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Constitution Is Inherently Principled, Not Progressive


In their recent Politico article, “Constitution is inherently progressive,” John Podesta (former chief of staff to President Clinton and current president of the Center for American Progress) and John Halpin argue that the “values” of the Constitution are progressive, not conservative, and that conservatives should stop claiming that progressivism is at odds with the Constitution. “Since our nation’s founding,” the authors claim, “progressives have drawn on the Declaration of Independence’s inspirational values of human liberty and equality in their own search for social justice and freedom.” The progressive “framework” of public-private cooperation, they continue, is “the essence of the constitutional promise of a never-ending search for ‘a more perfect union.'” In short, the progressive “vision” of the Constitution best represents the American tradition. This argument, which is part of recent progressive efforts to rehabilitate their constitutional bona fides, might come as a surprise to the real founders of progressivism, for while some contemporary progressives might preach a Declaration-based faith and try to get right with the Constitution, early progressives had little use for either document.

According to Woodrow Wilson, what he called the “preface” of the Declaration of Independence–the part about “self-evident truths,” “unalienable rights” given to human beings by the Creator, and the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”–was not the “real Declaration of Independence.” If you want to understand that, Wilson said, “do not repeat the preface.” For Wilson, the point of the Declaration–and the Constitution, too–was not the permanence of any principles. “No doubt,” he wrote, “we are meant to have liberty, but each generation must form its own conception of what liberty is.” The Founders, early progressives held, wrote for their own time in our first documents, but not for future generations. For Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, Frank Goodnow and other founding fathers of progressivism, the Constitution of the American Founding was an obstacle to be overcome. Insisting that the Constitution must be interpreted in view of the new but increasingly dominant Darwinian model of constant change, progressives pronounced our Constitution a “living” document. The Constitution, they believed, is as malleable as human nature itself. The Founders’ old ideas about separation of powers could be discarded in favor of new and improved notions of “enlightened administration.”

Podesta and Halpin allege that conservatives “often mask social Darwinism . . . in a cloak of liberty,” but in fact it is progressivism whose roots run deepest in the political ideology of Darwinism. The fittest among us, it turns out, are the bureaucrats, empowered by a Constitution whose original restraints, like federalism and the limitations imposed by enumerated powers, have been stripped by progressives in favor of a more “dynamic” model.

In rendering the Declaration a dead letter, and the Constitution a “living” document, early progressives saw the Founding as something to be surmounted, not celebrated. Citing with approval Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union, in which he proposed a “new economic Bill of Rights,” Podesta and Halpin neglect to mention that in his speech, FDR used the past tense when he referred to the original rights of “life and liberty.” Wishing to add material “security” guaranteed by the federal government to the list of rights all Americans should enjoy, FDR might have revealed something significant in his use of the past tense: when the federal government oversteps its original, limited aims, it will end up undermining the natural rights it was originally charged to protect. Happiness is much more difficult to guarantee than a right to the “pursuit of happiness.” A government responsible for a people’s every material need can more easily end up not being responsible to the people themselves.

Constitutional conservatives reject the New Deal and Great Society as “aberrations from American norms” not because conservatives are for unsafe food, corporate exploitation of children, and the perpetuation of poverty. Rather, conservatives reject the New Deal and Great Society–and their progressive underpinnings–because they are incompatible with the bedrock principle of constitutionally limited government. Contemporary progressives glide over that part of their own history and tradition that disdains the Founders, and in a slick sleight of hand try to convince us today that the real progressive forefathers are Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. However, according to the late 19th and early 20th century intellectual progenitors of progressivism, the core ideas of the American Founding were not just inadequate, but bankrupt. Progressives today cannot both revile those foundational ideas and revere their promise.

The Constitution did not set out on a “never-ending search for ‘a more perfect union'” because its framers knew that perfection would always elude politics. This does not mean that the Founders did not aim high. On the contrary, their “more perfect union” marked a dramatic improvement over the old Articles of Confederation, and over every other previous political regime in history. In establishing a Constitution firmly rooted in the enduring principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Founders gave us a gift whose real staying power is lost when it becomes a “living” document as dictated by progressivism.


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