The Progressives: Modern and Postmodern

I. The Modern Progressives

Woodrow Wilson, the very model of the modern Progressive, utterly rejected the Founders’ self-evident truths and unalienable rights.  Wilson and the modern Progressives saw the Declaration and the Constitution as anachronisms that America needed to progress beyond. 

Wilson based his rejection of the Founders on the philosophy of the 19th century German G. W. F. Hegel, writing, "[T]he philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, 'nothing but the spirit of that time expressed in abstract thought.'"  For Wilson, history had moved on, and as a result, the thinking of the Founders had become, as he says in the above quote, “nonsense.”

For Wilson and the modern Progressives, the constitutional limits on the power of government the Founders had so carefully crafted to protect our unalienable rights were actually defects.  According to the Progressives, those limits hobbled government, preventing it from using its powers to advance progress.

However, Progressivism, ever progressing, did not stop there.  It is a new time, and the spirit of the new time has brought forth a new generation of Progressives.

II. The Postmodern Progressives

Consider former president Bill Clinton's much-maligned statement: "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

The Democratic Party claims that Thomas Jefferson was the first president of their party, yet it is clear that there is a big difference between the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the recent President with “Jefferson” in his name – and even a big difference between the thinking of Woodrow Wilson and the thinking of that recent president.  Thomas Jefferson believed that there are truths that are self-evident.  Wilson rejected Jefferson’s self-evident truths.  Clinton’s statement goes even beyond Wilson to invoke a challenge to the very possibility of truth.

Clinton was rightly seen as attempting to squirm his way out of the trouble he was in, but what went generally uncommented on was that, like Wilson in his day, Clinton was relying on the latest thinking in philosophy.  If you had not been keeping up with the latest developments in the world of intellectual fashion, you might not have recognized that Clinton’s challenge to common sense was rooted in the doctrines of postmodernism.

The invasion of the postmodernists came in the second half of the twentieth century, about a century after Hegelian thought gained ascendency in academia.  As you may have heard, the postmodernists have captured academia’s commanding heights.   They go far beyond Hegel’s rejectionism to deny even the meaningfulness of claims to truth.  The French postmodernist Michel Foucault puts their position this way: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth or Knowledge.”

Richard Rorty, the best known of the American postmodernists, makes the same point with greater apparent philosophical rigor:

To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.  It is to say that our purposes would be served best by ceasing to see truth… as a topic of philosophical interest, or "true" as a term which repays "analysis."

According to the postmodernists, the meaning of “is” – and everything else – is up for grabs.

As Jonah Goldberg has written, postmodernists hold “that truth is ‘socially constructed,’ so not only is there is no capital-T Truth that stands outside the individual or society, but all meaning is up for grabs in a contest to see which ‘stories’ will define our civilization. Ultimately this means truth becomes a political question about who wields power rather than an investigation into anything eternal or external to our own perspectives.”

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While the modern Progressives primarily oppose the constitutional limits on government power and as a result seek to dismantle the constitutional order, the postmodern Progressives have a much more radical, far-reaching, and often confusing agenda.  This difference tends to make the two versions of Progressivism fairly easy to distinguish from one another. 

Modern Progressivism, rejecting the constitutional safeguards of individual liberty in favor of the government’s ability to bring about progress, favors an ever-expanding and activist role for government in society, such as government control of health care, government intervention in the economy, and so on. 

In contrast, postmodern Progressivism is not content merely to dismantle the American Constitution; many of its proposals, such as putting women on the front lines in combat in order to advance a feminist agenda or requiring public schools to allow K-12 transgender students to choose whichever bathroom or locker room they identify with, seem intended to defy common sense, as if postmodern Progressivism recognizes that common sense is the real enemy.

Other proposals of postmodern Progressives aim at getting beyond American national sovereignty.  In that sense, American postmodern Progressivism is post-American also, seeking to give power to international or supra-national bodies like the United Nations and to introduce sharia (Islamic law) and the constitutional law of foreign nations into American jurisprudence.  Postmodern Progressives also welcome illegal immigration, and they embrace international efforts to address global problems such as climate, seemingly as much because of the international form of the response as because of concern about the problem to be addressed.

In other words, and in short, postmodernism is philosophy cut loose from common sense...and proud of it. 

Robert Curry is the author of the forthcoming book Common Sense Nation.  You can visit him at

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