The New Nihilists: Political Nihilism and the Progressive Movement in America

During the dark days of the Second World War, Helmut Thielicke experienced the horrors of National Socialism on a daily basis.  Due to his standing as a Lutheran minister, professor of philosophy, and doctor of theology, he became a person of interest to the Gestapo, who kept him under constant surveillance and frequently hauled him in for interrogation.  After the war, he lectured and wrote extensively about his experiences, and when asked how a country that produced such luminaries as Bach and Beethoven could also produce an Adolf Hitler, he initially blamed the usual suspects: the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, economic instability, and social unrest — but he did not leave it there.  Instead, he did the unthinkable and placed some of the blame on his fellow Germans for their uncritical acceptance of Hitler's promises — a point he emphasized in his book, Between Heaven and Earth.  "Hitler," he said, "knew how to dissemble, and one had to look very closely, and read his terrible book Mein Kampf very carefully, to see the cloven hoof beneath the angel's luminous robes." 

Thielicke's words closely mirrored those of the Apostle Paul, who warned the Corinthian church that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."  Whether the warning is from Thielicke or Paul, it reminds us that duplicitous people always disguise their true intentions by appropriating warm, smooth, and soothing words before repurposing them to fit their carefully crafted agenda.  These warnings did not come with a use-by date, and their potency has not gone stale with the passage of time.  To the contrary, in today's hyper-partisan political environment, where Diogenes's lantern has run out of oil, it is imperative that the words and actions of those who shape public policy be put to the test.  This is especially true with respect to progressivism, an Americanized form of socialism that seemingly arose out of nowhere and seized control of the Democratic Party.  This perspective, however, is an illusion, for, like most political movements, progressivism's rise has been slow but persistent, and the brightness of its star has waxed and waned along with the influence of those who have guided it along — from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

Although progressivism began during the McKinley administration, its development took place under the watchful eye of Teddy Roosevelt, whose views seemed somewhat unsettled at times.  He was for law and order but insisted that it was the people, not the courts, who are entitled to say what the Constitution means.  His life epitomized rugged individualism, but he was a collectivist who believed that the welfare of the one depended on the welfare of the many.  He promoted hard work and success but wanted to penalize excessive earnings by the creation of a heavy progressive income and inheritance tax.  He opposed state ownership of businesses but argued for complete governmental control of their affairs, including how they spent their profits.  Then, after almost two terms in office, Roosevelt put politics aside until 1910, when he delivered his defining speech, The New Nationalism, which was, in fact, a Progressive manifesto.

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.  It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.  This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

Having solidified his belief that a controlling central government was the essence of progressivism, Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate against Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912, where he headed up the newly minted Progressive Party.  The election was lost, and the party died, but its sprit, like an ancient demon released from the abyss, took possession of the body politic, filled it with a thirst for power, and freed it from its constitutional chains.  Progressivism had become a viable force in American politics.

The rise of progressivism had a lasting effect on the nation, as president after president followed Teddy's lead and sought to expand the power and scope of the federal government.  Wilson, who advocated a Darwinian approach to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, gave us the progressive income and estate tax.  FDR instituted the New Deal, and LBJ advanced the Great Society, waged the War on Poverty, and launched Medicare.  Not to be outdone, Bill Clinton signed the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement; Richard Nixon established the EPA and OSHA; Jimmy Carter developed the Departments of Education and Energy; and George W. Bush created Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Administration, and No Child Left Behind.  Change was now the amrita of presidential politics, but just as the gods knew that churning for amrita would produce poison, so politicians knew that pushing for an overtly aggressive agenda would produce defeat, and no one understood that better than the Democratic Party's rising star: Senator Barack Obama.   

Like many of his predecessors, Obama projected a carefully crafted image while in the public eye.  As the keynote speaker for the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama mesmerized the audience with his soaring rhetoric, heaping praise on America while railing against "those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes."  There is not, he insisted, "a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.  There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America."  But it was all a bright, shining lie, and those who had examined his life, and read his books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope very carefully, were not deceived.  They knew that Obama's mission was to boldly go where no progressive had gone before: into the uncharted universe of political nihilism.

