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Why progressives want to transform America

Thinking it Through

Two weeks ago I promised to write more about the origins of Progressivism. It made its appearance as a political force in America a century ago in the campaigns of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Both men thought that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were outmoded by history and needed to be reinterpreted for a more modern age.

Americans then and now have been inclined to give Progressives the benefit of the doubt, presuming that this new force was responding to circumstances rather than promoting some new ideology. But the truth is that Progressivism is a European import, antagonistic to the idea of natural rights and supportive of the powers of the State.

As their name implies, Progressives are rooted in history rather than nature. They believe, or profess to believe, that over time mankind has progressed toward the goal they believe should be substituted for that of the American founding. Their goal is equality of condition, which is violated as long as some persons in society have more property, money, power or influence than others.

Doubtless few will disagree with me that such a society never has and never will exist because, as James Madison observed long ago, human beings have “different and unequal faculties.” That is, people are born with different talents and interests, passions and predilections, which only tyrannical regimes presume seriously to challenge.

The American idea has always been that people may rise as high and as fast as they can, so long as they do not engage in force or fraud, meaning (as John Housman once said in a commercial) “they earn it.” That some people make more money or achieve greater prominence than I does not justify me in disparaging their accomplishment, not to mention seizing their wealth or tearing them down.

That European source was primarily French and German. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and culminating in Friedrich Nietzsche, continental philosophers rejected nature or God as a standard or authority for government in favor of human will. There is only history and what human beings do in their history. Nothing is “written in stone,” therefore we may do what we wish.

Woodrow Wilson completed the first doctoral program in the United States in 1886 at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. It was established under the influence of German intellectuals who regarded the Prussian bureaucracy, the first welfare state, as a superior form of government. In his early writings, Wilson rejected natural rights as “unscientific” and separate branches of government as inefficient and counterproductive.

As President, Wilson started the modern practice of giving State of the Union speeches directly to Congress. He believed that the President should lead and the Congress should follow, in the manner that the Prime Minister in Great Britain may pass laws without legislative opposition.

The word progress has a positive connotation, but it is actually a word that only means movement toward an objective. Not all movement is good. Running a race is different than running from the police. The best refutation of Progressivism was made by Calvin Coolidge on the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1926:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final.

If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.

Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
In reality, Progressivism is a fraud which purports to advance the human race but actually returns it to the political evils which we have managed to escape here in America.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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