The End of the Progressive Century

It was a time of bewildering change, of amazing technological innovation, and of massive disruption in the way everyday Americans earned a living. Wave after wave of immigrants arrived, and there was justified concern that many of these newcomers did not believe in the American form of government, and would not assimilate.  Political corruption was endemic, with Congress blatantly under the thumb of special interests. There was a huge and growing concentration of wealth, with the rich getting incredibly rich and the masses living from day to day. Environmentalists battled industry. Unions battled big business. Americans were uncertain about their role in the world, with many rejecting an active part in world affairs. And for the first time in our history, a political party, and a political movement, believed the Constitution itself was outmoded and an impediment to progress.

It was America at the turn of the 20th century, and it gave birth to the 100 years of Progressive politics that have, with a few interruptions, been the fundamental political trend in this country. The big blue tide, if you will. Things started going to hell in 1913 with the adoption of the 16th and 17th Amendments. We've been going downhill, in terms of our constitutional freedoms, ever since.

This century-long "progress" was halted in October of 2013 with the implosion of the ObamaCare website and the subsequent realization, by even the most low information voters, that the federal government was, in fact, stupid, incompetent, dishonest, and profligate. A reversal of our political direction has taken place.  People understand that expanding the power and scope of the federal government is not progress. The question is, how strong will this new tide run, how long will it last, and what can be done with it?

In the best-case scenario we adopt reforms as significant as the 16th, 17th, and 19th Amendments. We can abolish the IRS, and even repeal the 16th Amendment, if necessary. We can return many of the functions of the federal government back to the states, restoring the federalism which the 17th Amendment undermined. And we can eliminate the abomination of affirmative action root and branch, in all its insidious tentacles. And we can do a lot, lot more. If the tide is strong enough, and we are skillful in channeling it to our purposes.

We have five conviction candidates, Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Cruz, and Rubio. While we can all have our disagreements over which will win the nomination, and who would be strongest in the general, or who would be most effective if elected, any of them would take office with a mandate for fundamental reform. They're not governors, but we don't need somebody to run the government. You hire people to do that. We need someone who's ready and eager to ride this tide as far as it can take us. An agent of institutional change. A true believer.

Kasich's running on competence. How'd that work for Dukakis? Bush plays the competence card as well. It doesn't sell. This whole Beltway idea that people were going to want a Governor for President turns out to be a fiction.

After the landslide of 1920 -- a 26% margin of victory, the most lopsided win in the history of contested presidential elections -- Harding gave us a Return to Normalcy and the Roaring 20's, but they didn't last. Neither Harding nor Coolidge was able to make any structural or institutional reforms. The cancers of the 16th and 17th Amendments would soon metastasize into the New Deal. What could be different from 1920 is that, this time, we can have structural, Constitutional change, the kind you only get to make every 100 years.

Most of the forces at play a century ago have returned, with a vengeance. The American people are again desperate, hungry for something more than a change in the cast of characters. A majority know that federal government is far from benign, it is the greatest threat to their freedom. Something big has to change if we are to continue as a functioning constitutional republic.

It seems every four years we're told that this election is the one that matters, that this time we really do face a fork in the road. Four years ago a lot of us thought that preventing Obama's reelection was our last best hope. If we couldn't beat someone with his dismal record, who could we beat, and under what circumstances?  Demographics was slowly killing us, and Obamacare was going to be another Social Security, an untouchable entitlement that bought loyalty to the government from its millions of beneficiaries.

But the tide has turned, and we are poised for a victory that could be among the most politically consequential in our history. We are, indeed, now at a fork in the road, and we need to listen to the counsel of a recently departed wise man.

We need to take it.

Fritz Pettyjohn is a former Alaska Legislator and a Co-founder of the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force.  He blogs at

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