Saturday, September 8, 2012

Conor Williams on Progressivism

This is so good I'll have to just quote him at length. The motivation is Paul Ryan and Glenn Beck repeating the standard line on the progressive movement that you hear from pretty much everyone right of center (conservative, libertarian, populist, you name it) these days.

"This progressives-as-un-American-transformers narrative is almost completely nonsense. The original progressives were almost entirely concerned with rehabilitating the American Founders’ ideals in a new political and economic era. For example, Woodrow Wilson revered Alexander Hamilton for his “deep and passionate love of liberty, and that steadfast purpose in the maintenance of it.” He argued that no one but Hamilton “could have done the great work of organization by which he established the national credit, and with the national credit the national government itself.” Wilson is hardly alone. Progressive intellectual John Dewey recognized and celebrated the permanently Jeffersonian core of the American political tradition. For Jefferson, Dewey wrote, “it was the ends of democracy, the rights of man—not of men in the plural—which are unchangeable.”

Dewey’s progressivism consisted in the next sentence: “It was not the forms and mechanisms through which inherent moral claims are realized that are to persist without change.” And that, by the way, is the small kernel of truth at the core of Ryan’s and Will’s attacks on progressivism old and new. Most progressives believed in the profound importance of the Founding’s ideals, but they realized that some of the Constitution’s rules were being used to perjure those very ideals. The ends of democracy are the key. Always have been. The specific means—can we elect our senators? Can presidents run for office interminably?—are considerably less important. Of course, that’s what most Americans (especially women and non-white citizens) believe, if you ask them about the details. 

(Dewey and Wilson are hardly the only examples of early progressives who loved the American tradition. Other than Charles Beard and a few other minor figures, almost everyone was on board with the line of argument that I’ve just sketched. Even Herbert Croly, in a strange way.)

Conservatives (then and now) will have none of this. They see progressivism as an attempt to transform and abandon the Founding’s principles (or a project aimed at “detaching people from the Constitution,” etc). For these folks, real Americans venerate the original Constitution in every aspect. They believe that America means limited government along precisely the original lines. Just don’t ask them anything about women’s suffrage or the direct election of senators or the “Three-Fifths Clause,” etc (usually)."


  1. Yes, the Progressives didn't think the Constitution should limit the means by which the federal government could do things to Americans. Most of the Founders would have disagreed strongly. Hence, the Progressives had a different vision from the Founders. QED

  2. It seems a little disingenuous to lump the direct election of senators in with women's suffrage and the Three-Fifths clause. There's a reasonable argument that the state legislature appointment of senators is a useful part of our system of checks-and-balances, the same way the presidential appointment of Supreme Court judges is. Lumping that argument (the one he links to) with the oppression of women and slaves (which lazy readers might think he's linking to) is completely irresponsible rhetorically. We're not going to get any closer to reasonable discussion with things like this.

  3. I learnt this from Paul Krugman:

    What you are looking at is DW-Nomnate, a system that crunches a massive amount of data (literally, every roll-call vote including procedural ones) in order to determine the ideological position of every Senator and Congressional Rep in American history. Besides Krug, you can find Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias endorsing it.

    As you can see from the chart above, segregationists (Southern Democrats) were to the LEFT of Republicans/Conservatives.

    I don't know if Conner is being disingenuous (I suspect not) but he certainly is being ahistorical. Civil Rights for Af-am's is one of the few major issues in American history (bimetallism and the Civil War being the other two) that did not align to the left-right paradigm.

    You don't need DW-Nominate to grasp this insight. A bio of Woodrow Wilson should suffice.

  4. There's a little teeny tiny ittsie bittsie problem with this veneration of the Constitution -- about a third of the way thru Madison's NOTES OF DEBATES there's a brief discussion where one of the convention members spoke out against being too precise in the final document, on the grounds that in 40-60 years the Constitution would be outdated and superceded by some otheer agreement. And virtually all the convention members agreed.

    IOW, the Founding Fathers themselves failed to hold the Constitution in the reverence with which modern conservatives insist. They were .... liberal.

    (What changed things? My take on things: the Constitution did indeed last about 40-60 years, bringing us to the 1830's, 1840's, and 1850's, when it began to break down over slavery and perhaps various regional issues. But enough people were committed to the status quo that a new convention to produce a new constitution wasn't a viable idea. And then the Civil War came on, and the Constitution got amended and interpretation of the Constitution got shifted some, and this revised Constitution forced down upon the defeated South as something which could never be changed .... and conservative veneration for the document was set in stone. But I add, I am not a historian, so Your Mileage Is Free to Vary)


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