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Publius And The Progressives

As Americans confront the Progressive movement so wrapped up in its ecstatic vision of a just society, they ought not look for their own version of utopia.

For the better part of a year, conservatives have been calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of IRS abuse in conjunction with the review of applications for non-profit status from Tea Party and related groups. Last week’s Wall Street Journal op-ed by Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested that there was good reason to believe that the investigation headed by the Department of Justice had been politically compromised, given that the “lead investigator is a substantial Obama campaign contributor, and Justice has already leaked that it doesn’t expect to prosecute anyone”–despite important inconsistencies between the law, the claims of former IRS agent Lois Lerner, and the documentary record.

Don’t expect the DOJ to be moved, despite Rep. Jordan’s intimate knowledge of the scandal as a member of the House Oversight Committee. Two weeks ago, it responded to a similar call by Senator Ted Cruz by claiming that the case did not meet the (high) standards for appointing a special prosecutor, given that “career prosecutors and law enforcement professionals” are leading the investigation.

Although Rep. Jordan’s op-ed cited committee colleague Rep. Elijah Cummings’s concerns that the truth come out, too few on the left have been interested in more than the Republican-Democrat horse race implications of the scandal. With an election approaching (isn’t there always?), they fear that a real accounting of what appears to be a gross abuse of power will undermine their chosen “narrative” and push a few House or Senate seats into the R column.

Of course, motives need be no better on the right, but what is striking about today’s Progressives is how thoroughly they have embraced arbitrary power when exercised by their own. There is always plenty of hypocrisy to go around, but the generation that cut its political teeth opposing Nixon’s imperial presidency seems a rather unlikely apologist for Obama’s.

When we investigate the roots of the Progressive movement, however, the inconsistency quickly dissolves. From its beginning, it has embraced centralized power, employed through the fiat commands of ruling class politicians and experts as a legitimate and probably necessary means to realizing its utopian victory over the inequities of nature (and a recalcitrant people). The same power, however, used on the “wrong side of history” threatens that victory and is therefore illegitimate.

We have now written our way through the first of the two volumes of the Federalist Papers (essays 1-36), where Publius (pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) makes the case for ratifying the Constitution as the necessary “cement” to “secure” the Union. In almost every essay we have had occasion to reflect upon the gulf that divides the political thought of Publius from that of the Progressives.

Whereas the Founders thought ‘reflection and choice’ might allow their fellow Americans to understand the proper limits of politics, the dangers of faction, the necessity of the even-handed rule of law, and the use and abuse of power in securing liberty, we’ve noted that the Progressive departure on each of these fronts threatens to annihilate the American regime as originally designed.

  • On ‘Reflection and Choice’ (Federalist 1)~ “What [Progressives believe] we need today, is not good government, but effective government. Over the last two centuries, politics has grown up, setting aside childish debates about philosophical abstractions like justice to confront the real scientific facts of social life. And since the most universal fact of all is that our existence is a matter of metaphysical accident, modern statesmanship amounts to artfully applying intellectual force against those who still believe that their reflection and choice is a matter of consequence.”
  • On the Limits of Politics (Federalist 5) ~ “Since Progressivism acknowledges no ultimate limits to the realm of politics, there is no place beyond its claims of sovereignty. The practical barriers to the full exercise of this sovereignty–some political, some technological, some economic–are all provisional and, it seems, increasingly weak.”
  • On Faction (Federalist 10) ~ “The success of the progressive project rests on their ability to create one big faction: “a number of citizens . . . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
  • On the Rule of Law (Federalist 25)~ “Where do they [Progressives] get the moral, not to mention legal, authority to exercise such raw power? Here we would do no better than to turn to the work of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., . . .(who) explains that there is no logic to the law in the “traditional” sense: it does not reflect in any meaningful way a constant standard of right or set of moral absolutes. Rather, the “path” of the law is historical in nature, weaving and winding through changing cultural norms and varying political circumstances. Thus judges (and now executives) who alter the law by fiat only hurry along the next stage of progress.”
  • On Power ~ (Federalist 32) ~ “Today, of course, it is neither the universal “sense of the people” nor conviction of our leaders that “local administrations for local peoples” are good and necessary. Central to Progressivism, in fact, is a strong presumption toward uniform national administration in all areas of policy.”
  • On Liberty ~ (Federalist 33) ~ “What is striking in these cases is perhaps not so much the power in view (although in some cases that is considerable), but the way they illustrate the national government’s claim to jurisdiction over and pretense of competency in all areas of life [and thus] . . . a creeping homogenization of American life that uses federal control over questions once left to the states or private parties to promote conformity to Progressive orthodoxy.”

The political calculus of the Federalists went something like this: the “safety and happiness” of the American people (as the Declaration of Independence put it) would be best secured by establishing a national government capable of preserving the Union, so long as its means and ends were kept within the bounds of reason and justice and its officeholders were accountable to those same people. This, they believed, the Constitution could do in a way the Articles of Confederation had not.

The history of the American republic down through the end of the 19th century gives ample evidence of this–not because American statesmen got everything right (far from it), but because the more faithful they were to the principles of the regime, the more the “safety and happiness” of the American people multiplied.

We are almost exactly as many years from the turn of the 20th century (a symbolic date for the start of the Progressive era) as that date was from the original Constitution Day, September 17, 1787. Has Progressivism met with the same success? Has Progressive ideology, when it has been practiced most, done the most to secure that same “safety and happiness”? What is the testimony of the last five years?

In a sentence, the American people are less safe and less happy.

President Obama has all but ended two wars–altogether different from winning them. Victory achieves a more desirable peace, at least for the victor.

President Obama has all but ended two wars–altogether different from winning them. Victory achieves a more desirable peace, at least for the victor. The president’s post-modern foreign policy seeks only youth soccer league victories where everyone gets a trophy from the ethereal “international community” and all agree to ignore anything unseemly on the actual field of play. If you want to know what real victory looks like, see Crimea.

Meanwhile, Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low, the president’s approval rating is nine points under water, and only 27% of Americans think the country is moving in the right direction, nearly four years after the Administration’s self-proclaimed “recovery summer.” The temporary disassociation of the financial meltdown has yielded to a permanent malaise and expectation of worse to come–a rational expectation given that as the window to avoid an entitlement-driven bankruptcy closes, the president has created Obamacare, expanded Medicaid, and increased Food Stamps enrollment more than 50%.

Which leaves us with the Progressive response to its failures and our response moving forward.

Progressives account for their policy ‘hiccups’ by casually creating more disunion and dismantling the founders’ constitutional regime–which is to say, by negating the founders’ formula. A reading of the first volume of The Federalist makes it clear that the American Union as cemented in the Constitution is the best safeguard for American liberty.

As Americans confront the Progressive movement so wrapped up in its ecstatic vision of a just society, they ought not look for their own version of utopia. Rather, they should return to the founders’ more simple vision of a government strong enough to do its few tasks well and wise enough to know that it cannot and thus should not attempt to do more.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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