The Progressive Movement of the 20th Century sought to deconstruct all claims to truth, as well as the customs and traditions of the American Way of life. The Progressives sought to bend American minds to relativism—that there is no such thing as objective truth.
These progressive ideas have caused a great division among the American People. Essentially—but not exclusively—Christians and others who believe in a Creator God (that man is created in God's Image) line up on the side of the Founding Founders and the founding documents of America. On the other side of a deep chasm are those who believe the universe is a random accident, who are Atheists or Agnostics, and who believe people are simply higher evolved animals descended from apes.
Herbert Croly (1869-1930) is not a mainstream name. But he is well known among American Progressives (at least among intellectuals) as the "master thinker" of their movement. In view of that, let us briefly investigate the belief system of Mr. Croly.
Herbert Croly believed that Utopia could be created here on earth, but only through ever more radical means and ends. Croly favored the creation of an administrative state based on social science as a means to his ultimate goal—a new Communist "republic" of America. He wanted to overthrow capitalism, classical liberalism, and the American Constitution—through peaceful means if possible, and through violent means if necessary.
Since science had revolutionized industry and medicine, Herbert Croly believed the social sciences could revolutionize society and politics. He argued that behavioral sciences had made the American political system of the Founding Fathers obsolete. He declared that the claims of the Founding Fathers to have discovered eternal truths about human nature to be naïve and absurd. Croly wrote that the Founding Fathers were merely selfish, rich, powerful men whose stance on private property was only to defend their personal interests.
Herbert Croly espoused the view that social learning should replace individualism, and that individual liberty must be subordinated. Modern psychology would discover the truths about human nature, making perfectly planned communities possible. Croly favored the abolition of natural rights; the abolition of the separation of governmental powers; and the abolition of congressional representation. He admired Vladimir Lenin and despised free political institutions. His dream was to overthrow the political system of America, and replace constitutional officeholders with a bureaucracy of social science experts—free from any legal constraints (to act as they see fit).
Herbert Croly demanded the radical repudiation of the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers. He claimed he was dedicated to social righteousness. The Bill of Rights was a false deity, according to Croly, and he condemned individual rights as nothing more than selfishness. Scientific administrators (governance by experts) must replace partisan politicians to fundamentally transform America, which would then lead to infinite progress and perfection. Popular elections—and traditional religious morality—must be abolished for the realization of Social Justice.
Croly asserted that Americans blindly and ignorantly accepted the Founding Fathers ideas, and that it was the duty of progressives to enlighten them. He advocated violence in the form of "social warfare" and wanted an America that was universally unionized. These unions would then violently take industries and businesses away from the present owners, and place them in hands of their rightful owners: laborers.
To Herbert Croly, Christianity, Capitalism, and Social Conservatism were the enemies of progress. He wrote that Karl Marx was the Columbus of Social Justice. He also believed that the USSR would have been a success if not for the selfish desires of Western Civilization to suppress them. The Soviet republic embodied the true principles of progressive "democracy." Croly endlessly justified their murderous regime—Lenin was a peaceful man, America was a dictatorship of terror. The liquidation of twenty million Russians by Stalin was a necessary use of administrative discipline. Those killed, and those shipped to the Gulag, were obstructing the Soviet vision of Social Justice. Croly wrote that the Russian Kulaks [farmers] deserved to be liquidated. They opposed, or were indifferent to, the progress of the Soviet state. Croly justified mass murder in the name of Social Justice. The Soviets and Chinese combined killed 100 million people in the name of progress, and Croly thought that an acceptable cost for the creation of a new church—the administrative state.
To correct the fatal errors of the American Founding Fathers, Croly wrote that his followers should pursue a line that the United States Constitution is a "living document" that could be slowly and secretly transformed to reflect progressive ideology. The progressives should operate clandestinely to subvert the Constitution while denying their intentions. Croly wrote extensively of how the progressives could present themselves as on the high moral ground—true patriots who would appear to be defending the American Way and the Constitution, while in fact destroying both while gradually recreating society in their own image. Croly wrote that proclaiming oneself to be a patriot and a democrat enabled one to be as radical and authoritarian as one wished.
