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The Dangerous Weakness of Modern Progressivism

Immigration Executive Action

Modern progressivism’s relatively weak legislative coalition explains much of the behavior of the Obama administration and the new threats it poses to our constitutional order.  As I discuss in an article just published in the City Journal, under FDR and even LBJ, the Democratic party had much more enduring power in Congress. Moreover, these administrations were not nearly so hamstrung as is the Obama administration by deficits and high government spending caused in no small measure by previous progressive experiments. Thus, previous progressive administrations could often be more forthright in the proclamation of their goals and rely on their large legislative majorities to enact and revise the central parts of their programs.

But the Obama administration needs to compensate for its relative weakness by misleading the public and exalting executive power even beyond the previous efforts of progressives.  For instance, the President’s repeated promise that you can keep your health care insurance and doctor was necessary to enact the Affordable Care Act, because in our more affluent society the great majority are happy with their health care.  As I note in the piece:

Some have labeled the president’s economy with the truth a personal failing, but it’s more like a professional necessity. Modern progressivism’s business model requires obscuring the reality that new programs have winners and losers—and the losers are spread throughout the general population, not confined to members of the so-called 1 percent. As the Affordable Care Act goes fully into effect, the losers will become more visible. If people had known the truth about Obamacare in 2010, the bill would almost certainly have been defeated. If they had known it in 2012, Obama would likely have lost his reelection bid.

Moreover, when the President lost control of Congress, he needed to rely more on executive power not only to interpret the law but in fact to change it.  An enthusiasm for executive discretion has always characterized progressivism.  Top-down social ordering requires continual management, because government programs must be adapted to a changing world and cannot rely on a relatively few, fixed rules, as can market ordering.   But the combination of progressivism and a weak legislative coalition now requires not only executive discretion but the executive capacity to change previous law, because Congress can no longer be relied on to update new schemes of social planning in accordance with progressive wishes.

Finally, it is not surprising that the one Supreme Court case the President has singled out for particular criticism is Citizens United. That case permits corporations, including non-profit associations organized in corporate form, from sending messages at election time. Both Democrats and Republicans have support from such organizations, but parity is not what progressives want in political discourse. The media and academia are overwhelmingly left-liberal but are not constrained by the strictures of campaign finance legislation.  As the citizenry becomes more educated and more affluent, Progressives need more than ever for their most reliable allies to dominate political discourse.

I end the essay with a call for a return to the Founding:

From its inception progressivism has posed a threat to constitutional government. It has sought to replace limited and decentralized governance with dynamic, centralized authority in order to force some arrangement of equality on the nation. Because the world has a way of upsetting abstract designs, progressivism depends on empowering administrators to impose its frameworks while disempowering citizens from resisting these coercions. The Obama administration’s push for unilateral presidential authority to disregard the law is thus the logical extension of the progressive program. Opposition to this program requires nothing less than a rededication to our Founding ideals: our nation must be governed by the rule of law, not the rule of an elected monarch or of a legally privileged aristocracy.

Reader Discussion

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on March 11, 2015 at 15:05:40 pm

John:

Good [piece at city Journal.
Citizens United is of quite some interest to Progressives because it represents a means of thwarting their denial of *open access* to the economy that their century and one half of regulation has resulted in.
What is left to "private parties" (such as they are today) is to attempt to take advantage of, or create *access* to the economy that would be otherwise denied them - and yes, it may very well be that the only way to have *access* is to game the system and deny access to other competitors. Sadly, that may be all that is left to them as a result of a bewildering deluge of "beneficial" Progressive inspired legislation / regulation.

some interesting takes on the Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Assoc. ruling at NRO and elsewhere:

http://www.nationalreview.com/bench-memos/415240/interesting-administrative-law-ruling-ed-whelan

My goodness, could the court actually reconsider deference to Admin agencies?

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gabe
on March 12, 2015 at 08:51:33 am

[…] The Dangerous Weakness of Modern Progressivism […]

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Image of The American Flag Is Particular, Exclusive, and Nationalistic. Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That. | Freedom's Floodgates
The American Flag Is Particular, Exclusive, and Nationalistic. Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That. | Freedom's Floodgates
on March 12, 2015 at 09:40:42 am