To the philosopher, nihilism means that nothing in the universe matters or has any significance.  Political nihilism takes the philosopher's theorem and applies it to existing social and political institutions, thereby clearing the way for their replacement.  Surprisingly, Obama openly embraced political nihilism during an October 31, 2008 speech at the University of Missouri, when he abandoned his message of "hope and change you can believe in" and declared, "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America."

Although this random act of honesty galvanized Obama's base and helped secure his election, it also turned his declaration of intent and the oath of office into contranyms.  To resolve this dilemma, Obama the fundamental transformer recast himself as Obama the true blue American, and reaffirmed his fidelity to the Constitutional Republic during his first inaugural address.   

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

To Obama, this maneuver was a tactical withdrawal, not a retreat.  He knew that the fundamental transformation of America would be a long and time-consuming process, so he asked his followers to be patient.  The gambit paid off, and Obama fundamentally changed the country's direction, but the next Republican president could easily undo the means he used, such as executive orders, presidential memos, and simple agreements instead of ratified treaties.  This possibility haunted Obama, and, as Election Day drew near, he pleaded with the voters to elect Hillary Clinton because "all the work we've done over the last eight years is on the ballot."  In spite of his efforts, Hillary lost, and President Trump began unwinding Obama's legacy.

In the end, Obama's above-the-fray, laissez-faire approach to leadership was a mistake — a mistake that today's progressives will not repeat.  They are the new nihilists, activists openly calling for the destruction of America's existing social and political institutions so that new, progressive ones can arise from the rubble.  No more electoral college, no more borders, no more constitutional restrictions is their cry, and all the Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls say amen.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann opined that "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again."  Although Mann will never be among the world's greatest historians or grammarians, his place as a prognosticator of America's future is secure — if the new nihilists ever get their way.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

During the dark days of the Second World War, Helmut Thielicke experienced the horrors of National Socialism on a daily basis.  Due to his standing as a Lutheran minister, professor of philosophy, and doctor of theology, he became a person of interest to the Gestapo, who kept him under constant surveillance and frequently hauled him in for interrogation.  After the war, he lectured and wrote extensively about his experiences, and when asked how a country that produced such luminaries as Bach and Beethoven could also produce an Adolf Hitler, he initially blamed the usual suspects: the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, economic instability, and social unrest — but he did not leave it there.  Instead, he did the unthinkable and placed some of the blame on his fellow Germans for their uncritical acceptance of Hitler's promises — a point he emphasized in his book, Between Heaven and Earth.  "Hitler," he said, "knew how to dissemble, and one had to look very closely, and read his terrible book Mein Kampf very carefully, to see the cloven hoof beneath the angel's luminous robes." 

Thielicke's words closely mirrored those of the Apostle Paul, who warned the Corinthian church that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."  Whether the warning is from Thielicke or Paul, it reminds us that duplicitous people always disguise their true intentions by appropriating warm, smooth, and soothing words before repurposing them to fit their carefully crafted agenda.  These warnings did not come with a use-by date, and their potency has not gone stale with the passage of time.  To the contrary, in today's hyper-partisan political environment, where Diogenes's lantern has run out of oil, it is imperative that the words and actions of those who shape public policy be put to the test.  This is especially true with respect to progressivism, an Americanized form of socialism that seemingly arose out of nowhere and seized control of the Democratic Party.  This perspective, however, is an illusion, for, like most political movements, progressivism's rise has been slow but persistent, and the brightness of its star has waxed and waned along with the influence of those who have guided it along — from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

Although progressivism began during the McKinley administration, its development took place under the watchful eye of Teddy Roosevelt, whose views seemed somewhat unsettled at times.  He was for law and order but insisted that it was the people, not the courts, who are entitled to say what the Constitution means.  His life epitomized rugged individualism, but he was a collectivist who believed that the welfare of the one depended on the welfare of the many.  He promoted hard work and success but wanted to penalize excessive earnings by the creation of a heavy progressive income and inheritance tax.  He opposed state ownership of businesses but argued for complete governmental control of their affairs, including how they spent their profits.  Then, after almost two terms in office, Roosevelt put politics aside until 1910, when he delivered his defining speech, The New Nationalism, which was, in fact, a Progressive manifesto.

