Posted by: Debby Durkee | February 2, 2010

Left’s overreach inspires return of the Founders.

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Left’s overreach inspires return of the Founders.

Matthew Spalding has a brilliant piece at National Review Online. It is called “A Republic, If You Want It.” In this piece he shows how the federal government became the cancerous organism that it is. It’s all been the design of the Progressive Movement which stems from the early 20th Century. It grew out of Darwinism and the idea of evolution, and today our government has basically evolved into an out of control cancer on the backs of the American people. 

However, Spalding sees some light in this recent overreach of today’s Obama Progressives. The awakening of the American people to what is happening and what has been happening to their country has caused a renewal of interest in the Constitution and limited government. He also gives directions to conservatives (and Republicans would be truly stupid to shake that mantle) to grasp the moment and head in the direction of republican self-government.

Our federal government, once limited to certain core functions, now dominates virtually every area of American life…

Congress passes massive pieces of legislation with little serious deliberation, bills that are written in secret and generally unread before the vote. The national legislature is increasingly a supervisory body overseeing a vast array of administrative policymakers and rulemaking agencies. Although the Constitution vests legislative powers in Congress, the majority of “laws” are promulgated in the guise of “regulations” by bureaucrats who are mostly unaccountable and invisible to the public.

States, localities, and private institutions are submerged by national programs. The states, which increasingly administer policies emanating from Washington, act like supplicants seeking relief from the federal government. Growing streams of money flow from Washington to every congressional district and municipality, as well as to businesses, organizations, and individuals that are subject to escalating federal regulations.  Snip –

The Americanized version of the modern state was born in the early 20th century. American “progressives,” under the spell of German thinkers, decided that advances in science and history had opened the possibility of a new, more efficient form of democratic government, which they called the “administrative state.” Thus began the most revolutionary change of the last hundred years: the massive shift of power from institutions of constitutional government to a labyrinthine network of unelected, unaccountable experts who would rule in the name of the people.  Snip –

Progressives viewed the Constitution as a dusty 18th-century plan unsuited for the modern day. Its basic mechanisms were obsolete and inefficient; it was a reactionary document, designed to stifle change. They believed that just as science and reason had brought technological changes and new methods of study to the physical world, they would also bring great improvements to politics and society… government could not be restricted to securing a few natural rights or exercising certain limited powers. Instead, government must become dynamic, constantly changing and growing to pursue the ceaseless objective of progress.

Today’s progressives should really be called “regressives.” Instead of modernizing and making progress which should make everything quick, easy and less cumbersome, today’s Regressive Movement is making everything bigger, more complicated, and slow. Instead of looking forward to the promise of tomorrow, they are looking backward at things that didn’t work then and certainly aren’t working now. Has it never occurred to them that perhaps what was considered “progressive” in the early 1900’s is now in the 2000’s really reverting (or regressing) to a less advanced state? Let’s hope their Regressive Movement has peaked too late.

The progressive movement — under a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, and then a Democratic one, Woodrow Wilson — set forth a platform for modern liberalism to refound America according to ideas that were alien to the original Founders. “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” Wilson wrote in 1912. “All that progressives ask or desire is permission — in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”  Snip —

No wonder progressives think conservatives are rubes. Conservatives “never got beyond the Declaration of Independence.” Notice the arrogance of Woodrow Wilson, that too is a progressive trait that survives today. Pay attention to this next section because this is really the crux of the whole thing and makes it clear why “progressives” want to grow government.

Politics would remain the realm of expressing opinions, but the real decisions and details of governing would be handled by administrators, separate and immune from the influence of politics.

This permanent class of bureaucrats would address the particulars of accomplishing the broad objectives of reform, making decisions, most of them unseen and beyond public scrutiny, on the basis of scientific facts and statistical data rather than political opinions.   Snip –

The first of these permanent bureaucrats got their start in 1914 with the first alphabet agency – the Federal Trade Commission. That was followed in 1934 by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Progressive thinking at the time (call it utopian in its reasoning) was that these bureaucrats would be above politics and partisanship.

 The progressives emphasized not a separation of powers, which divided and checked the government, but rather a combination of powers, which would concentrate its authority and direct its actions. Snip –

Now as we look back to how Congress seems to delegate its authority to unelected agencies, it becomes clear why. It is by design to implement the permanent ruling bureaucracy.

….In writing legislation, Congress uses broad language that essentially hands legislative power over to agencies, along with the authority to execute rules and adjudicate violations.

The objective of progressive thinking, which remains a major force in modern-day liberalism, was to transform America from a decentralized, self-governing society into a centralized, progressive society focused on national ideals and the achievement of “social justice.” Snip –

It’s in progressive thinking that the concept of the “living Constitution” became widespread.