Why should the Progressives(socialists) have anything to worry about. Most of their political ideas and platforms have been enacted into law over the past 100 plus years. Look back in history at the American Socialist Party's Platforms from the last quarter of the 19th Century to the first quarter of the 20th Century. Most of their ideas have come into law,despite the Constitution. The Income Tax,Central Banking,Fiat currency,socialized medicine,old age pensions,unemployment compensation,control of the economy etc.,etc. has all been enacted into law,along with the thousands of laws and regulations on all levels of government,but especially on the Federal level. More importantly is the power of the Courts and the Law to force the Progressive political philosophy onto the general population. Whether or not the President has the Congress or Senate on his side is besides the point. The President has the unelected bureaucracy and unelected judges to do his bidding. Whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House is a moot point. Presidents come and go. Legislators come and go. But the bureaucracy and judges stay on,sometimes for decades. And besides,a voting majority of American citizens want and vote for socialism. Basically what we have among Conservatives and Libertarians is a rear guard action to preserve what little liberty is left to Americans. About the only hardcore liberty that is left are our 2nd Amendment firearm rights and these are slowly being legislated away.The rest is marginal. The damage and destruction done to liberty was done decades ago and is,short of a 1776 style Revolution,unrepairable. It is unfortunate,but we have to live with that fact.

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libertarian jerry
on March 12, 2015 at 10:44:56 am

"Progress" implies the need for an end to something and its replacement with something different.

The great weakness of politically advanced "Progress" is the concentration on ending what is and what has been - because that is where the dissatisfactions useful in politics can be found. The remaining weakness occurs in determining "replacements;" particularly through any form of political process. They are either imposed or constructed of compromises to avoid continuing the same kinds or levels of dissatisfactions.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on March 12, 2015 at 18:15:54 pm

Why do you think A2 rights are slowly being legislated away? SCOTUS has affirmed them on their strongest legal basis known to American jurisprudence. More & more states have concealed-carry laws; more & more gun bans are struck down by courts. In what does the difficulty consist?

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titus techera
on March 12, 2015 at 19:04:30 pm

A Right is a Right. When it comes to Rights there can be no rule making. When a government licenses a Right they can also take that right away. A license is asking permission. There are certain states such as New Jersey and cities such as New York City where the rule making on firearms is so arbitrary that it is almost impossible to either own or carry firearms even inside your own home. Its either or. It is not begging for permission. With that said,the time will come when because of a "National Emergency" all registered firearms owned by private American citizens must be turned in "or else." And if you think SCOTUS will help a firearms owner,tell that to the lawful,legal Japanese American citizens who were rounded up by FDR in 1942 and forced into concentration camps.

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libertarian jerry
on March 12, 2015 at 19:15:54 pm

No gov't that can defend America can be stopped if it attacks America. If you think the gov't is essentially the threat you're facing, you can take your chance with whoever else. FDR maybe was not your friend. The real alternative at the time was Japan or Germany. If you think that's not serious, you tell that to everyone who did not have FDR on his side...
You seem to think right is not something that comes up in the laws. Every right you hate to see in the laws you must also take out of the Constitution, methinks: That is also a law made by politicians. Then you end up with your capitalized words & nothing but anarchy or tyranny. Even before the Constitution, there were laws. There has never been civilized life for people without laws, without rulers & ruled. It's never been perfect, it never is eternal--but gun rights do mean something & today they are far stronger than they've been since before FDR.
You offer no evidence that things are worse today than a generation or two or three ago. You should, or you should admit you're plainly wrong-

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titus techera
on March 12, 2015 at 20:16:02 pm

I'm sorry Titus,maybe it's me,but I don't understand your gibberish.

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libertarian jerry
on March 13, 2015 at 02:47:39 am

Well, maybe I can put it in a way you can understand. When you start ranting about how gov't might confiscate everyone's weapons--remember 1942!--you are escaping the modest, but serious duties of honest conversation. Your claim that A2 rights are any worse than they've ever been you leave completely unsubstantiated.
You just rant about how gov't is going to strip everyone of their rights--remember 1942!, no doubt--but the truth obvious to anyone is that if the American gov't is to be strong enough to protect Americans from foreign enemies, it is too strong to really be resisted by Americans.
I'll even give you examples instead of a rant about what gov't threatens or portends. There would have been nothing to protect America had Washington turned his army on the people or had he agreed to lead the soldier rebellion over not getting paid. Had Lincoln wanted to turn tyrant, nothing could have stopped him. Nor FDR. These things are obvious. FDR may have been wrong about interning the Japanese, but bad as that was, he was not trying to turn tyrant.
One relies on the fact that the American gov't will not treat Americans like it treats America's enemies. The difference between domestic & foreign policy in this case is that foreigners do not have rights, which citizens do.
Finally, rights. The ultimate in American rule-making is the Constitution: If you want rights without gov't rules, you want to abandon the constitution. Otherwise, rights require laws, from organic laws to statute & so forth...

