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The Rise of Progressive Oligarchy

Convincing the American people to abandon (or at least qualify) their deep, longstanding regard for the Founders was no easy task for the progressives.

In what might have appeared to be a minor political event a few weeks back, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called congressman Tom Marino (R-PA) “insignificant” and “inconsequential” in a debate on the House floor. Why would the former House Speaker insult a colleague in such a manner?

She didn’t count her way to this assessment; Democrats do not hold a majority of the House. Nor did she reason her way to this position, as there was nothing in Rep. Marino’s argument on the immigration issue that raised empirical red flags. Perhaps it was a momentary lapse in judgment in the midst of the partisan give-and-take on an important political issue. But what if Pelosi was simply saying what she believed to be true and acknowledging what ruling class Americans think about their non-ruling class counterparts? Namely, that there are people like Pelosi, the highest-ranking female politician in American history, who get it, and people like Marino, merely a second-term congressman from “gun- and religion-clinging” northeastern Pennsylvania, who don’t.

What is the “it” they don’t get? The Progressive dogmas that Pelosi has internalized and Marino rejects. A hundred years ago, the first group of progressives concluded that this country needed to change in a big way. They argued explicitly for a refounding of the United States on the grounds that the only absolute in political life is that absolutes are material and economic rather than moral in nature.

Translating theory into practice, those thinkers and political storm troopers on the Right Side of History have increased the power of the state so as to produce the greatest amount of material pleasure and moral-ideational relief for society–to leave the populace, as Machiavelli put it, both “satisfied” and “stupefied.”

Convincing the American people to abandon (or at least qualify) their deep, longstanding regard for the founders was no easy task for the Progressives. It required making them over in far less heroic terms: to frame the Founding as a grand enticement, if not quite a crime, and the founders as crafty oligarchs, if not quite criminals.

No thinker advanced this thesis with greater confidence than Columbia economist Charles Beard, who wrote of the founders in his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913):

If we examine carefully the delicate instrument by which the framers sought to check certain kinds of positive action that might be advocated to the detriment of established and acquired rights, we cannot help marvelling at their skill. Their leading idea was to break up the attacking forces at the starting point: the source of political authority for the several branches of the government. This disintegration of positive action at the source was further facilitated by the differentiation in the terms given to the respective departments of the government. And the crowning counterweight to “an interested and over-bearing majority,” as Madison phrased it, was secured in the peculiar position assigned to the judiciary, and the use of the sanctity and mystery of the law as a foil to democratic attacks.

In Beard’s formulation, the framers’ emphasis on the rule of law, checks and balances, federalism, and “equal rights for all, special privileges for none,” was simply patriotic cover for a system that would prove impenetrable to the forces of economic and material progress. To accomplish their task, the founders had to artfully construct a noble lie in which our love for republican norms (embodied in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the Constitution) would be greater than our disgust at the injustice of natural and circumstantial inequality.

Beard’s charge was not, in fact, wholly new. Even in their own day, the founders had been accused of hiding an oligarchy beneath republican robes. When Anti-Federalists first leveled the charge, James Madison reacted, in Federalist 57, with righteous indignation, challenging the critics to show just how the Constitution favored the few at the expense of the many:

Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. ….

Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country.

This, of course, does not mean that everyone who can vote today could vote in 1789 or that James Madison expected women, for example, to serve in the House. However, there has been no change in the formal qualifications for voters–at any point in our history–that required changing the Constitution. There has been no de facto expansion of the pool of candidates for office that has encountered the least constitutional resistance.

Publius argues throughout The Federalist that the original Constitution is strictly republican. But, as Publius also argues throughout The Federalist, this is no guarantee that the people at large will enjoy the blessings of republican liberty and equality before the law or that their leaders will pursue the common good, rather than the advantage of the well-connected.

All founders, in essence, take up an impossible task. As Madison put it:

The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

Better forms of regime better contribute to these purposes, but there is no form of regime that intrinsically achieves them. In a republic, the “elective mode of obtaining rulers” is the “characteristic policy”–and limited terms “the most effectual” among “numerous and various” means “for preventing their degeneracy.”

Plainly Madison understood that even if broadly popular elections are the best means of attaining good legislators and ongoing electoral accountability the best means of keeping them honest, these are imperfect instruments.

As a result, Progressives, from the beginning of the last century down to the present day, have never lacked for opportunities to reconstruct the American regime by craftily employing a language of democratic populism.

The result, intentional or not, has been the creation of the very oligarchic state Progressives claimed to oppose. By arguing and governing as if politics is principally about the distribution of wealth (“who gets what, when, and how,” as leading Progressive political scientist Harold Lasswell put it), they managed to assemble, in the federal government, all the means necessary to control that distribution. As a result, controlling the state means controlling wealth.

In such circumstances, the rich will certainly have good reason to seek–and, no doubt, find some success in achieving–political power. But, more importantly, political power has become an essential (if not the exclusive) means to acquiring wealth. Rather than an oligarchy of market winners, we get an oligarchy of the well-connected–and, with the rise of the permanent administrative state, one that is largely immune to any meaningful popular accountability.

The convergence of intentional (mostly Democratic) and accidental (mostly Republican) progressives and the happy peace between the bohemian cultural left and financial elites has deepened and institutionalized the difference between the “ins” and the “outs.” The move from Occupy Wall Street-type community organizer to Martha’s Vineyard celebrity has proven to be unexpectedly easy, at least for President Obama. A few true believers aside, at the end of the day most progressive elites have come to accept that Chappaqua mansions are built on welfare state mudsills and willingly assumed their place in the new oligarchy.

The best moral and political response to self-serving progressive cynicism is summarized by Madison near the end of Federalist 57:

If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America — a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

See how plainly and powerfully Madison asserts the fundamentally moral character of the American founding. Discriminatory laws violate the “genius” of our republic, its constitutional principles, and the natural rules of justice. That these ideals are not self-enforcing requires the introduction of the most important check on privilege: the people, guided by a “vigilant and manly spirit” nourishing and nourished by freedom.

The political challenge of our day is the revival of that spirit among the American people–and those who champion this task, like those they champion, are anything but “insignificant.”

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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