The Corner

Progressives & Power

I don’t usually cannibalize the G-File in the Corner (sign-up here), but I thought this might make for a fun conversation for the Corner. Plus, between travel and family issues, I’ve barely been in the Corner this week. So this is from today’s G-File:

Charlie Cooke had a very good column and follow up post this week on progressive disdain for our system of separated powers. What liberals want, according to Charlie, is an “elected king” who can do whatever he wants. I agree with him almost entirely. For instance, he doesn’t say it, but this is exactly what Thomas Friedman wants. It’s what all the pseudo-eggheady-jagoff technocrats always want. The desire to simply impose “optimal policies” heedless of democratic or legal impediments lies behind virtually every technocratic fad of the last couple of centuries. We know what to do, and the problem with democracy is that the rubes won’t let us do it! Stuart Chase, one of the architects of the New Deal (who some say coined the term), openly pleaded for an “economic dictatorship.” After all, he asked, “why should the Russians have all the fun remaking the world?”

But here’s where I disagree a bit with Charlie. The key issue for progressives has never been the form power takes, but power itself. You want my five-second lesson in progressive history? No? Sucks for you, because I’m going to tell you anyway: They always go where the field is open.

That’s it.

When the public was on their side the progressives relied on the public. That’s why we have the direct election of senators. That’s why women got the franchise. Etc. In his early years as an academic Woodrow Wilson wanted Congress to run the country — the way parliament runs England — and relegate the president to a glorified clerk. When the public became unreliable and Congress was no longer a viable vehicle, progressives suddenly fell in love with a Caesarian presidency. Indeed, Wilson himself, the former champion of Congress, became an unapologetic voluptuary of presidential power the moment it suited him — and nary a progressive complained (save poor Randolph Bourne, of course). The progressives rode the presidency like it was a horse they never expected to return to a stable. And when that started to hit the point of diminishing returns, they moved on to the courts (even as they bleated and caterwauled about Nixon’s “abuses” of powers that were created and exploited by Wilson, FDR, and Johnson). After the courts, they relied on the bureaucracy. Like water seeking the shortest path, progressives have always championed the shortest route to social-justice victories.

My point is that I think Charlie is entirely right that progressives want to maximize their power. But the elected king scenario is just one of many they’d be perfectly happy with. If they could have a politburo instead of a unitary executive, they’d probably prefer that. But the point is that the instruments are, uh, instrumental. The core imperative is power. We see this in miniature when liberals don’t control the presidency but do control Congress. Suddenly, it’s vital that the “people’s house” exert its constitutional prerogatives! When the president is a Democrat he needs to rule unimpaired. When he’s a Republican, his dictatorial tendencies must be held in check. When liberals want to reinterpret the Constitution by judicial whim or fiat, it’s proof that the Constitution is living up to its nature as a “living, breathing, document.” When conservatives actually want to amend the Constitution — the only legitimate and constitutional means to change the meaning of the Constitution, I might add – it is a horrible affront to the vision of the Founders!

Once you realize this it helps explain so many of the Left’s hypocrisies and alleged double standards. I say alleged, because they aren’t really double standards. You can only have a double standard when you actually believe something should be a standard. Ultimately, for progressives these procedural debates about how power is used in America are just that: procedural debates. The alleged standards at stake are evanescent and petty –for liberals. The only true standard is whatever advances the progressives’ ball downfield. That is the very heart of “social justice” — doing whatever “good” you can, when you can, however you can. As they say, behind every confessed double standard there is an unconfessed single standard. And for progressives, the single enduring standard is “whatever works for us.”

For the more gonzo stuff, you’ll just have to sign-up (and if you’re a subscriber and didn’t get it, you can get the phrase that pays here).

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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