President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the only president of the United States who was a professional political scientist. He was steeped in German philosophy and state theory—which sharply contrasts with the fundamental principles of American constitutionalism. Wilson was critical of the limited government established by the Founding Fathers, and he objected to their declarations of permanent principles. Wilson echoed Croly with his call for a completely independent class of bureaucratic experts to administer "progress."
Wilson was a Darwinist—he believed that men descended from apes. His political ideas were heavily influenced by Hegel, the forerunner of Marxism. Wilson did not believe that the ideas of the Founding Fathers were good for anything except back in their own period of time. He did not believe that political ideas transcended time, but that all were part of a progression. Therefore, he rejected the notion that America was founded on timeless principles. The American people had an undue attachment to the outdated, mistaken principles of their Founders. Wilson felt individualism selfish, misguided, and revolting.
Woodrow Wilson was unquestionably a racist. He did not believe that different races of people, with diverse habits and instincts, and unequal acquirements in thought and action, could ever be harmoniously united in a democracy. Homogeneity of race, thought, and purpose was a necessary condition for a lasting democracy. Unity of national will was the only way for the nation to survive.
President Wilson believed the state should wield vast powers, without any limits to its authority. The old constitutional order of limited government stood in the way of progress. Wilson urged that the Constitution must not be interpreted as a rigid set of rules. The Founding Fathers had made a mistake in permanently limiting state power.
Wilson sought to circumvent the Constitution by implementing government power through regulations, rather than the cumbersome process of enacting laws. A huge bureaucracy of experts could operate the government scientifically—and free from "values"—through regulations. Wilson urged Congress to cede authority to unelected, professional administrators.
He thought Congress an obstacle to progress and believed what was needed in the future was a charismatic, popular president who could fundamentally transform American political institutions, by overcoming the tedious separation of powers system in favor of an efficient vehicle for the exercise of state power.
President Wilson had the novel notion that state powers extended beyond those granted by the Constitution. As he said, "Administration cannot wait upon legislation." Bureaucracy should be given the power of the state, so as to not have to contend with "the clumsy nuisance of public opinion."
Wilson was quite clear that his political thought was not derived from the American tradition, but from the German tradition (yes, I may as well say it—the same tradition that produced the National Socialism of Adolph Hitler). The Germans believed in unlimited state powers, the American Constitution did not. Still, Wilson was a great politician. To the public, he touted Jefferson and Hamilton. It is in his academic and private writings that his true thought comes out. Just like a good progressive should.
John Dewey (1859-1952) had no appreciation for the Declaration of Independence. According to him, no truth is self-evident. Science is the only the means to truth, and its truths are subject to change, so therefore there is no such thing as objective truth—all truth is relative and changeable.
Dewey was an Atheist. He sneered at religious people as misguided simpletons. Dewey sought to spread his ideas through the American Public School System, but also through all forms of education—which Dewey recognized as all forms of communication. His goal was to use the schools and the media to undermine faith in God and faith in the American Way.
John Dewey believed that with his help, the little people could be trained to let go of their beliefs, habits, thoughts, desires, customs, and social institutions. He wrote that modern science has destroyed the ancient view that the universe has a purpose.
Dewey was no fan of democracy. He wrote: "There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. They are to be modified to suit the needs of the state."
John Dewey was a Socialist who disdained personal power and private profit. He thought the New Deal was way too conservative for him. He believed all wealth should be redistributed equally to everyone. He believed that the government should own all utilities, natural resources, banking, transportation, and communications—at the very least. He set the curriculum for American Public Schools for generations—even now.
President Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was the only American president who broke the unwritten rule of stepping down after eight years. His ideas departed from the ideas of the Founding Fathers of America, particularly when he declared "freedom from want" as a basic right of all Americans. This opened the floodgates to today's notions of "rights" to almost anything imaginable.
