What’s Wrong With Progressivism?

Andrew E. Busch

August 1, 2005

Last year, journalist Thomas Frank wrote a widely remarked-upon book entitled What’s the Matter With Kansas? Frank’s work—which seemed to berate much of Middle America for voting against its own economic interests, driven by social conservatism—was built around what was to Frank an intriguing question: Why did states like Kansas and Oklahoma, with traditions of populism and progressivism going back to the turn of the last century, become bastions of backlash against contemporary liberalism?

Many objections can be made to Frank’s overall approach. For instance, why is it blockheaded to vote Republican on the basis of abortion or gay marriage when making $30,000 a year in Kansas, but not blockheaded to vote Democratic on cultural issues when making $100,000 a year, as many do in places like San Francisco, Aspen, and suburban Connecticut? However, Frank raises an interesting question which requires a more substantial answer.

A large part of the answer lies in focusing less on how Kansas has changed in the last century, and more on how progressivism has changed.

To be sure, today’s left has much in common with its progressive predecessor, including relative disdain for property rights, commitment to a so-called “living Constitution” that can be molded at will to advance certain policy aims, and reliance on supposed “experts” to rule in a manner untouched by democratic accountability. However, there are also many crucial differences between progressivism and today’s left, starting with the fact that anti-democratic reliance on experts represented but one strand of progressivism (which also supported features of direct democracy like the initiative and the recall) while it seems to have swallowed the modern left whole.

There is perhaps no better single illustration of the gulf between progressivism and contemporary liberalism, though, than President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union Message, a written report issued by one of the most famous progressives of them all in December of that year.

This message contains no fewer than three obvious explanations for why many of the progressives of 1906 are the conservatives of 2005.

  1. Progressivism in 1906 represented a muscular America, open to innovations like international arbitration but unhesitatingly patriotic and nationalist, and jealous of the national sovereignty. In his State of the Union Message, Roosevelt proclaimed that:

    [N]either a nation nor an individual can surrender conscience to another’s keeping… As yet there is no likelihood of establishing any kind of international power, of whatever sort, which can effectively check wrongdoing, and in these circumstances it would be both a foolish and an evil thing for a great and free nation to deprive itself of the power to protect its own rights and even in exceptional cases to stand up for the rights of others. Nothing would promote iniquity, nothing would further defer the reign upon earth of peace and righteousness, than for the free and enlightened peoples which, tho with much stumbling and many shortcomings, nevertheless strive toward justice, deliberately to render themselves powerless while leaving every despotism and barbarism armed and able to work their wicked will. The chance for the settlement of disputes peacefully, by arbitration, now depends mainly upon the possession by the nations that mean to do right of sufficient armed strength to make their purpose effective.

    Needless to say, this sounds more like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush than John Kerry, Howard Dean, or Richard Durbin.

  2. Progressives like Roosevelt were not social nihilists. To the contrary, they often saw the national government as a guardian of the nation’s morals. A portion of Roosevelt’s 1906 message was devoted to the urgent task of restraining polygamy. To this end, he proposed a Constitutional amendment placing jurisdiction over marriage and divorce in the hands of the national Congress. In Roosevelt’s words:

    [S]urely there is nothing so vitally essential to the welfare of the nation, nothing around which the nation should so bend itself to throw every safeguard, as the home life of the average citizen… When home ties are loosened; when men and women cease to regard a worthy family life, with all its duties fully performed, and all its responsibilities lived up to, as the life best worth living; then evil days for the commonwealth are at hand.

    Again, more like George W. Bush (or Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas) than the contemporary “progressives” of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

  3. Which brings us to the fact that progressives, while often extolling a form of bureaucratic governance, did not bring with them a mindless deference to the federal courts. They were never averse to promoting Constitutional amendments to overturn what they considered bad Supreme Court decisions, and spent no small amount of energy making it harder for courts to issue injunctions. In his 1906 State of the Union Message, Roosevelt quoted William Howard Taft thusly:

    The opportunity freely and publicly to criticize judicial action is of vastly more importance to the body politic than the immunity of courts and judges from unjust aspersions and attacks… [I]f the law is but the essence of common sense, the protest of many average men may evidence a defect in a judicial conclusion, tho based on the nicest legal reasoning and profoundest learning… In the case of judges having a life tenure, indeed their very independence makes the right to freely comment on their decisions of greater importance, because it is the only practical and available instrument in the hands of a free people to keep such judges alive to the reasonable demands of those they serve.

Roosevelt himself added commentary pointing out the dangers of “intemperate criticism of the judiciary” but emphasizing that “[The American people] will not subscribe to the doctrine that any public servant is to be above criticism.” If some should argue that there should be no criticism of judges, “their view will not be accepted by the American people as a whole.”

Altogether, Roosevelt’s 1906 message paints a picture of original progressivism that is radically different from its contemporary cousin. Roosevelt’s progressivism was proud of America, committed to “peace through strength,” a defender of the moral fabric and sound home life of the nation, and unwilling to exchange self-government for judicial fiat. While there are many points on which conservatives today can criticize the progressives, it was also the progressives who built the “Great White Fleet” and sent it around the world, who proposed a Constitutional amendment to preserve traditional marriage, and who refuted the notion that criticism of the courts was somehow beyond the pale.

It is on precisely these sorts of issues that the reversal of the left has been most keenly felt, and resented, by voters in Middle America. The left is now perceived, correctly, as the political home of anti-Americanism, unwilling to carry (let alone wield) the big stick or to forthrightly decry the wicked will of despots and barbarians, and willing (if not anxious) to hand over American sovereignty to international bureaucrats. It has furthermore become the political home of social and moral libertinism, whose adherents complain that the Constitution should not be cluttered up with trivialities like marriage because the home life of the commonwealth has few public consequences worth worrying about. And it has become the force in American politics most wedded to government by judiciary, and most reflexively opposed to any effort to put the judiciary under greater scrutiny or accountability. In the process, it has managed to ignite the most highly charged cultural issues of the day.

It isn’t Kansas that changed.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.