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titus techera
on March 13, 2015 at 05:54:28 am

But Titus......FDR and Lincoln were both tyrants and the Constitution,along with the Republic is dead. We do not live in a land of "laws" but a land of powerful men who subvert the "laws" to their advantage. I suppose in your eyes my "rants" are misguided and wrong. But as the old saying goes "none are so blind that refuse to see."

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libertarian jerry
on March 13, 2015 at 06:53:51 am

I am very sorry you feel that way. I hope all friends of freedom know that law is the only defense of freedom, at least when courage defends law. But otherwise, it's like you read in the play: When valour preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with...
But we have to follow the logic of your rant: The original tyrant, then, is the original Congress, the Continental Congress, & the worst offender is Washington. Unanimously elected twice, though not by the people, he got there by leading a conspiracy to write a Constitution--no press access nor no public statements about writing the supreme law of the land!--although the people had not asked him to preside over such an affair, & that after leading a war for which the people did not ask, which did not ask their opinion, & in which so many of them lost life & limb, family & friends, & so much property, not to say freedom... Does it seem to you that I have followed what you say? If it does, do not you see you have gone too far in raging against gov't injustice?

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titus techera
on March 13, 2015 at 10:55:18 am

Titus.....2 items: 1. Quote...Evil will triumph when good men do nothing. 2. Book....The Constitution of no Authority by Lysander Spooner. Maybe we can agree on those 2 items.

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libertarian jerry
on March 13, 2015 at 11:08:11 am

I agree to your former, but as to the latter, while I believe Spooner was a daring man given to argument & speculation, I do not take for an authority anyone who says all of American history was a lie & Washington an usurper. I had hoped--foolishly, perhaps--that you would not go that far. No one did more to further the cause of freedom than Washington. No one faced a greater temptation, nor withstood it so well. To rule & to be ruled in turn is the rule of free man.
Consider from your own experience whether everyone is mad & everything is a lie. Whether there is not in fact a wealth of humanity & moral principle in so many of your countrymen, & has been for so long, that it defeats any thought of usurpation.
Consider on the other hand that Spooner must also say that every gov't, always & ever, was & is evil & usurpation. Then there is no law & we must applaud every naked tyrant for his honesty. No decent man can do that. No decent man can spit upon Washington as upon tyrants.

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titus techera
on March 13, 2015 at 19:06:37 pm

Titus...The original story in this line is about the weakness of modern Progressivism. What has that to do with spitting on anybody?

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libertarian jerry
on March 13, 2015 at 19:16:45 pm

We have indeed gone far away from that start. You called the men who more than any others preserved American liberty from real, immediate threats of tyranny tyrants. I take it we agree that your logic must extend beyond FDR & Lincoln to Washington himself. The man suffered & led men to their deaths for usurpation. Are you really ready to say that? Is it not spitting on these men--calling them tyrants, who fought those who really did tyrannize?
I am sure you can see sense. They were great men, whatever their faults, & they did save liberty, for America, & for the world, whatever the faults of mankind everywhere.
Those men fought & died for liberty, which they understood to safeguard best by their service & the constitutional system they set up--it is not infallible, but there is no other known way. If you want liberty without law, you must call them all tyrants. I hope that is not the case. I hope your love of liberty is tempered.& that the example of sacrifice made before will temper you.
Progressives have more faults than anything else, I'd say, & they certainly deserve to be fought for their attacks on liberty. But they are not all bad politically or otherwise, nor is a party with their tendencies all bad, so long as it is kept in check by another, mindful of the origins of the laws in the blood of those who fought to defend them.

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titus techera
on March 15, 2015 at 08:03:24 am

Titus....your still talking gibberish.

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libertarian jerry
on March 15, 2015 at 10:01:44 am

I don't think I am. Your own comments about Spooner's ideas about the Constitution put you on the spot. Either all those who commanded Americans, especially in war, are tyrants & worse, or you must revise your opinions. You cannot both admire Washington or any soldier in America's cause & at the same time claim the political system is fundamentally illegitimate. If the Constitution is a fraud, then all those who die to defend it are made or evil. Or do you see an alternative?--Calling it gibberish just suggests you do not have what it takes to examine your opinions-

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titus techera
on March 15, 2015 at 12:23:02 pm

No Titus, you're definitely speaking gibberish.

Take your meds!

