Exclusive Excerpt: The Liberal Century

A century has not diminished the hold of progressive ideas on the American mind. In the years before World War I, known as the Progressive Era, philosophers, academics and intellectuals like John Dewey, William James, Charles Beard, Walter Lippman, and Herbert Croly set out to transform America’s self understanding. They sapped and shattered—and then rebuilt—America’s original foundation, the work of our Founding Fathers. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are ever more firmly in the grip of their powerful ideas, still standing on the new foundation they built.

The 20th century, in terms of the American political tradition, was rhythmic, calling to mind the cyclical interpretation set forth by Arthur M. Schlesinger and later carried forward by his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The first 20 years of the 20th century—the decades of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—constituted the first of three progressive waves that would dominate American politics for 100 years. They were followed by the 1920s, a decade of conservatism under Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Then came the second wave of progressivism, 20 years of the New Deal and the Fair Deal, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with Harry Truman. They were followed by the 1950s, another decade of conservatism under President Eisenhower. A third 20-year wave of progressivism began with John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier, continued through the Great Society with Lyndon Johnson, and finally petered out with Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan was the leading political figure of the 1980s, but Reagan, like Coolidge and Eisenhower before him, lived to see the Democratic Party back in the White House.

There is an obvious logic to the progressive dynamic. So long as there is no realistic prospect of dismantling the administrative state whose foundations were laid by Wilson and built upon by the New Deal and the Great Society, the movement of history must be in a progressive direction. Every major conservative political victory becomes a victory for the status quo; every major liberal victory becomes another step forward. Progressives are always just one electoral victory away from resuming the forward march of history.

A powerful reason for the current state of affairs is that, at the deepest level, progressivism long ago won the battle of ideas with conservatism. Certainly this was part of FDR’s grander purpose in 1936. That election overwhelmingly ratified the New Deal. His objective was not just to win an immediate political victory but to interpret that victory for succeeding generations.

The mandate of 1936 remains intact; it has not been overturned by a later critical election. Reagan’s counterattack against the New Deal, always fiercer in rhetoric than in its actions, never came close to undoing what Roosevelt set out to do—namely, to enlarge public power, partly as a corrective to private social and economic inequities, partly as means of accomplishing great public purposes.

Reagan rode into Washington on a white horse, promising to decapitate government spending, slash taxes, and slay the great dragon bureaucracies. He did not fulfill those promises. The federal tax bite in 1999 was at its highest peacetime level in history: 20.7% of GDP. Taxation by government at all levels—two decades after Reagan’s first inauguration—was 35.7 cents for every dollar taxpayers earned, a record high. This is not to say that Reagan accomplished nothing of his agenda; it is to say he failed to break the hegemony of the New Deal. From our vantage point more than 20 years after Reagan took office, it is evident that the man who would overthrow the New Deal rode into Washington as St. George and rode out as Don Quixote.

Still, is there not a body of academic scholarship in place that has refuted progressive thought and that will, over time, have an increasingly large political effect?

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Certainly the most successful area of conservative scholarship has been in economics. A generation of free-market economists has added immensely to our understanding of how markets work, and has undermined much of the Keynesian rationale for the fiscal and monetary policies of the New Deal and its successors. But economics is an instrumental discipline; its sphere is the study of means, not of ends. Progressivism was—and is—at its deepest level a teaching about human and political ends. The successes of free-market economics, to the extent that they are broadly convincing, can be assimilated, sometimes easily, into the pragmatic framework of American progressivism or liberalism.

It became clear during the 1970s, for example, that various government regulations were, in fact, harmful to the people they were supposed to check. President Carter and other liberals had no trouble supporting deregulation in certain areas. And if a steady monetary policy, like the one conducted from 1987 to 1997 by a free-market disciple of Ayn Rand, can be shown to produce sound results, it was no violation of his liberalism for president Clinton to embrace it, as he did.

