Lesson 9: “The Progressive Rejection of the Founding”
Progressivism is the belief that America needs to move or “progress” beyond the principles of the American Founding. Organized politically more than a hundred years ago, Progressivism insists upon flexibility in political forms unbound by fixed and universal principles. Progressives hold that human nature is malleable and that society is perfectible. Affirming the inexorable, positive march of history, Progressives see the need for unelected experts who would supervise a vast administration of government.
Progressivism is rooted in the philosophy of European thinkers, most notably the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Progressivism takes its name from a faith in “historical progress.” According to the leading lights of Progressivism, including Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Dewey, human nature has evolved beyond the limitations that the Founders identified. Far from fearing man’s capacity for evil, Progressives held that properly enlightened human beings could be entrusted with power and not abuse it.
The Progressive idea of historical progress is tied to the idea of historical contingency, which means that each period of history is guided by different and unique values that change over time. The “self-evident truths” that the Founders upheld in the Declaration of Independence, including natural rights, are no longer applicable. Circumstances, not eternal principles, ultimately dictate justice.
If human nature is improving, and fixed principles do not exist, government must be updated according to the new reality. The Constitution’s arrangement of government, based upon the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, only impeded effective government, according to Progressives. The limited government of the Founding is rejected in favor of a “living Constitution.”