Written by Collin Lehmann.
Although political scientists have long understood the significance of the Progressive Era in American politics, the public’s memory is short, and most Americans remain blissfully unaware of the ramifications of the political movement that came to prominence at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The advent of progressivism in America marked a radical shift in the fundamental politics of American government, rejecting much of what the Founders intended when they drafted the Constitution. Writing in Federalist 51, James Madison stressed the fallibility of men and the need for strict constraints on the power of government:
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
America’s Founders, recently disillusioned by the chaotic governance of the Articles of the Confederation, adhered to what economist Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision” of human nature; they believed that despite vast advances in politics and science, human beings were fundamentally the same throughout history in both virtue and vice. Therefore, the Founders sought to engineer a government that would use this unchanging nature to protect against both majority and minority tyranny.
The combination of popularly elected legislators and a system of checks and balances was intended to facilitate government according to popular will while dividing governing power so no one person or body would have final authority. The political vision that birthed the Constitution was transcendent, claiming to embody principles that would hold true in all times and places.
Progressivism stood in sharp contrast to the Founders’ belief in transcendent principles. Influenced by so-called historicists, such as German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, the early American progressives rejected the idea of universal political principles; instead, they argued that the one true constant in history was change. Every age was different from the one before, and each had its own set of political principles. Human nature was not static, as the Founders believed, but dynamic and improved with the progress of history. Therefore, progressivism held that political science and human nature advanced hand-in-hand, requiring new forms of government over time.
Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, campaigned on a platform he called The New Freedom, which explicitly laid out this evolutionary perspective and called for a reinterpretation of the Constitution in line with the needs of his day:
“We are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago… The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.”
For progressivism, human nature was not constrained, so the checks and balances of the Constitution were no longer necessary; the men of the twentieth century were believed to be wise enough to govern without such restrictions, which served only to limit their power to apply modern science and political theory to solving social problems.
Wilson saw that expanding the power of government in this way created an expertise problem: Elected officials cannot have the knowledge necessary to govern every facet of life as the progressives proposed. Accordingly, in the essay, The Study of Administration, Wilson proposed to solve the problem. His suggestion was to replace the Founders’ system of three co-equal branches of government with a binary division between political government (which received and communicated the will of the people through congress) and administrative government (which filled in the guidelines from the political state with specific policies and regulations drafted by executive agencies).
Although much of the historicist ideology of progressivism has fallen out of fashion, its impact on American politics cannot be overstated. Today, the vast majority of practical legislation is worked out in the administrative agencies. The checks and balances of the Constitution no longer play into the creation of laws, as congress abdicates its critical role to executive and judicial bodies. Indeed, to the extent that political debate no longer takes seriously the question of what is specifically authorized in the Constitution and instead questions only the technical feasibility of a policy, progressivism has unseated the Founders’ vision as America’s fundamental political philosophy.
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