The Strange History of Progressivism

 Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea, Bradley C.S. Watson.  University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.  219 pp

As my former constitutional law professor would say, “Constitutional government means limited government.”   But progressives see this proposition as limiting, anachronistic, even reactionary.  The story of the conflict between these two visions of America is the subject of Bradley Watson’s evocatively written, brilliant and scholarly, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea.       

One could say, of course, that progressivism begins when Adam & Eve fabricate their own code of conduct after which they hide from God.  With the 19th century Higher Criticism, as well as Charles Darwin demoting the Bible to a series of tall tales and mytho-poetry, the way was open for highly schooled, credentialed individuals to privilege a materialistic story of our human and celestial origins.  Buoyed up by all the great scientific and technological advances of the early modern era, these up-to-date-people became confident that by applying the methods of science and technology to society, they could avoid the tragic conclusion of the Eden story and fabricate their own earthly Eden.

But Bradley Watson writes: “This is contrary to Aristotle’s understanding that we seek understanding through an examination of all things, according to the methods appropriate to each.”  That is, unlike the uniformity of physical laws, humans are unpredictably complex, making politics an art which “relies on practical, experiential wisdom as well as theoretical wisdom.”

This category error, this conflation of apples and angels, of matter and minds is the source of the progressive fallacy.  After pointing this out early on, Watson then scrupulously investigates the thinkers who promoted this confusion and their fellow travelers who were itching to rush pell-mell into modernity.   He concludes with a finely grained examination of those who ignored or otherwise misunderstood this ubiquitous progressivism despite its egregious departure from the founding doctrines embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  And all the more impressive is that he achieves this in only 219 pages.

Kant and Hegel began the departure from the coherent intellectual firmament upon which America was chartered, though each of them did leave alcoves both for God and for the permanent things to hang out.  Darwin arriving later, though riding the same wave, finished the project by ostensibly showing how nature accidentally ginned up life and by implication the world and the cosmos.  To wit:  change was permanent and organisms which didn’t adapt, faded into obsolescence.   As Watson tellingly writes: “In the absence of fixity, morals, politics and religion are subject to radical renegotiation and transformation.  Essences are no longer the highest object of inquiry or indeed any objects of inquiry.” 

In other words, as Groucho Marx said, “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others. “  And such “principles” will be, to use John Dewey’s terms, pragmatic and instrumental, a means to no particular end, cut and paste jobs to keep society progressing; the triumph of technique over truth.

Along with a host of others, Dewey gained traction for his view that the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization had made the Constitution outdated.  But the Constitution guarantees free speech to combat corruption and an Electoral College and a Senate to balance the power of property with the power of people.

Despite this relativism, this historicism, progressives co-opted the Protestant Social Gospel Movement and Catholicism’s social justice ideology while forming a cult that manifestly remains with us.  In Watson’s chapter, “The Real Presence of Christ,” Woodrow Wilson becomes the personification of this merging of the two realms, for he “fluently incorporated religious language into his progressivism. “  Thus, “Communion with God depended on communion with other men.”   Of course, this blurring of distinctions undermines Jesus’s separation of the realms of Caesar and God.  But the understandable desire to solve “the social question” by relying on the reach and taxing power of the administrative state, made Jesus’s doctrine also obsolete.

However, this contradiction along with other anti-constitutional features within progressivism would be ignored by historians.  The failure to tell the story of these contradictions, and then later how “revisionist” historians pointed out these contradictions, is the most revealing part of the book.

The giants of 20th century American history, Fredrick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington, “paint complementary pictures of corruption and the necessity for evolutionary change in their histories of America though they exaggerated both,” as Watson writes.   Later progressive historians defanged these points, “making these three appear more compatible with the American experience and constitutional order than they were.”  

So with history historicized, historians told America’s story according to the prescriptions of their guild and the prevailing pragmatism.   Richard Hofstadter, for all of his brilliance, was the exemplar of this version of history.   Hofstadter in his 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, wrote that Darwin’s theory was unique in that it affected not only science but all endeavors.  In fact, Darwin was not unique in either category because Newton, not to mention Copernicus and Einstein, had been used in the same way.  Regardless, Hofstadter softened Darwin, making his a “conservative” force, supporting the laissez-faire status quo.  Others classified Darwin as a change agent, a precursor to social planning.  These intermural quarrels aside, Watson demonstrates that progressivism “aimed a dagger at the heart of the Constitution.”

Franklin Roosevelt pushed the dagger to the hilt in his pursuit of massive change.  After the New Deal and WWII, Hofstadter claimed that America’s tradition of individualism, capitalism, and isolationism had to be abandoned in the face of “international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning.”  The basis for this precursor of “never let a crisis go to waste” was the axiom that science has proven human nature to be malleable; therefore, notions of conflict and private property that the Constitution assumes should be abandoned.   This is Stalinism at a time when, ironically, Stalin was an enemy.

In the chapter, “Progressive Historiography in a Countercultural Age,” Hofstadter becomes a foil for the 1960s and ‘70s historians who saw him as favoring crony capitalism because progressives had promoted the efficiencies of centralization.   Others argued that progressivism was too diverse to categorize.  Still others like historian, Peter Filene, argued that progressivism is dead while at the same time denying that it ever existed.  Watson accuses Filene of omitting “the central points of progressivism: its indifference or hostility to the   Constitution, its faith in experts, its quasi- religious millenarianism.”   At bottom though, post-modernist Filene does take the materialism inherent in progressivism to its logical conclusion by saying that politics is a mere epiphenomena of deterministic, historical forces.

Historian R. Lawrence Moore was the rare exception in the 1970s when he rebutted Herbert Croly, founder of the progressive New Republic, who wrote that democracy is a movement toward human perfectibility.   This utopianism, however, would have startled the founders whose government is based on humanity’s imperfections, as Moore noted. 

In the 1980s, “the revisionist Claremont school” broke the silence about the true nature of progressivism.  Ignoring the question of who are the true “revisionists,” Watson proceeds to identify the “Claremont school” as those scholars associated with Claremont McKenna College, Claremont Graduate University and the Claremont Institute.  These scholars are influenced by Leo Straus and Harry Jaffa both of whom were “moral realists”; that is, they believed in moral absolutes.

Revisionists agree that the 1912 election of President Wilson injected the cult of progress directly into the American political bloodstream.  Charles Kesler, laying the groundwork for later scholars, wrote that Wilson’s comprehensive vision of progressivism was one of Darwinian movement rather than Newtonian fixity.  Kesler sees liberalism as the common ancestor of progressivism in that it opts for change, seemingly oblivious of irony, tragedy and common sense which is say, history. 

As the liberal-progressives assume power in 2021, the Chinese flu outbreak has massively increased the government’s reach, federal debt skyrockets, the nation’s Capitol is surrounded by fences manned by thousands of troops while crime in the land spikes.  Are these the beginnings of the brave new world that liberal- progressivism has bequeathed us?

Terry Scambray lives and writes in the Great Central Valley of California

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