Obama & the Rhetoric of Progressivism

The following essay was one I read several times. It is interesting, regardless of one's particular biases because it does offer several important historical references to the nature of "progressive" political views.
Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism
December 10, 2010
By Peter Berkowitz
It seems Berkowitz is associated with the Hoover Institute, as a foreign policy expert specializing in the Middle East. He is a political scientist, it appears, with an interest in Western democratic trends and history. His introduction, then, to progressive political rhetoric, correctly begins with an acknowledgment that the movement of the early twentieth century was in many ways a positive force for change.
At their best, the original progressives responded to dramatic social and economic upheavals generated by the industrial revolution, opposed real Gilded Age abuses, and promoted salutary social and political reforms. They took the side of the exploited, the weak, and the wronged. They fought political corruption and sought to make political institutions more responsive to the will of the people. And they advanced programs and policies that, in a changing world, brought liberal democracy in America more in line with the Declaration of Independence's and the Constitution's original promise of freedom and equality for all.
There is little question that the time between the Civil War and WWII demanded political changes to address social and technological changes. As people moved from farms to cities, the Industrial Revolution changed much more than where we worked — it changed how we work, how we live, and how we interact as a people. But, the progressives placed too much faith in humanity and science. They thought humanity itself was evolving rapidly, improving in ways we now know mankind has not and might not.

However, the Founders had a proper, in my view, distrust of human nature. These men didn't assume that the social elites were any better morally than anyone else. Of course, they came from a Puritan time when sin and the Fall of Man was the primary theological bias, but that also meant that the Founders were rightfully cautious of placing power in the hands of a small group without restraints.
But progressivism went astray owing to a defect in its basic orientation. It rejected the sound principles of government embodied in the Constitution, because of a critical difference of opinion about human nature. Progressives believed that great improvements in the moral character of humanity and in the scientific understanding of society had rendered the Constitution's scheme of checks and balances - or better its separation, balancing, and blending of power - unnecessary to prevent majority tyranny and the abuse of power by officeholders.
Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as one who imagined a managerial class running the nation. The universities, the nurseries of modern progressivism, fed the myth that an educated elite could "scientifically" run the nation. This is the same mythology Marxist bought into: central planning, by the "right people" will work so much better!
Whereas the makers of the American Constitution believed that the imperfections of human nature and the tendency of people to develop competing interests and aims were permanent features of moral and political life, progressives insisted that progress allowed human beings, or at least the most talented and best educated human beings, to rise above these limitations and converge in their understanding of what was true and right. Indeed, according to the progressives the Constitution's obsolete and cumbersome institutional design was a primary hindrance to democratic reforms to which all reasonable people could agree and which upright and impartial administrators would implement. It is a short step from the original progressives' belief that developments in morals and science had obviated reasonable disagreements about law and public policy and dissolved concerns about the impartiality of administrators to the new progressives' belief that in domestic affairs disagreement is indefensible and intolerable.
The educated elite of progressivism earnestly believe they have the only logical and reasonable approaches to government. If you disagree with the great minds of progressivism, it is merely evidence of your ignorance and lack of critical thinking skills. This bias helps explain they drift leftward in universities over the last century: you can't be "intelligent" and not be a progressive.

Once you recognize the need for an elite corps of managers, you understand that "democracy" is much too messy for actual democratic votes and legislatures. No, the "social democrats" don't care about popular opinion, which is too often ignorant and misinformed. The "social democrats" have confused equal results with equal opportunity, but they are certain of their mission to rearrange our political system around results.
One of the virtues of the old progressivism was its clarity. Indeed, New Republic founder Herbert Croly could hardly have been more forthright. In 1914, in The Promise of American Life, a major statement of the progressive creed, Croly declared his faith that democracy was properly realized on the national level:
"The American democracy can, consequently, safely trust its genuine interests to the keeping of those who represent the national interest. It both can do so, and it must do so. Only by faith in an efficient national organization, and by an exclusive and aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good."
Somehow, the notion that I can safely trust anyone to represent my interests is hard to believe. The progressives, at least since Wilson, have maintained that a managerial class knows what is best for Americans, even when we don't know what's best for us. That's how we ended up with a regulatory bureaucracy that seems to grow by feeding on itself.

