The Progressive movement which is currently wreaking so much havoc on America had its origins in the Republican Party and is still endorsed by a segment of the Republican Party despite bearing little resemblance to its original inception.
Progressivism arose as a response to the political and social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution upon America. Progressives sought to apply scientific methods to governance in an effort to rectify what they saw as the inefficiency, corruption, and injustice of the Gilded Age. As such, the Progressive movement was equally embraced by factions of both the Democrat and Republican parties, although it was under Republicans that its adherents first came to power. Prominent Republican Progressives included Theodore Roosevelt, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Sr., and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, while prominent Democrat Progressives included Nebraska Representative William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and New York Governor Al Smith.
It has been said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and this axiom is certainly applicable to many of the cultural institutions that have sprung up in response to unsustainable social aberrations found in American history. Labor unions transformed from aggregations of workers seeking improved working conditions such as safety, uniform hours, and better pay to shift the balance of power somewhat away from all-powerful corporations to self-perpetuating worker grievance councils fundamentally opposed to management regardless of self-interest. Similarly with the civil rights movement which morphed from blacks demanding equality to race hustlers promoting permanent victim status for blacks to perpetuate their own self-interest.
The Progressive movement sought to address political corruption by adopting the bureaucratic model of government experts running increasingly complex government functions through the application of scientific principles with politicians merely serving to provide guidelines. We see this at the local level today in the form of city managers who run large cities under guidance from elected mayors and city councils. At the federal level, numerous agencies such as the EPA were created by Congress to issue rules with the binding effect of law and placed under the administration of the Executive Branch with Congress serving merely as budget administrators.
In effect, what the Progressives have done by creating these professional bureaucracies is to further remove government from the direct influence of its citizens. Removing power from elected officials and shifting it to these newly created bureaucracies reduced the voice of the politicians and thus the voice of the people whom they represented. While centralized decision-making by trained experts and reduced power for local wards made government less corrupt, it also made it more distant and isolated from the people it served. Thus we have the current situation where unelected bureaucrats issue rules that infringe upon our property rights and we are powerless to resist precisely because we have no direct method to influence the situation. Our representatives in the Legislative Branch have unconstitutionally ceded their power to these unelected bureaucracies and placed their administration under the Executive Branch in direct violation of the Founders’ intent.
Progressivism rejects the ideas of the Founders that man’s natural rights are inalienable rights which flow from God and that government is always and fundamentally in the service of the individual existing to protect these natural rights of liberty and shared responsibility. The Founders believed that the purpose of government was to enforce the natural law by securing these natural rights of the people, and that it does so by preserving their lives and liberties against the violence of others. In this, the Founders believed that the liberty to be secured by government was freedom from despotic and predatory domination by other humans and not freedom from necessity or poverty.
In contrast, the Progressives believe that man’s rights flow from government and are not natural but achieved, that they are not a gift from God, but a gift of the state. Man’s freedom is defined by the state and the state exists to create fulfilled people whose freedom is redefined to be freedom from the limits imposed by nature. They believe that laws and institutions exist to serve man not as a means of obtaining something, but as a means of creating him. The fundamental difference between the Founders’ and the Progressives’ conception of what government is for can be summed up by this idea of “creating individuals” versus “protecting individuals.”
To me, the purpose of government is to protect its citizens and it does this by preventing invasion by foreign powers and by protecting us from one another. This view is exactly what the Founders had in mind when they expressed the concept of limited government in the Constitution. A strong and vigorous national defense was intended to prevent incursion by foreign powers, while laws at the state level aggressively defend citizens from predatory behavior against one another. The Founders intended government to have only enough power to sufficiently protect its citizens and no more since they well understood any power granted to the government could and would be used against its citizens by that same government.
Against this historical backdrop, we come to understand the rise of Progressivism as a response to the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, and gain insight into its perversion by liberals through its rejection of the Founders’ intent that government exists to serve its citizens and replacement with the notion that citizens are served by the state which creates them. If it is the state which creates citizens, then there is no longer any need for God and there is no longer any idea of natural rights since man’s rights are defined by the state. The state is free to redefine social institutions at will leading to destruction of these underpinnings of American society and the fraying of the social fabric.
