The TV host has a point when he says a limitless view of state power is un-American.
On television, on radio, in books, and in a widely viewed speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, Glenn Beck has pronounced "progressivism" as the "disease" that afflicts America. His progressive opponents, meanwhile, seem obsessed with attacking him for this obsession—the Center for American Progress has even launched a series of papers to "set the record straight."
This battle reveals a deeper dispute about American history. Mr. Beck and others—such as Jonah Goldberg in his 2008 book, "Liberal Fascism"—tie today's progressives (the new word for liberals) to the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. They contend that the original progressives—including leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt—rejected America's founding principles. Mr. Beck also claims that today's leftist policies are the culmination of a journey begun by progressives over a century ago.
I think it's fair to say that I'm one of those indirectly responsible for the fuss. Messrs. Beck and Goldberg have drawn from my academic work on Woodrow Wilson, and I've been interviewed about this work by Mr. Beck as an occasional guest on his program.
Whatever I or anyone else thinks about Mr. Beck's programming or political views, on one central historical issue he is correct: The progressive movement did indeed repudiate the principles of individual liberty and limited government that were the basis of the American republic. America's original progressives were convinced that the country faced a set of social and economic problems demanding a sharp increase in federal power. They also said that there was too much emphasis placed on protecting the liberty of individuals at the expense of broader social justice. So did this make them socialists—a charge frequently leveled by Mr. Beck?
Woodrow Wilson did oppose the actual socialist movement of his day, and he didn't believe that the government at the time was capable of accomplishing everything socialists then had in mind. Nevertheless, in his 1887 essay, "Socialism and Democracy," Wilson considered the socialist principle—"that all idea of limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view"—to be entirely consistent with democratic principles: "In fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. . . . Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none."
Theodore Roosevelt also recoiled from the socialist movement. But in his famous "New Nationalism" speech of 1910, he said it was necessary that there be "a far more active governmental interference" with the economy. "It is not enough," he said, that a fortune was "gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community."
To achieve their ends, progressives understood that the original constitutional limits on the scope of the federal government had to be breached. This is why Roosevelt railed against court decisions, like the famous Supreme Court case of Lochner v. New York (1905), that upheld individual property rights against progressive legislation (in this case a law limiting the number of hours a baker could work). It is also why Wilson consistently advocated the adoption of a more English-style government, where there is no written fundamental law to serve as a check on the authority of the national legislature.
All this makes puzzling recent calls from some conservative quarters to lay off the original progressives. Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard, for instance, claims that "progressivism is a distinctly American tradition."
In fact, it was anything but. Wilson sought, in his 1886 essay on "The Study of Administration," to model America's national administration on Bismarck's Prussia. He wrote that this model of centralized government "is not of our making; it is a foreign science, speaking very little of the language of English or American principle. It . . . utters none but what are to our minds alien ideas. . . . It has been developed by French and German professors."
Other leading progressives such as Frank J. Goodnow, the president of Johns Hopkins University, noted approvingly (in a 1916 lecture) that in Europe, unlike in America, the rights an individual possesses "are, it is believed, conferred upon him, not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action."
In thinking about alternatives to such a limitless vision of state power, we need not turn to some kind of minimalist anarchy. The Federalists of America's founding era were hardly shrinking violets about centralized government power; and police power lodged in the states was used vigorously prior to the progressive era of the early 20th century. But at a time when there is a serious debate about first principles—and when significant elements of the public appear receptive to criticisms of our march toward European-style social democracy—the meaning of progressivism, past and present, is surely relevant.
Today, a congressman such as Pete Stark can simply boast that the federal government "can do most anything in this country." And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi won't even consider the constitutionality of a government takeover of health care a "serious question." Given this state of affairs, it does not seem unreasonable to reflect on the origins of the disdain for the Constitution in the Progressive Era.
Mr. Pestritto is a professor of politics at Hillsdale College and the author of "Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).
Published 9/15/2010 online at