The Founders would have been appalled by the notion of a permanent managerial class running the nation. There is a reason we have a House and Senate. These bodies are supposed to represent us and make the laws, based on popular impulse (the House) balanced by cautious reason (the Senate). Though the Senate was not directly elected, its membership was appointed by state governors to ensure elected officials were, in the end, held accountable for the direction of this nation. You can't easily hold a civil servant accountable for regulations, even if we toss every House member in an election.
Although he recognized that expanding its size had a cost, Croly nevertheless believed that the federal government in America was obliged to arrogate to itself greater powers. The necessity stemmed from serious flaws in American democracy and in the American people:
"To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy. The national advance will always be impeded by these misleading and erroneous ideas, and, what is more, it always should be impeded by them, because at bottom ideas of this kind are merely an expression of the fact that the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat. An American national democracy must always prove its right to a further advance, not only by the development of a policy and method adequate for the particular occasion, but by its ability to overcome the inevitable opposition of selfish interests and erroneous ideas."
Yes, the progressive movement was founded on the notion that it is "democracy" that is flawed, not progressive ideals. If democracy must be tossed aside to create Utopia, so be it. Then, since the results will be so much better, more equalized, we can call this new-and-improved national system "social democracy." See, the word "democracy" can be changed!
The key is the claim that the policies that theoretical reason demonstrates are fair and just are democratic in a higher sense than the policies that the people have voted for, or want to adopt in the here and now, or may wish to enact in the future. Not content to conclude that the mismatch between the public policies they deduce from theory and the people's expressed political preferences reflects badly on the people, deliberative democrats go farther by decreeing majority preferences contrary to democracy, or at least the imperatives of democratic theory. It's not merely that deliberative democrats believe that their theories give expression to something better and loftier than what the majority of the electorate chooses. It's that the choices people would make - were it not for their poor education, combined with passions and prejudices corrupted by the imperfections of social life and the inequities of the market economy - are what deserve the designation democratic.
I have to agree with Berkowitz, having been in and around academia for much of my adult life. The educated class does believe that "democracy" is all about "social justice" and "outcomes" instead of having equal opportunities to rise or fall based on one's personal efforts and abilities. Life is unfair, but that is unacceptable to the progressives.

That is one of the problems I have with unions: no matter how hard I work, my pay is based on years of experience or educational achievement, not my actual productivity. Everyone gets equal results, regardless. This is somehow more "fair" because it supposedly prevents management from having favorites. That might be true in concept, but the reality is that you then work to please the union instead of management. If we are all going to receive equal results, why should I work harder? Why should I try harder?

And yet, the academic elites of progressivism surely don't hold themselves to this model. No, they are special and deserve special treatment in return for running the nation. You cannot look at the benefits of government employees and not wonder if they believe some are more equal than others.

The views of the public do no matter. The educated progressives know what is best for us. They are logical, reasonable, and schooled in all matters of "social justice" and modern political theory. After all, they give each other awards for their brilliance and scholarship. How can we question the wisdom of our educated elites? They must have overcome the human nature that infects the rest of us.
The professors' conceit was to suppose that their own education was adequate and that their theory yielded rational truths unsullied by rationalizations of their own passions and prejudices. Pleased with their analytic competence and persuaded of the purity of their moral intentions, deliberative democrats rarely considered the illiberal and antidemocratic implications of their approach to politics. But systematically disdaining the expressed preferences of majorities of your fellow citizens is disrespectful. Implicitly appointing yourself guardian of the fair and the just - who else besides professors can understand and apply the complicated theories that professors develop to determine just public policy? - promotes arrogance. And equating this self-aggrandizing arrogation of power with greater democracy encourages self-deception while making deception of the people integral to progressive politics.
Of course, these tolerant progressives are tolerant as long as you agree with them. They surround themselves with likeminded colleagues, all within the upper-class. Of course, they will seldom admit to being the rich, much less being elitists. 

I suggest reading the entire essay. Within it, I found the views of most of my colleagues expressed. These are the people who ridicule the working class, while claiming to care about the average American. These are the condescending elites who mock entire regions of the country. These are the progressives, the people who know how to run a nation… into the ground.
Note: Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow and co-chair of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com.


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