Marriage is no longer the basis of the family unit so essential to the development of well-adjusted children who evolve into productive adults, but becomes a contract filed at the courthouse for the administration of federal benefits. Labor unions are free to redefine their purpose from the original goal of achieving a place of stakeholder equality with management to secure job security and equitable benefits which they realized long ago to perpetuation of the labor union itself for the benefit of its leaders whose job is now the management of the labor union. To do this, they view the labor and management stakeholder relationship through the lens of constant grievance seeking to maximize short term gain at the expense of long term sustainability. Civil rights groups apply this same thinking to race relations in perpetuating their continued existence as their leaders have managed to convert the movement into a profitable exercise in coercion by shaking down wealthy corporations over insinuated racism.
The original intent of Progressivism has been hijacked by liberals to perpetuate their hold on power by viewing the world through the lens of social injustice and convincing its adherents that they are victims of this social injustice, a nebulous concept easily redefined by its proponents to be whatever they need it to be for any given situation. To the poor, liberals denigrate wealth and promote redistribution. To the disadvantaged, liberals point to privilege and promote affirmative action. To those afraid, liberals point to individualism and promote the false security of the collective. To the spoiled and narcissistic, liberals point to the confinement of social institutions and promote secular humanism. All of this they do under the guise of Progressivism believing that the state is the ultimate source of identity.
While the hard left progressives managed to hijack the Democrat Party because liberals were more susceptible to the idea of state control, they have been aided and abetted by that faction of the Republican Party now known as the establishment which grew out of the country club set more interested in preserving their social status than in addressing the problems of those they preferred to exclude. The progressive Democrats and the establishment Republicans both occupy the same portion of the political spectrum on the issue of government expansion to the great frustration of Americans who manifest their displeasure through reduced electoral participation and tuning out of constant political news.
The establishment GOP leadership views government expansion as inevitable and works to merely slow the rate of this expansion in the short term while ignoring the long term consequences of this policy. They prefer to split hairs with progressive Democrats appearing as close to their positions as possible so as not to possibly offend voters. All they have managed to do with this strategy is shrink the voter pool to that minority interested enough to continue paying attention while ignoring the vast majority of Americans seeking a genuine choice from an entirely different portion of the political spectrum.
In this, both parties have rejected the intent of the Founders of establishing a limited government serving to protect its citizens. Both view the state as being able to do so much more for its citizens and limit their arguments to what that something is. Their constant bickering over essentially the same position has left Americans unaware of the original intent of the Founders and corrupted the principles behind conservatism. Labels have become more important than understanding, and knee-jerk reactionary behavior is the order of the day.
Conservatism is misunderstood by Americans precisely because it has not been articulated and defended by the Republican Party whose establishment leadership no longer understands it. One of the great benefits stemming from the rise of the TEA Party movement has been the rediscovery and study of America’s founding documents and the original intent of our Founders. Ordinary Americans are reading the Federalist Papers and discovering for themselves the Founders’ intent and the real meaning of conservatism. Conservatism seeks adherence to the intent of the Founders while preserving the integrity of the institutions underpinning our society.
Conservatives seek a return to the limited government as described by the Founders in the Constitution. Contrary to media propaganda, conservatives do not long for a “return to the good old days” with its implication that we would sacrifice indoor plumbing or favor a return to the dark ages in our fealty to conservatism. We believe the original intent of the Founders embodied in a limited government protecting its citizens who exercise personal responsibility to temper their maximized liberty is preferable to the Progressive view that the state exists to create citizens and exercise control over them with the idea that unaccountable bureaucrats know better how to run their lives than they do.
When the government of America has grown so wealthy that it can spy on the communications of its citizens and so powerful that its citizens stand helpless in the face of this unconstitutional spying, then that government has grown far beyond the original intent of the Founders and needs to be pared back down to a manageable size. A government that wealthy and powerful, placed under the control of some nefarious element, has the power to compel its citizens to obey the whims of that nefarious element with little recourse. Such is the government we find ourselves under today.
Progressives intended to use the power of government to address the temporary social upheaval produced by the Industrial Revolution, only to have their intentions misappropriated by liberals intent on destroying what they perceived as confining social institutions oblivious to the good embodied in these social institutions and unprepared to replace them with anything of substance. Conservatives have been vilified for their efforts at preserving the viability of these social institutions by both the progressive Democrats and their acolytes, the establishment Republicans.