Progressivism—an Excerpt from The 1776 Report

This post contains an excerpt from The 1776 Report released by The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, January 2021. The report was scrubbed from the White House web pages simultaneous with the installation of Joe Biden as president, so I had to rely on a link from Wikipedia. I may have to update that link again as the problem of memory holing steps up in the age of Big Tech tyranny.

Victor Davis Hanson, emeritus professor at California States University, Fresno and Senior Fellow at Standard University’s Hoover Institution, is one of the historians on the Commission that produced the report. I have over the last few years found Hanson’s observations and interpretations helpful in developing a deeper understanding of the world.

Also on the commission was Carol Swain, who served as Vice Chair. Swain was professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. Raised in poverty, earning a GED while working as a cashier at McDonald’s, Swain obtained her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at chapel Hill. Before finishing her career at Vanderbilt, Swain earned tenure at Princeton. I mention that because the media is trying to tear down her reputation.

While I don’t agree with everything in the document (especially, for example, its advocacy of religion values), it is not what it is characterized as. The establishment media is painting the Commission’s report as racist apologia for slavery and white supremacy. This characterization means to deny the usefulness of the approach, indeed to keep people from considering its arguments.

I believe the excerpt I have selected, titled “Progressivism,” is especially important for people to reflect upon. I have been writing about the dynamic and problem of progressivism for some time now. I have contrasted progressivism with populism in lengthy blogs on Freedom and Reason. I have another piece on progressivism in the cue, but, until then, this excerpt aligns with the spirit of my analysis. 

In June 2003, Richard Grossman, in criticizing Bill Moyer’s speech to the Take Back America conference, delivered June 4, 2003, argues that “by lumping Populism with Progressivism, by extolling the Progressive Era’s legacy of regulatory and administrative law, he joins countless 20th century leaders and historians in denying the Populist Movement. What they all work so hard to deny, alas, is the largest democratic mass movement in US history, a massing devoted to building upon the trampled ideals of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.

“Populists were farmers, workers and like-minded intellectuals challenging usurpations galore declared lawful by men of property,” Grossman continues. “Populists had no interest in regulating destructive and rights-denying corporate behaviors. Daring to trust their own experiences with banking, railroad, grain, land, insurance, and manufacturing magnates (and their corporations), they had no illusions that permitting and disclosure—the basis of “progressive” regulations—would fix a corporate state.” (See, “Who Were the Populists?”)

The Commission’s report goes beyond Grossman’s arguments, identifying the destructive general effects of progressivism on the ability for people to self-govern and enjoy their natural rights (whether given by god or nature). It packs a lot in a few words. My pending blog will explore these effects is greater detail. Without further ado, here is the excerpt.

Progressivism 

In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism. Although not all of one piece, and not without its practical merits, the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century. To use a contemporary analogy, Progressives believed that America’ s original “software”—the founding documents—were no longer capable of operating America’s vastly more complex “hardware”: the advanced industrial society that had emerged since the founding. 

More significantly, the Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. As one prominent Progressive historian wrote in 1922, “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.” Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times. Indeed, society has the power and obligation not only to define and grant new rights, but also to take old rights away as the country develops. 

Based on this false understanding of rights, the Progressives designed a new system of government. Instead of securing fundamental rights grounded in nature, government—operating under a new theory of the “living” Constitution—should constantly evolve to secure evolving rights. 

In order to keep up with these changes, government would be run more and more by credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules and regulations that mold to the currents of the time. Before he became President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson laid out this new system whereby “the functions of government are in a very real sense independent of legislation, and even constitutions,” meaning that this new view of government would operate independent of the people. 

Far from creating an omniscient body of civil servants led only by “pragmatism” or “science,” though, progressives instead created what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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