Under President Roosevelt, the federal government expanded its powers to incredible levels, and in the process greatly diminished what were the traditional roles of private charity, civil society, and local community in American life. Roosevelt accomplished a fundamental transformation in the character of American government.
Roosevelt asserted that the American Founders did not go far enough in describing the rights all people should have. He claimed that all people had a "right" to make a comfortable living, the opportunity to work for decent wages. It was the job of the government—not individual initiative (gumption) or business (entrepreneurs)—to assure this was the reality. It is notable that he never referenced the right to own private property.
Roosevelt was at least smart enough to recognize that to live on the government dole could be morally corrupting by encouraging sloth—an idea his political descendant LBJ forgot. FDR wrote: "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief." 78 years later we are still waiting.
Roosevelt elaborated his political "rights." "All Americans have a right to a useful job; to adequate food, clothing, and recreation; farmers have a right to a decent living; businessmen have a right to fair trade; every family has a right to a decent home; people have a right to adequate medical care; the right to a decent education; and the right to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment." Of course, all of these new rights would require a massive central government to protect them.
Big government was born in America. An enormous federal bureaucracy was put into place. Regulatory powers were given to it to supervise banking, the stock market, transportation, and utilities. America was now a bureaucratized regulatory state. The selfish individual was replaced by the leviathan state. Many of his plans were against the law. No problem, Roosevelt would simply stack the Supreme Court with his friends. After all, the Founding Fathers had made it difficult to amend the Constitution, as they did not assume change automatically meant improvement.
Roosevelt—and all progressives—do not like competition. Governmental control over industry required a humungous bureaucracy, which would eventually put millions of people in the employ of the government—as adversaries to very businesses and industries upon which America depends for economic growth.
Under Roosevelt's National Recovery Act—later ruled unconstitutional—union membership exploded, and strikes by unions became pandemic. This eventually led to the flight of industry from American shores.
Roosevelt liked Comrade Stalin. He said: "I get along fine with Marshall Stalin. He is a man who combines a tremendous, relentless determination with stalwart good humor. I believe he is truly representative of the heart and soul of the Russian people." Roosevelt believed that Communism promoted forms of economic redistribution that benefited the common man. "We Americans only think of ourselves, but the Russians want to do good for their society."
John Rawls (1921-2002) was the most influential progressive thinker of the 20th Century. He crystallized progressive thought.
It was Rawls who promulgated the view that the United States was gravely wrong to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.
He believed that America was tarnished by prohibiting certain sexual practices it found abhorrent. Justice—defined as fairness by Rawls—requires that we move as speedily as possible toward protecting the right of individuals to engage in whatever practices they wish.
Rawls believed that the family was an obstacle to fair equality of opportunity, since it sometimes gives people an advantage by having parents who are wealthier, better educated, or more loving.
John Rawls pushed the idea that not only should the government not favor one Christian denomination over another (the understanding of the Founding Fathers); and not only should the government not favor Christianity over other religions no matter how small a sect they were (decidedly at odds with American history); but the government also should not favor any religiosity at all over say, Atheism.
Rawls was a believer in total personal liberty, even if it included licentiousness and libertinism. He rejected claims of those who believed that not all liberties are for the good of society or even the good of individuals. He denied that the government should in any way promote virtue or morality. He denied that the government should be able to ban what most people consider degrading and shameful, such drug use, prostitution, incest, polygamy, or even bestiality. Oddly enough, in spite of these ideas, he seems not to think liberty extends to parents having the right to rear their own children as they wish, and implies private schools should be outlawed.
John Rawls believed in equal distribution of wealth, and was opposed to those who are talented or industrious earning any advantage to those who are not. He was also opposed to publicly valuing achievement, since every person should be publicly valued equally. To Rawls, no person deserved their talents, so why should they deserve the fruits of their talents or labors? The natural assets of different individuals should be regarded as commonly owned, in his view. This is Social Justice.
My source for this Hub is History of American Political Thought by Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga.
Other recommended reading includes:
A brief article about the Ruination of American Public Schools by Progressives in the Teacher's Union