American progressives from Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey to Barack Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have long expressed dissatisfaction with what they see as the constraints of an outmoded 18th-century Constitution. For more than a hundred years, progressives have sought to “transform” America, to make the political, economic, cultural, and legal foundation of our constitutional republic (our “regime,” in the Aristotelian-Tocquevillian sense) more statist, more centralized, more regulatory, more “European,” more secular, and less capitalist, less entrepreneurial, less “provincial,” less religious, less “exceptional.”
In the past, progressives lauded the American “common man” and presented their agenda within the framework of the American story. Progressive politicians were dissatisfied with the American Constitution because, in their view, it limited popular sovereignty and thus the will of the American people. They called for more direct democracy, with popular referendums and recalls. Meanwhile, historians of the Progressives put forward populist patriotic narratives. States’-rights and limited-government advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were magically transformed by such academics as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. into proto–New Dealers and proto-Progressives battling “aristocratic” moneyed interests.