Magazine | September 10, 2012, Issue

Progressivism’s Worst Nightmare

Paul Ryan can make the case against it as no one else can

Does it seem like the Left’s reaction to recent GOP running mates has gone far beyond the norms of election-season partisanship? There’s a reason for this: Both Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin represent mortal threats to the core of modern liberalism in a way that Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle (and their respective chiefs) never did, and therefore they have to be crushed by any means necessary. The reason for the vitriolic reaction to Sarah Palin four years ago was simple: She threatened to shatter a pillar of the Left’s identity politics by contesting its monopoly on “women’s issues.” Ryan represents a triple threat. Most obviously, his fiscal plans threaten the Left’s entitlement mentality, and his personality and charisma may hive off the youth vote. But the deepest fear is that Ryan will challenge directly the core philosophy of today’s so-called progressivism.

Liberals say they are delighted with the Ryan pick because they can now run the “Mediscare” campaign, but they are not being entirely honest. Beyond the fiscal debate, Ryan can expose progressivism’s unreflective rejection of the principles of the American Founding.

The old progressives were an oddly mixed bag; the movement’s roots could be seen in both parties at the time. On the one hand, people such as Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey explicitly rejected the natural-rights philosophy of the American Founding in favor of an admixture of Hegelian and Darwinian “pragmatism,” according to which “progress” is essentially the growth of the state. Many progressives thought our Constitution was obsolete, though they were able to fix that problem by bringing it to life. These beliefs remain the philosophical core of modern liberalism, though very few liberals, now that Richard Rorty is dead, can puzzle out the deep presuppositions of it anymore. Instead, today’s progressives hold a lazy presumption that progress entails politicizing every problem without end. This is the aspect of progressivism that Ryan most directly challenges.

The old progressives differ sharply from today’s progressives in some important ways. Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party, at least, saw themselves as a bulwark against socialism and redistributionism, while today’s progressives are stealth socialists and resentful egalitarians. Moreover, many of the old progressives were overtly religious. The 1912 conventioneers sang and swayed to Christian hymns including “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and TR’s famous oration at the convention began with the ringing statement that “we stand at Armageddon” ready to “battle for the Lord.” That kind of language at a Democratic-party convention today would get you arrested. The old progressives were also pro-family in ways completely alien to liberalism today. “The purpose of this republic is to produce manhood and womanhood,” said the Republican progressive Albert J. Beveridge. Today, that’s Bill Bennett talk. Many progressives were even quite comfortable with American imperialism, while the assertion of American principles abroad today is anathema to multicultural liberals.

There is an important connection between Progressive Era historicist philosophy and today’s liberalism, however, that Paul Ryan understands and speaks about instinctively: Both make individual rights a matter of assertion and positive state provision, sweeping away all limits on government power in the process. The Nation’s John Nichols is horrified by what Ryan told Glenn Beck a while ago:


What I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of progressivism, because I see progressivism as the source, the intellectual source, for the big-government problems that are plaguing us today. And so to me it’s really important to flush progressives out into the field of open debate. . . . I grew up hearing about this stuff. . . . It never sat right with me. And as I grew up, I learned more about the Founders and [learned from] reading the Austrians and others that this is really a cancer, because it basically takes the notion that our rights come from God and nature and turns it on its head and says, “No, no, no, no, no, they come from government, and we here in government are here to give you your rights and therefore ration, redistribute, and regulate your rights.” It’s a complete affront of the whole idea of this country.

Another crucial aspect of modern progressivism that is in complete harmony with the older kind is front and center in Ryan’s attacks on Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board: belief in the need for politically unaccountable expert administrators to regulate society in ever more exacting detail. Here’s how Ryan put it to the Conservative Political Action Conference last year:

There are those who say modern society is too complicated for the average man or woman to deal with. This is a long-standing argument, but we heard it more frequently after the mortgage credit collapse and financial meltdown in 2008. They say we need more experts and technocrats making more of our economic decisions for us. And they argue for less “political interference” with the enlightened bureaucrats . . . by which they mean less objection by the people to the overregulation of society. . . . But there’s a major flaw in this “progressive” argument, and it’s this: It assumes there must be someone or some few who do have all the knowledge and information.

Ryan has made this argument more effectively than anyone since Ronald Reagan, who spoke against centralized “intellectual elites” from the earliest days of his political career and said in his first inaugural address, “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Both Reagan and Ryan are channeling the founder of the Democratic party, Thomas Jefferson, who said in his first inaugural address, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

It stings today’s liberals to point out how far their liberalism has betrayed Jefferson’s liberalism, and such reminding is most effective when done by an appealing, optimistic figure. A generation ago, that was Reagan, and it will be Paul Ryan today. Ryan actually may be better equipped than Reagan to advance the argument — and, at age 42, come what may in November, he’ll be around a long time to carry the banner of restoring the Founders’ government.

Mr. Hayward is the Thomas Smith Distinguished Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and blogs daily at Power Line.

Steven F. Hayward — Stephen F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a two-volume political history, The Age of Reagan.

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