It has been established that progressives disagreed fundamentally with James Madison and most of the other American founders on the basic facts about human nature and its impact on democratic government. In particular, they did not share the founders’ view that the greatest threat to republicanism was majority faction. The founders’ fear of tyranny of the majority was outdated, progressives contended; the real problem of their day was tyranny of the minority. The people, argued Theodore Roosevelt, were calling for their government to take action—to regulate corporations and propertied interests, for example—yet the institutional structure handed down from the founding placed too much distance between the people’s will and those in government who actually make policy.
Pestritto, Ronald J.. America Transformed (p. 244). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
Pestritto’s latest book, America Transformed, is his best and a great compilation of the intellectual roots, contradictions, and the legacy of progressivism.
The first contradiction is the drive to greater democracy while driving more policy making to unelected administrators. Progressive thinkers like Goodwin, Wilson, and Dewey had a faith that bureaucrats would better serve the public interest objectively than elected officials. They replaced the separation of powers with the separation of politics from administration. Their belief that administration would not be subject to political partisanship seems naive today.
The second contradiction is that greater majoritarian democracy and greater central power would be less subject to special interest. As George Will pointed out in The Limits of Majority Rule a larger central government is more subject to the pull of special interests and less likely to serve the general will (to the extent that such a definable will exists). The progressive thinkers in its early days had yet to encounter the term ‘regulatory capture’.
The third contradiction is the belief that the principles of the founding were not permanent, but merely contingent on the time period. Progressives like many of its European influencers doubted the permanence of any principles applying to the human condition. After a century of progressive policies it is time to consider the mere contingency of the principles of the movement to the economic conditions of 1900. While progressive thinkers argued for the legitimacy of progressive power they assumed a competency to such central economic and administrative power that is often unsupported by experience.