the nexus of "millennial Christianity and statism" but you are not here denying the influence of the German School (?).
At a minimum, those thinkers provided both a conceptual and theoretical framework upon which the Proggies, following Wilson who was well versed in that School, erected the grand edifice of the Progressive State.
Can you clarify?

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on March 25, 2020 at 12:45:11 pm

Thanks for your question. Short answer--I'm not denying the influence of the Germans, but not blaming it all on them either. Yes, German idealism was important to some American progressives, but not all, and there can be a tendency to overestimate its enduring influence--particularly on leading progressive institutions such as the Supreme Court, whose members tend to be unphilosophic, "living Constitution," soft Darwinists/pragmatists. I develop this point more in my book, Living Constitution, Dying Faith: https://www.amazon.com/Living-Constitution-Dying-Faith-Progressivism/dp/1933859709/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2RZPWMMYGD9NB&dchild=1&keywords=living+constitution+dying+faith&qid=1585154661&sprefix=living+cons%2Caps%2C140&sr=8-2

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Brad Watson

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