Constitution 201: Post 1960’s Progressivism
By Stephen Zierak
This lesson is taught by Dr. John Grant, Assistant Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. Dr. Grant teaches courses in early modern political philosophy and American political thought. He received his BA from Eureka College, and his MA and PhD in Politics from the University of Dallas. Dr. Grant’s research interests include natural law tradition, American foreign policy, and the relationship between theology and politics. He is an Adjunct Fellow at the Claremont Institute.
The Great Society of the mid-1960’s was the culmination of the Old Progressive vision. President Johnson was within that tradition. Guided by our government experts, and with no help from “nature’s God,” we would fulfill all human aspirations, material and spiritual. We would address our racial issues through special attention to the historical conditions that made fair competition impossible for blacks as a group. Government experts would redistribute resources into newly empowered black communities to lift up the disadvantaged people and strengthen the black family. We would protect and improve our environment to meet our human spiritual needs. We would end poverty and rebuild our civilization, accomplishing ends never even believed possible by those who came before us. All this brought to us by government administrators who knew how to work the levers of reform for the benefit of the people.
That boundless faith in the science of government to meet any and all human needs was about to be replaced by a New Progressivism, a modern “liberalism,” that brought new ideas to the Progressive project. There are continuities and discontinuities in the ideas of the old and new Progressives, and it is worthwhile to trace the intellectual paths followed by the New Progressives.
We can recall that John Dewey created a new idea of what “freedom” really means. He considered the Founders’ idea of freedom, as freedom from the domination of others, mere negative freedom. To Dewey, the more important kind of freedom was positive freedom, government’s role of removing barriers to the enjoyment of life, creating freedom from fear and from want. FDR’s Second Bill of Rights was an example of this “positive” freedom, as was LBJ’s Great Society. There were two important aspects to this positive freedom. First, resources would have to be shifted from the “haves” to the “have nots” via wealth redistribution. Second, it was important that government experts work on the mental processes of the people so all could experience personal “growth.” The Old Progressives believed their ideas to be scientific and true, the only genuine way to understand freedom.
The New Progressives adopted much of this program. They certainly continue wealth redistribution as government policy, and happily accept the increasing powers of the administrative state. And yet, they are of two minds when it comes to the idea of “truth.” Sometimes they consider the policies of Progressive government to be objectively correct. But an increasing number of New Progressives embrace the post-modern teaching that all views are equally true and equally false. This leads them to conclusions far different than those of the Old Progressives. Post-modernism leads to doubts of any objective truth, doubts of the goodness of the American way of life—or even of human life in general. Multi-culturalism has emerged from all this, and has resulted in acceptance of the moral superiority of “more genuine” non-Western cultures and American minority cultures. We may remember that the Old Progressives believed the “Teutonic” peoples to be superior to other less advanced cultures, and that this justified the practice of moral uplift through foreign policy imperialism (ruling the Filipinos without their consent), and in some cases the practice of segregation (for the purpose of focused separate development of the inferior black minority). This contrasts with the universalism of the Founding that considered all people endowed with unalienable natural rights. The New Progressives rejected both traditions.
Old Progressives wanted to protect the environment for the future use of man, while New Progressives want to protect the environment from any use by man. The new biocentric environmentalism prefers the non-human to the human. The Endangered Species Act, for example, operates with no concern about economic effects—that is, the impact of its regulations on human prosperity. Old Progressives irrigated the California valleys for agricultural progress and food production. New Progressives have turned off irrigation to protect the Delta Smelt, with no concern over the economic harm, and with little proof the policy would even accomplish its single-minded objective.
The natural man-woman-children family was considered the only way to structure healthy family life by both the Founders and Old Progressives. The Founders believed strong families arose from the natural law and were an essential building block to a virtuous and productive society. They expected states to pass laws to support the family structure. The Old Progressives believed similarly that social science required government support of the natural family. Part of this “support” included the need for trained experts in “home economics” to assist families in the scientific practice of family life. From both traditions we had laws that made divorce difficult, usually requiring serious grounds like adultery, and placing children in the custody of the father to further discourage frivolous divorce. Both traditions stressed sexual activity within the family structure. Both traditions understood the centrality of the natural family to the strength of the society. Churches and schools supported this traditional morality.
