Friday, June 7, 2013

American Progressivism: Part 3 of 5

by R.J. Pestritto, Shipley Professor of the American Constitution at Hillsdale College

III. How the Progressives Originated the Modern Presidency 

As I explained in my last piece, the Progressives wanted to disregard the Constitution in order to enlarge vastly the scope of government. As a practical matter, how was this to be done? It happened in a variety of ways, but principal among them was a fundamental change in the American presidency. 

Under the system of our founders, government was to have sufficient strength and energy to accomplish its ends, but those ends were strictly limited by the Constitution. The principal way in which the Constitution keeps the government within its boundaries is through the separation of powers. As readers of The Federalist and of Thomas Jefferson know, the point of separation of powers is to keep any one set of hands from wielding all of the power in national government.

The Progressives, especially Woodrow Wilson, hated the separation of powers for precisely this reason: it made government inefficient, and made it difficult, if not impossible, to expand the power of government so that it could take on all of the new tasks that Progressives had in mind. So they looked to the presidency as a way of getting around this obstacle.

Under the original system, the president was merely leader of a single branch, or part, of the government, and thus could not provide leadership of the government as a whole. In his book Constitutional Government, Wilson urged that “leadership and control must be lodged somewhere.” The president, Wilson pointed out, was the only politician who could claim to speak for the people as a whole, and thus he called upon the president to rise above the separation of powers – to consider himself not merely as chief of a single branch of government, but as the popular leader of the whole of national politics. Wilson even contrasted the “constitutional aspect” of the presidency – its constitutionally defined role as chief of one of the three co-equal branches of government – to the “political” function of the president, where he could use his connection to public opinion as a tool for moving all of the branches of government in the direction called for by the people.

It was in this way that Wilson believed the original intention of the separation of powers system could be circumvented, and the enhanced presidency could be a means energizing the kind of active national government that the progressive agenda required.

In the next piece, we’ll consider whether the principles of the Progressives made them socialists.





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