When progressivism began in the late 19th century, progressives at least were honest about their aim to expand their power over the ignorant, selfish masses. A striking––and prophetic–– example can be found in Woodrow Wilson’s 1890 essay “Leaders of Men.” Wilson rejected the limited executive of the Constitution for a more activist president who has the “insight” to know “the motives which move other men in the mass”:
Besides, it is not a sympathy [with people] that serves, but a sympathy whose power is to command, to command by knowing its instrument . . . The competent leader of men cares little for the interior niceties of other people’s characters: he cares much-everything for the external uses to which they may be put. His will seeks the lines of least resistance; but the whole question with him is a question of the application of force. There are men to be moved: how shall he move them?
In the progressive view, fellow citizens are an abstract, collective “mass,” “instruments” that must be “moved,” manipulated, and used to reach the ideological goals of the technocratic elite, who knows far better than the people how they should live, what they should believe, and what aims they should strive for. Any resistance must be met by “the application of force.” Wilson means here primarily psychological or social force, but as we have seen after a century of expanding federal power, progressive policies enshrined in federal law are in the end backed by the coercive power of the police to punish non-compliance and enforce compliance.
From this perspective, Barack Obama is not an anomaly or some new political phenomenon birthed in the sixties. He is the predictable result of progressive assumptions over a century old. Thus he shares Wilson’s view of a “leader of men” as someone who knows what’s best for the people, and is willing to use unconstitutional “force” to achieve his aims. Think of the IRS hounding conservative political organizations, or the EPA violating private property rights, or the DOJ usurping the sovereignty of the states, or Obama’s various executive diktats that compromise individual rights, legislated laws, and the power of the states. All of these actions have applied “force” to “move” men in a particular ideological direction.
Also like Wilson, Obama has no “sympathy” with Congress, or the states, or the people who want, for example, the border secured, illegal aliens caught and punished, and felons deported. To progressives, the people holding those beliefs are all just bigots, or backwards, or evil obstructions of “social justice,” and so need to be “commanded” whatever their “interior niceties.” As such, they must be “moved” to accept Obama’s ideological preference: a vague internationalism and cultural relativism that compromise our distinct national character defined by a shared language and culture. If Congress or the states will not comply with Obama’s wishes by passing the laws he wants, then the “line of least resistance” will be Executive Orders, “Dear Colleague” letters, and instructions to federal agencies to “move” people to his point of view whether they like it or not.
Obviously, this philosophy of presidential leadership undermines the Constitution and its limited executive and separation of powers. More importantly, it forgets the primary purpose of the Constitution, which is not to “solve problems” or create utopias. Individuals, families, towns, counties, and states solve problems, not the distant, unaccountable Washington technocrats imposing cookie-cutter regulations and laws on America’s vast variety of needs, beliefs, and interests. Rather, the great goal of the Founding was to protect freedom by limiting the ability of any faction from concentrating power in government and using it to diminish the freedom of others. Such a faction is a tyrant, and as the Declaration of Independence details, it was the serial injustices of George III, whose “direct object [was] the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” that sparked the American Revolution.
More broadly, the progressives’ modus operandi has followed that of tyrants throughout history. The most dangerous enemies of the tyrant are all the associations and communities of people that lie beyond the power of the state, what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons,” and Alexis de Tocqueville recognized as one of the exceptional characteristic of the United States. Families, churches, PTAs, private schools and universities, clubs, think tanks, political parties, sports teams, businesses, charities––any venue in which people voluntarily gather together, interact with one another, and pursue their shared interests and aims, stands as a check on the power of the government. They create a social space in which people exercise their freedom without permission or oversight from government officials, and where their customs, traditions, and habits function as an alternative authority to the power of the state.
We call this civil society, and since ancient Greece, tyrants have known that it is their greatest enemy. Hence totalitarian regimes target these alternative authorities and try to destroy or delegitimize them. Progressives have similarly extended their reach into civil society, replacing private organizations with the bureaus, offices, and agencies of the government. Civil society is minimized, and society more and more comprises the mass of people overseen and regulated by a centralized technocratic power. This suits the tyrant, who knows the masses are easier to control when fragmented into private individual lives, either by violence, as in the past and in parts of the world today, or by redistributing wealth and taking over the management their lives, as our government does.
The latter method, what Tocqueville called “soft despotism,” is now our political reality, as Hillary’s and Bernie’s soothing promises of even more free stuff and more nanny-state tutelage show. More and more of our lives have been colonized by the federal government, which now controls and instructs us on everything from our diets and religious beliefs, to how to raise our children and understand sex identity. And if we disagree, government agencies will enforce their will, backed by the coercive power of the state. As a result, a government designed to check power and defend our freedom has now become one of concentrated power that diminishes our freedom.
If you think I exaggerate, consider what will happen if Hillary ends up nominating two or three Supreme Court justices. She has publicly condemned the Citizens United and Heller decisions, the former of which defended the First Amendment, the latter the Second. A court with a progressive majority could end up reversing these confirmations of our Constitutional rights to exercise free speech and bear arms. We could then end up with hate-speech restrictions like those used in Canada and the E.U. to censor speech offensive to privileged groups, or confiscations of our weapons of the sort Obama has openly suggested.
If that should happen, we will have come closer to the point of no return, and reap the consequences Tocqueville warned about:
It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people.