New Progressives adopted sexual liberation as a main value. They have been indifferent to the natural family as merely one option of how to live, and, in many cases, with a sneering belief that it is not all that good an option. Sexual liberation contradicts both the natural law of the Founders and the scientific ethical ideal of the Progressives. Rather than supporting the natural family, the government of the New Progressive does its best to undermine it. Welfare goes to unmarried women, reducing motivation to marry, replacing fathers with government. No fault divorce has exploded the divorce rate, with actions brought overwhelmingly by women who are more likely to benefit from it. “Self expression” of the New Progressives trumps “self control” of natural law. 57% of college students are now women, and Title 9 (that wrought so much damage to men’s smaller sports in college) is now beginning to be applied to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) studies in academia. Hiring preferences for women exist throughout government. There has been no similar concerns about the status of men. Exploding out of wedlock births (over 40% of all births now) demonstrate the destruction of the natural family. Now gay marriage is the new cause, an attempt to place such relationships on the same plane as the natural family. Social health requires children, and children require a father and mother in the same household. Gay marriage can lead to no procreation, and anti-family policy ensures an underclass of angry, neglected children.
Justice Douglas had embraced sexual liberation as a form of self-expression that frees us from rigid traditional morality of self-control. Hence first amendment protection of nude dancing. In Lawrence v Texas, the 2003 Court decision that found state sodomy laws unconstitutional, Justice Kennedy had this to say: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” A libertarian might well find criminalizing such conduct as unwise and unjust, but unconstitutional in a document that celebrates natural law? And we have gone far beyond decriminalization to government celebration of gay alternative life styles.
Even in our foreign policy. Secretary Clinton considers gay marriage and other aspects of sexual liberation a priority in our foreign policy: “The Obama Administration defends the human rights of LGBT people as part of our comprehensive human rights policy….The President has directed all U.S. Government agencies engaged overseas to combat the criminalization of LGBT status and conduct.” The Founders believed that American foreign policy should be about the protection of unalienable rights of Americans. The Old Progressives that it should be about spreading Progressive ideas of freedom and the uplift of less advanced peoples. The New Progressives that its should be about spreading sexual liberation throughout the world.
The new ruling class of the New Progressives denies the idea of equal protection of the laws as applied to individuals and privileges group rights. In picking winners and losers by favoring some groups over others, we have reached a level of corruption and crony capitalism never before experienced in our Republic. The moral superiority of minorities and women lies in their status as victims of a white male dominated culture. Resources are to be redistributed without any attempt at uplift or moral improvement, even where the government is financing clearly anti-social behaviors. Welfare and disability benefits are provided on a “no strings” basis. President Obama’s recent decision to permit the weakening of work requirements in the welfare system is an outcome of this New Progressive view. The Founders and Old Progressives disagreed about government redistribution of wealth, but both agreed that government policy should not promote laziness. The New Progressives have no similar concern. There is a certain amount of self-hatred within New Progressivism, of rejecting the old American ethics. We can see it in President Obama’s disdain for the “bitter clingers to guns and religion,” and in the concern of the military brass that the Fort Hood shooting not lead to the “greater tragedy” of multi-cultural rejection.
The Founders rejected monopoly, which they had experienced as government special treatment of preferred businesses. (Otherwise, they trusted the market.) The Old Progressives rejected private monopoly by economically powerful firms, although they were more than willing to provide special treatment to “progressive” businesses, and favored government protection of “natural” monopolies—at the price of government regulation. The New Progressives are market interventionists to such a degree that a successful business of any large size must ally itself to government. Crony capitalism has become a major disease within our economy as political and economic power increasingly flows to Washington. We are back to the government preferences that annoyed the Founders and caused them to separate government from commerce. The Founders believed businesses should succeed or fail on their own, that people should be free to enter commerce as they wished—with no government preferences or barriers. The absurd lengths we go to in licensing businesses is a special interest interference with commerce that would have been anathema to the Founders. Licensing is merely an expert credentialing process of Old Progressivism that has been increasingly abused in the New Progressive era.