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Nodnarb the Nasty
on March 15, 2015 at 12:29:03 pm

How many Spoonerites can there be around here, lurking, waiting for a chance to throw a childish insult? Anonymity suits you, no doubt, but whoever you are, you should know that a lack of civility is hardly an argument. If you like, you can pick up whatever's left of the other one's argument.
Would you like to explain how the Constitution could be a fraud without making tyrants of those who ruled by it?

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titus techera
on March 18, 2015 at 18:51:08 pm

I do not think that Professor McGinness is correct to argue that from the beginning progressives sought to institute equality of material wealth. Progressivism is a stage in the development of Modern Liberalism, and was more concerned with regulation of business than it was with redistribution of wealth. The decisive turn towards redistribution occurred later, with FDR's second new deal and his call for an "economic bill of rights." To argue as McGinnis does here is to indulge in a false synecdoche--and by doing so misses important elements of what modern progressives stand for. There is a substantial difference between the progressivism of TR and WW, which can not properly be equated with socialism, and the subsequent evolution of modern liberalism, which does share some elements with socialism.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on March 18, 2015 at 18:58:36 pm

The last post by Titus, above, made perfect sense, and frankly is pretty reasonable. I do not understand what you guys find difficult to understand in it.

I did not follow the logic of the earlier posts.

If we care about rational discourse, we have an obligation to try to engage with what people really argue. Dismissing an argument as gibberish does not strike me as especially constructive.

I would hate to see this website descend into the kinds of argument that characterize so many ither corners of the web, where the only comments deemed legitimate are those posted by people who all fundamentally agree with each other.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on March 19, 2015 at 01:45:19 am

I have two objections. One, the taxation rates of WWI suggest that Wilson took the first chance he had to redistribute wealth on a large scale. Two, TR famously said that a man owned his property--if the state decided it was to the common good. Remember his 'new nationalism speech': The country should be run like the army--the only inequality allowed is between generals & soldiers. The former earn their privileges, but all unearned privilege must be destroyed. &, of course, the soldiers obey orders & are equals.
Wilson & TR did not have the same opinions or the same notion of enforcing equality, but you can see how remarkable they were for their willingness to act against great wealth, even denying anyone had a right to such wealth.

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titus techera
on March 19, 2015 at 11:48:03 am

I do not completely disagree. So two responses:

First, I think WWI is something of a special case, albeit a pretty important one. The experiment with what Ellis Hawley terms "war time socialism" was considerably more extensive and thorough-going than just tax rates. But even there, the focus was not on redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, nor about creating safety-net programs to benefit or ameliorate poverty. The focus was on winning the war as efficiently as possible, with as few American deaths as possible. The command economy of WWI matters because it was very successful at achieving its purpose, because the men who administered it were the financial and corporate leadership of American capitalism, and because it seemed to affirm the capacity of managerial expertise to employ the power of the state to achieve a common purpose. So a decade later, when the US confronted an altogether different kind of crisis, it was plausible and seemingly legitimate for FDR to "declare war on the depression" (his language, see eg. the Commonwealth Club Address of 1932), and to claim executive powers analagous to war powers.

I think it is telling that both TR and WW--TR haltingly, WW enthusiastically--focused their energies on regulation of the economy, and not on redistribution of wealth. So sure, you can find rhetoric from both of them that supports your reservation above, but when we look at how they used their considerable political capital--at what they did, rather than what they said--I think the evidence is overwhelming that their emphasis was on regulation, not on redistribution. That came later, in the 1930s.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on July 03, 2015 at 22:16:49 pm

I am anything but a progressive. I outright despise many of their ideas. I'm a person that strives to be unclassifiable. A person who can't be placed in an ideologicall box because everyone of them is wrong to a certain extent. I have to take issue with the first couple paragraphs, mainly because 'conservatives' have added drastic amounts to the deficit and national debt. Clinton oversaw a remarkable surplus that was projected to pay off the national debt in 10 years. A surplus that Bush and conservaties turned into a record deficit with their expansion of medicare and their unprecedented expansion of government after 9/11 in the name of national security. The only president whose policies had contributed more to the debt and deficit before Bush was Ronald Reagan. Now, we look at the current President who under pressure of a recession has cut the deficit by more then half. Both parties are responsible but only one party oversaw the greatest expansion of the federal government in the nations history, and that is George Bush. Too many of us are allowing society and government to place us in ideological boxes. Boxes which prevent the use of reason regarding national issues. Break free from the labels people. "Unite or Die"!

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2maik7

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