Free-market economists have not overthrown progressivism, finally, because conservatives do not all agree that prosperity is the key issue. Prosperity for what? It is precisely this question that divides the right and gives it the appearance of being nothing more that an alliance of convenience.

Consider those irascible yokefellows, the libertarians and the Christian Right. Many libertarians (not all) are Atheists and atheists, i.e., they deny the authority of both revelation and of reason in telling people how they should live. On this view, it supposedly follows that (a) human beings should be “free to choose” their own ends and lifestyles, and (b) that the government is best that gives its citizens the widest latitude to make such choices; in other words, that government is best that governs least (or, in some extreme versions of libertarianism, not at all).

A softer version of this libertarian argument (but leading to the same practical conclusion) is Agnosticism and agnosticism. This is not the flat denial of the authority of God or reason, but the more subtle claim that we simply don’t know. As a practical matter, agnosticism collapses into atheism. If there is no objective right or wrong, then who is to tell someone else how to live his life? Everyone should have the absolute right to do as he pleases, so long as he accords everyone else the same right. Thus across a wide expanse of the libertarian Right, the absolute right that we have in our persons and property is regarded as a deduction from the relativism of all values. Obviously, it would not take a rocket scientist to drive a truck through this argument. It would take a truck driver.

For the Christian Right, the question of how to live is not open but closed. For this reason, liberals and libertarians both fear that the victory of the Christian Right would usher in something like the reign of Ayatollah Khomeni. And indeed, to the extent that they could identify themselves as the Christian Right, do not religious conservatives point to the Bible as the source of their moral beliefs. Does this mean that their political agenda comes directly from biblical revelation? If so, how authoritative can it be for citizens in a constitutional democracy one of whose glories is the separation of church and state? How can the concern for morality or virtue be reconciled with freedom?

Into the motley camp of economic conservatives, libertarians, and religious conservatives come the traditionalists, or “original intent” conservatives. Their view is that on the fundamental issues of today we ought to be guided by the will of the American people—the American people, that is, who lived 200 years ago—as codified in the U.S. Constitution, until such time as the people themselves dictate a change in policy through the proper constitutional channels. But why should we be bound what some people—people ignorant of our own circumstances—thought two centuries ago? An argument is needed to connect the two.

In traditional societies, the old is identified with the good because the ancestral is divine: the ancestors, or the ancestors of ancestors, were gods. One might place that in a modern context as follows: for Americans our “ancestral” faith is the creed expressed in the Declaration of Independence, whose principles are said to be derived from “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The constitutional authority of the people, whether those living 200 years ago or those living today, is derived from, and limited by, something higher than the mere will of the people. Apparently, however, our “original intent,” conservatives would sooner have their tongues cut out than mention the “n”-word—nature—in the same breath with the Constitution.

Thus, their constitutionalism degenerates into conventionalism, and they find themselves in the awkward position of defending the old merely because it is old, which is no more plausible than defending the new merely because it is new.

We begin to see how the perplexities of conservative thought contribute to the progressive hold on the American mind and why progressivism cannot be dislodged by mere policy studies, however many and however persuasive. Ronald Reagan understood this and unified the right through a patriotic rhetoric that harkened back to the Founders and to the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Reagan’s purpose was to accommodate moral, economic, and national security concerns within a single framework. The question, however, is this: is it possible to regard such rhetoric as anything more serious than mere rhetoric? Or is it not just a pretty papering over of fundamental difficulties, akin to hiding the fatal structural defects in a house by putting up colonial wallpaper? Reagan’s rhetoric is exposed to one massive problem: most serious thinkers today, including many (if not most) on the right, no longer accept that idea of Nature articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The whole weight of modern science and philosophy has been brought up against the idea of Nature as the universal ground of political obligation, valid for all human beings everywhere and always. Thus, it would appear to be profoundly reactionary to attempt to return in any serious way to the 18th century thought of the Founding Fathers.