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.  It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.  This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

Having solidified his belief that a controlling central government was the essence of progressivism, Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate against Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912, where he headed up the newly minted Progressive Party.  The election was lost, and the party died, but its sprit, like an ancient demon released from the abyss, took possession of the body politic, filled it with a thirst for power, and freed it from its constitutional chains.  Progressivism had become a viable force in American politics.

The rise of progressivism had a lasting effect on the nation, as president after president followed Teddy's lead and sought to expand the power and scope of the federal government.  Wilson, who advocated a Darwinian approach to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, gave us the progressive income and estate tax.  FDR instituted the New Deal, and LBJ advanced the Great Society, waged the War on Poverty, and launched Medicare.  Not to be outdone, Bill Clinton signed the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement; Richard Nixon established the EPA and OSHA; Jimmy Carter developed the Departments of Education and Energy; and George W. Bush created Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Administration, and No Child Left Behind.  Change was now the amrita of presidential politics, but just as the gods knew that churning for amrita would produce poison, so politicians knew that pushing for an overtly aggressive agenda would produce defeat, and no one understood that better than the Democratic Party's rising star: Senator Barack Obama.   

Like many of his predecessors, Obama projected a carefully crafted image while in the public eye.  As the keynote speaker for the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama mesmerized the audience with his soaring rhetoric, heaping praise on America while railing against "those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes."  There is not, he insisted, "a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.  There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America."  But it was all a bright, shining lie, and those who had examined his life, and read his books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope very carefully, were not deceived.  They knew that Obama's mission was to boldly go where no progressive had gone before: into the uncharted universe of political nihilism.

To the philosopher, nihilism means that nothing in the universe matters or has any significance.  Political nihilism takes the philosopher's theorem and applies it to existing social and political institutions, thereby clearing the way for their replacement.  Surprisingly, Obama openly embraced political nihilism during an October 31, 2008 speech at the University of Missouri, when he abandoned his message of "hope and change you can believe in" and declared, "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America."

Although this random act of honesty galvanized Obama's base and helped secure his election, it also turned his declaration of intent and the oath of office into contranyms.  To resolve this dilemma, Obama the fundamental transformer recast himself as Obama the true blue American, and reaffirmed his fidelity to the Constitutional Republic during his first inaugural address.   

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents. So it has been; so it must be with this generation of Americans.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

To Obama, this maneuver was a tactical withdrawal, not a retreat.  He knew that the fundamental transformation of America would be a long and time-consuming process, so he asked his followers to be patient.  The gambit paid off, and Obama fundamentally changed the country's direction, but the next Republican president could easily undo the means he used, such as executive orders, presidential memos, and simple agreements instead of ratified treaties.  This possibility haunted Obama, and, as Election Day drew near, he pleaded with the voters to elect Hillary Clinton because "all the work we've done over the last eight years is on the ballot."  In spite of his efforts, Hillary lost, and President Trump began unwinding Obama's legacy.

In the end, Obama's above-the-fray, laissez-faire approach to leadership was a mistake — a mistake that today's progressives will not repeat.  They are the new nihilists, activists openly calling for the destruction of America's existing social and political institutions so that new, progressive ones can arise from the rubble.  No more electoral college, no more borders, no more constitutional restrictions is their cry, and all the Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls say amen.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann opined that "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again."  Although Mann will never be among the world's greatest historians or grammarians, his place as a prognosticator of America's future is secure — if the new nihilists ever get their way.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.