For years my reading has focused on the development and evolution of the Progressive Era. Woodrow Wilson and Progressive Era thinkers challenged the founding principles of natural and individual rights and how they were used to design a government with limited power, checked and restrained. The founders also checked the absolutism of democracy, curtailing it with staggered terms of the representatives and using the mechanical process to slow changes to enable careful deliberation.
Progressive attitudes toward the constitution varied from dismissing the principles as only contingent on the time period to the historicism of Hegel, Pragmatism of Henry James and others and the social scientific outlook that dismissed the permanence of any principles whatsoever. Some such as William Howard Taft claimed to be progressive yet still retained a reverence for the constitution and were cautious about reforms that stretched interpretations to the point of constitutional heresy. FDR redefined the progressive reforms as a fulfillment of the Constitution; the new realities of urbanization, industrialization and financial mammoths required the application of constitutional restraints on political power to be applied to the new commercial giants who acted like independent sovereigns.
Reform is seductive; best intentions mask risks that are unveiled only in the future. A century after the progressive revolution we still struggle with inequality, poverty, urban decay, and the threat of corporate power. New terms like ‘regulatory capture’ disclose how the regulated have used the regulations for their own advantage. Corporate and special interest influence remains; we just register them now as lobbyists.
While the progressives assumed they possessed the moral authority for greater central control, they also assumed they had the competence. Experience has proven otherwise. Hayek explained the ‘fatal conceit’; assuming knowledge they did not possess and could not possess; markets and prices contain much more information than any single group of administrators can possibly know. This pretext of knowledge launches the government into ambitions that have disappointed the voters.
The progressives also assumed the administrative state would be freed from partisan issues. Today that seems exceptionally naive.
The progressive challenges to the founding principles was largely intellectual and ideological; few challenged them on moral grounds. The current revolution of the woke vigilantes now challenges the entire morality of the founding; this is the danger of the 1619 Project and its reflection in the Black Lives Matter organization. By changing the focus of the founding from one of clarifying and protecting rights to one of advancing and protecting slavery they seek to remove any moral authority of the founding and the Declaration of Independence. It is no wonder that the statue toppling Olympics did not stop with the Confederates; Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were sure to follow.
History is a complex set of paradoxes that defy single schools of analysis. We are all the result of great advances and great blunders, but our progress is not inevitable as the historicists believed. It is the results of errors and corrections and institutions from the family and churches to local communities and social organizations. Deconstructive Jacobin mobs seeks to destroy these pillars with the political version of original sin; obscuring responsibility and accountability with a past that can never be rectified and never be escaped. Combined with the denial of personal agency, this new challenge to the Constitution may be the most threatening one we have faced.