There are important connections between America’s original Progressive Era and the crisis we are facing today, and it is useful to consider these connections on two levels.
The first connection is at a general level, and concerns our abandonment of the Constitution. The present crisis did not appear out of nowhere, and didn’t simply begin with the election of Barack Obama. Politicians of both parties spent the better part of the 20th century disregarding the Constitution, as they looked to have government step up to solve every conceivable human problem. Thus it ought to be no surprise that the Constitution’s limits on government aren’t even part of the conversation today as our politicians debate the new interventions in our economy and society that seem to come daily.
Such a state of things would have greatly pleased America’s original progressives. As I’ve endeavored to explain in these pieces for the newsletter, progressives believed that the role of government should be determined not by our Constitution, but by whatever the needs of the day happened to be. This is why they sought to eradicate talk of the Constitution from our political discourse; today, that goal seems to have been realized.
The second connection between the original Progressive Era and our situation today has to do with policy. The progressives knew that our original system of government was not capable of handling all of the new tasks that they had in mind for it. So they envisioned creating a vast set of bureaucratic agencies. They argued that Congress should enact very broad and vague laws for supervising more and more facets of the American economy and society, and then delegate to the bureaucratic agencies the power and discretion to enact specific policies. Both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt conceived of government in this way.
The New Deal certainly went a long way toward implementing this progressive vision, and what we have seen in our own situation with TARP and the various other interventions is simply greater steps toward the progressive plan. Our Congress has simply said to the Treasury agencies: here’s a trillion dollars, here’s all the legal authority you need, now go out, determine what is in the public interest, and spend and regulate accordingly. That is the progressive vision of government, in a nutshell.
For more on the Progressives, two of my books may be of interest:
1) American Progressivism, which I co-edited with American historian William Atto, contains a basic introduction to progressive ideas written by Professor Atto and me, and then several selections from the actual writings of Progressives like Wilson, TR, Dewey, Croly, and others.
2) Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, which is a much more in-depth look at Woodrow Wilson and how he was central to originating the liberalism that dominates America today. This is for those who are really interested in history and political theory.