Conventional wisdom has it that the 2020 election will be a referendum on Donald Trump. Perhaps so. But the result could also prove to be a referendum on something ultimately much more important than Mr. Trump. A Trump victory—or a Trump defeat—could prove to be a referendum on the larger phenomenon of modern progressivism.

That would not simply be the progressivism of a Joe Biden or a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren or whoever happens to wind up as the standard-bearer of the party of progressivism. No, it could be a referendum on something much more important than any individual progressive candidate.

Thanks to the Trump presidency and the reaction of progressives to it, what should really be at issue in 2020 is progressivism with a capital “P.” That would be the progressivism ushered in by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson AND the progressivism that has continued to dominate American politics since then.

Wait a minute, you say. Twenty-first century America should debate the progressive agenda of the last century? Yes. Does that mean that we should reject the progressive reforms of the last century and return to the dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest world of the late 19th century? Not exactly. But the country does have a decision to make and a direction to choose.

Are the progressives right? Is there an inevitable direction to history? And is that direction taking us inevitably toward an increasingly powerful central government and its centrally administered bureaucracy? Not necessarily.

Perhaps the original progressives understood as much. It’s hard to know for sure, because at the heart of the original progressive project was a fundamental contradiction. It was a contradiction that seemed to escape the notice of the original progressives, not to mention one that has troubled our politics ever since.

So just what was—and is—this contradiction? For an answer, let’s return to the heady days of early 20th century progressivism. At the core of this movement—and it was a movement with advocates in both major parties—were two goals. On the one hand, progressives sought a political system that was much more open and democratic. On the other hand, they were determined to build a governmental system and structure that employed and relied upon politically neutral, even politically disinterested experts.

Progressivism in practice gave the country healthy doses of both. To advance the first goal the country got the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage. Many states chipped in with initiative, referendum, and recall. Then came primary elections, which gradually took the party nomination business out of the smoke-filled rooms of political bosses and placed such cloudy matters directly in the hands of the voters. All good things, we’d like to think.

These same pre-World War I progressives also gave us the onset of regulatory government, all the better to assure a better, safer, and fairer life for all of us. And who would do this ensuring but bureaucracies staffed by those aforementioned disinterested experts. All good things, and all good people, we’d like to think. Thus were the origins of the administrative state, currently known more ominously as the deep state—or more derisively as the swamp.

Just what did the original progressives hope to achieve with all of this? Skeptical of the founders’ emphasis on limited and divided government, they sought expanded and unified government. But how was this to be achieved? Was it to be demanded—and enacted—by the masses and their representatives? Or was it to be instituted by experts? Or would the final result prove to be some combination of the two?

In other words, did those original progressives truly want government of, by, and for the people? If so, was that consistent with government of, by, and maybe even for its administrators? Which is to be supreme: the voting citizenry or the administrative state? To borrow from current lexicon, who is to dominate, Hillary Clinton’s deplorables or Donald Trump’s denizens of the swamp?

No doubt the inevitable answer is likely to be some messy combination of the two. Still, there must be a tilt and a direction. The progressive tilt has been progressively in the direction of deference toward the administrative state. Of course, the progressives’ hope is that the voters will agree with their direction. And if they don’t?

In theory, the disinterested experts of the permanent government should follow the lead of the victors and carry out their policies. After all, the people’s verdict should prevail, if government is to be of, by, and for the people.

Not everyone agrees with this, especially not everyone in the federal bureaucracy. Witness what we now know about the reaction of some bureaucrats to the Trump candidacy and to the Trump presidency. James Comey and company were not exactly lining up to carry out the marching orders of the Trump administration.

As Barack Obama was wont to remind us, elections do have consequences. A major consequence of the 2016 election was a shift away from Obama administration policies. Another consequence has been that the behavior of Dr. Comey and company before and after that election did not remain as deeply buried as a Clinton administration would have buried them.

The original progressives could not have anticipated the political interestedness of some 21st century experts. Those progressives probably put more emphasis on the reasonableness, and not the messiness, of their creation. But they might be excused for not anticipating the kind of messiness introduced by the descendants of their idealized independent regulators.

The original progressives certainly worked to ensure that elections would go their progressive way. But they presumed—or at least advanced the idea—that elections would set the tone and bureaucrats would carry out the mandate of the electorate.

It’s also important to remember that progressives promoted regulation to blunt the advance of socialism rather than move the country toward it. Theodore Roosevelt’s version of progressivism was designed to achieve a regulatory middle way between the “wealthy criminal class” and the “lunatic fringe” (to which he consigned socialists among others).

Since the era of the first Roosevelt, the power of the regulatory state has grown stronger and stronger. In the minds of many it has become the path toward socialism, rather than an obstacle to it. Once upon a time, Dwight Eisenhower warned against “creeping socialism.” Today major candidates of a major party either embrace the socialist label or endorse policies that would constitute a leap, rather than a creep, toward socialism.

And who would implement either socialism or socialism-lite but new generations of the original disinterested experts that Roosevelt and company long ago called into being. The result is supposed to ensure reasonableness without much accompanying messiness.

But what has the country discovered of late? For starters, we have come to learn that the experts are neither apolitical nor disinterested. Instead, they constitute a conglomerate of interest groups all their own. And instead of dutifully implementing the victor’s agenda, they might even seek to frustrate or otherwise obstruct that agenda. This was not exactly what the original progressives had in mind.

Let’s go one step further, even if that means going one step backward. Let’s go to a point that Rooseveltian progressives couldn’t have imagined: Some allegedly disinterested experts might even go to the point of seeking to defeat a presidential candidate by doing something more than simply voting against that candidate. Perhaps they might set in motion plans designed to hamper an incoming administration of their disliking. Then they might even set traps designed to trigger the removal of a sitting president.

Ironies abound in all of this. Donald Trump would never have been the choice of any smoke-filled room of party bosses. He could only have secured a major party nomination by using the primary system that progressives created.

As president-elect, Mr. Trump began to experience something else that the progressives had created, namely the hidden hand of the “disinterested” expert. His presidency has now revealed that hand, a hand that will no doubt be further revealed by the Barr-Durham investigation. The ultimate irony is this: In a very real sense, progressivism gave the country both President Trump and a great number of his enemies.

Some of those enemies were on display in the recent impeachment hearings. So was their lack of disinterestedness. Bureaucrats as witnesses, they made clear their disagreement with administration policy, not to mention their willingness to take those disagreements to the level of seeking the impeachment of the president.

In sum, the 2016 election and its result laid bare the inherent contradiction within progressivism. The 2020 election and its result might become an occasion to begin to resolve it. Will we tilt toward and defer to the people or to the experts? Will we continue to creep, if not leap, toward socialism? Or will we at least—and at last—begin to inch our way back to limited government and divided powers? Let’s call it creeping federalism.

Will we be the republic that Ben Franklin helped create or the social democracy of Bernie Sanders’ dreams? On one side of the divide are those who think this might be the last chance to save the republic. On the other side are those who think that this might be the prime moment to take that final and irrevocable leap to the permanently centralized state. They both might be right.

Some modern progressives also want to leap further into a future of mass democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. The result then might be the worst of both worlds, namely the conjunction of some frightening combination of simple majority rule, courtesy of a few heavily populated states, operating in tandem with a permanent bureaucracy of “interested” experts. Or was that the progressive dream all along? If so, progressivism has been wrong all along.

There really is a choice before us in 2020. And, yes, it is a choice that is much bigger than either Mr. Trump or his enemies.

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