The new ruling class has dominated our public life since the 1960’s, with a short hiatus during the Reagan Administration. It consists of government employees and officials, the mainstream media, most of the academy, the senior military, and the industrial and public sector unions tied to government policies. It is held together by New Progressive ideas, and by a crass respectability, wealth, and power obtained through government access. The ruling class of the Old Progressives was more tied to science and less involved in crony capitalism. The Old Progressives believed their impartial administrators would prevent domination by the rising economic special interests, and that expertise was objectively superior. The New Progressives still claim the mantle of impartial, rational expertise, but this pretension is increasingly undercut by their post-modernism. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between belief in the superiority of technical rationality, and the belief that all ways of life are equally valid. This has led to policy confusion, both domestic and foreign, that would be amusing if not so detrimental to the Republic. On the one hand, our schools demand all sorts of expert credentialing, and practice scientific management processes (empirically based reforms, etc.). On the other hand, the schools preach multi-cultural doctrines which imply that Western science is no more valid than Aztec religious doctrines. On the one hand, President Obama in his Cairo speech goes out of his way to praise Islam and condemn Western imperialism. On the other hand, he also tells Egyptians how they need to change in order to adopt the opinions and practices of Western elites. We support regime change for democracy, and then accept Radical Islam theocracies. In an era of New Progressivism, we no longer have a serious philosophy of government. Instead, we have a set of contradictory attitudes.
Post-modern irony now means that all ideas are equally contingent and that there are no enduring truths. Post-modern anti-fundamentalism means there is no foundation or ground upon which one can base judgments about the truth. New Progressivism is absurd, but it is maintained by a small group of true believers in the media, academy, and government, along with a much larger group of special interests who benefit from their connection to the administrative welfare state. For example, the single woman, cut adrift from the natural family, votes overwhelmingly for the most Progressive candidate. Favored businesses cut deals with, and provide support to, Progressive allies. During the Affordable Care Act debate, President Obama would laud you as a responsible patriot or condemn you as an economic malefactor based on whether you cut a deal in support of the law. Your status as patriot or malefactor could change overnight depending on your continued support for the latest pipe dream of the Obama Administration. When there is no objective reality, your status is continually contingent on government’s latest whim.
The favoritism to some at the expense of others has real consequences to the security of real American rights. We no longer even talk about the protection of individual rights, but instead of the need for government to protect various victim groups. We ignore the violation of the right to life in the everyday violence in our cities, while campaigning against minority discrimination in application of school discipline. We overlook the vital in addressing the trivial. We pass laws like the Violence Against Women Act for special protections of one group rather than concern about violence committed against all of us. We secure the special privileges of cronies rather than the real rights of all of us. Political correctness bars us from identifying the self-destructive behavior within minority communities, behavior not only tolerated but subsidized by government agencies. We watch the essential building block of any society, the natural family, disintegrate—and we wonder how this has come to be.
The New Progressives still pursue rule by expert and administrative decree, the “living Constitution,” and redistribution by government rather than protection of unalienable, individual rights. That is the continuity with their Progressive fathers (and mothers).
But the New Progressives are more cynical and more corrupt. Government intrusions increase as victim groups multiply. Biocentric environmentalism denies reasonable resource use in support of human life. Equal protection of the laws for individuals becomes a dead letter. The attack on the family increases the role of government as the people are infantilized and the pursuit of happiness undermined for millions of our citizens. Businesses succeed or fail based on contacts, not products and services. Our very prosperity is disdained, and is constantly under attack.
It is all quite irrational. There is no underlying intellectual support structure for a government of attitude and whim. It must eventually fail. It will be replaced by either a tough-minded authoritarian tyranny—or by a return to the principles of the Founding. We must prepare the ground for that return.
Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969. After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010. At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here. Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy. Recently, he produced for Grassroot Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution. Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.
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