Liberty no longer would be a condition based on human nature and the exercise of God-given natural rights, but a changing concept whose evolution was guided by government. And since the progressives could not get rid of the “old” Constitution — this was seen as neither desirable nor possible, given its elevated status and historic significance in American political life — they invented the idea of a “living” Constitution that would be flexible and pliable, capable of “growth” and adaptation in changing times. Snip –

Now, you’ve heard the audio of Obama (I believe as a state senator) discussing the Constitution and calling it a set of “negative liberties” – things the Constitution couldn’t do to you instead of what it could do for you. Now you know where he got that idea.

Spalding goes on to review the policies and ideas set forth by progressive FDR, which were expanded upon by LBJ in the 1960’s. All of the short-term alphabet agencies, FDR’s desire to pack the Supreme Court, all of the power he accumulated in the executive branch and his election to four terms (which inspired a Constitutional amendment after the war.)  LBJ exploded the welfare state and even put forth the idea that government’s purpose was no longer to secure the rights of the people but to fulfill them. Wow, talk about paternalism!

And now progressive reformism is back. We’re witnessing huge increases in government spending, regulations, and programs. And as the national government becomes more centralized and bureaucratic, it will also become less democratic, and more despotic, than ever.

The tangled legislation supposedly intended to “reform” health care is a perfect example. It would regulate a significant segment of society that has been in progressives’ crosshairs for over a hundred years. Nationalized health care was first proposed in 1904, modeled on German social insurance. It was in the Progressive party’s platform of 1912. It came back under FDR and Truman, then Johnson, then Clinton, and now Obama. And the goal all along has had little to do with the quality of health care. The objective is rather to remove about a sixth of the economy from private control and bring it under the thumb of the state, whose “experts” will choose and ration its goods and services.  Snip —

Much of the earlier movement in the progressive direction happened in an era without the Internet, talk radio and conservative and libertarian blogs. Now information is no longer controlled by the liberal (progressive?) media. Americans can find the information they want without gatekeepers deciding what they need to know. This self-education of Americans has fueled a growing rebuke of the so-called Progressive Movement.

There is something about a nation founded on principles, something unique in its politics that often gets shoved to the background but never disappears…once in a while, it is…about voters’ stepping back and taking a longer view as they evaluate the present in the light of our founding principles. That is why all the great turning-point elections in U.S. history ultimately came down to a debate about the meaning and trajectory of America.

In our era of big government and the administrative state, the conventional wisdom has been that serious political realignment — bringing politics and government back into harmony with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — is no longer possible. Yet we are seeing early indications that we may be entering a period of just such realignment. Perhaps the progressive transformation is incomplete, and the form of the modern state not yet settled — at least not by the American people.

This creates a historic opening for conservatives.

… it may mean that (the American people) are ready to reembrace clear, enforceable limits on the state. The opportunity and the challenge for those who seek to conserve America’s liberating principles is to turn the healthy public sentiment of the moment, which stands against a partisan agenda to revive an activist state, into a settled and enduring political opinion about the nature and purpose of constitutional government.

To do that, conservatives must make a compelling argument that shifts the narrative of American politics and defines a new direction for the country. We must present a clear choice: stay the course of progressive liberalism, which moves away from popular consent, the rule of law, and constitutional government, and toward a failed, undemocratic, and illiberal form of statism; or correct course in an effort to restore the conditions of liberty and renew the bedrock principles and constitutional wisdom that are the roots of America’s continuing greatness.

The American people are poised to make the right decision. The strength and clarity of the Founders’ argument, if given contemporary expression and brought to a decision, might well establish a governing conservative consensus and undermine the very foundation of the unlimited administrative state. It would be a monumental step on the long path back to republican self-government.

Wherever I’ve “snipped” there is so much more to read and to learn. This is truly one of the best columns I’ve read in a very long time. Your children could use this historical perspective because I’m sure they’ve never gotten any of this in their “progressive” history classes. Read all of Spalding here:

UPDATE: Broken link now fixed:


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  1. Truly an excellent piece, a bit of history and an explanation of where our country detoured from its constitutional principles. If people take the time to read and use the knowledge imparted here and in the article it might actually be a roadmap back to our countries founding principles. By allowing our legislators to place unelected officials in charge of all the various agencies rather than earn their money and do the job they were elected to do, we have both increase the cost of government and reduce our citizen control over it.

  2. […] Spalding, who wrote that brilliant essay on progressivism that was featured on this blog here:… In this political moment — this teaching moment — we must reclaim America’s exceptionalism as […]

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