Ronald Pestritto has a wonderful new book, America Transformed, with a comprehensive look at the roots of progressivism and its legacy. A central part of his thesis is the progressive rejection of the constitutional principles embedded by the framers.
For Wilson, the structure of the Constitution itself made it nearly impossible for progressively inclined interpreters to adapt it to their agenda. The Constitution rested, at bottom, on a system of divided powers, both between federal and state levels of government and within the national government itself. While the progressive force of history had brought about an essential unity of popular will (at least in the minds of Wilson and other progressives), the Constitution divided power in such a way as to make expression of that unified will a near impossibility. It was for this reason that Wilson detested the separation of powers, and that almost everything he wrote on the American system of government contained a sharp critique of it. The ideal model for Wilson was the parliamentary one, where the legislative and executive are essentially united, both rising or falling on the evolving popular will (indeed, many of Wilson’s early writings advocated converting various facets of the American system to the parliamentary model). The separation of powers, Wilson explained, had come out of the founders’ obsessive fear of majority tyranny, and thus the system was outdated for the present age, where the people were no longer a danger to themselves. As Goodnow later complained, “it was the fear of political tyranny through which liberty might be lost which led to the adoption of the theories of checks and balances and of the separation of powers.”38 The problem was outlined by Wilson on the campaign trail in 1912:
The makers of our Federal Constitution read Montesquieu with true scientific enthusiasm. They were scientists in their way,—the best way of their age,—those fathers of the nation…. They constructed a government as they would have constructed an orrery,—to display the laws of nature. Politics in their thought was a variety of mechanics. The Constitution was founded on the law of gravitation. The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of “checks and balances.”
The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.39
Pestritto, Ronald J.. America Transformed (pp. 32-33). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
The is the likely origin of the concept of a ‘living’ constitution used to combat originalism. Is the organic view preferable to a mechanical view?
The mechanical view is the constitution as a means to an end; a vehicle to address the people’s differences. Designed by humans, it reflects their nature but does not embody it. It is a boat designed to transport passengers from point A to point B as safely, comfortably and affordably as possible. It is subject to improvements: better and more fuel efficient engines, radar to avoid collisions and storms, and air conditioning to make passengers more comfortable. These improvements came as a result of understanding the mechanical nature of the vehicle.
The problem with the organic metaphor is the element of control. There is no moral issue concerning the control of a mechanical object; there is a great moral factor in controlling the affairs of a living being. Darwinism described an evolution, but its adoption as a political model is deeply flawed. Progressives believed that this process could be controlled and it was used to justify the ‘science’ of eugenics.
We can visualize the winners of the Darwinian process but we can not see the species that were made extinct.
A mechanical view is not an obstruction to progress. An organic view is less flexible in its design than we need and it depends on an expertise and competency that is illusory. The irony here is that a mechanical view is much easier to change and improve than human nature or biology; evolution happens over generations, not election cycles. Those regimes that sought to improve and and perfect human nature have been the most oppressive.