Right Opinion

What Progressives Did to the Constitution

Guest Commentary · Sep. 17, 2018

By Zachary D. Rogers

The Constitution of the United States has been abandoned wholly in theory and partially in practice by liberals. This is the result of the progressive movement that arose at the beginning of the 20th century, roughly 1880-1920. Because of this, today, the purpose and scope of the national government has drifted dramatically from the thinking of the American Founders.

While progressives differed on some matters they did have a coherent theory. The aims of progressives and their theory required the rejection of the political theory of the American founding.

Progressives intended and partially succeeded in extending the scope and purpose of the federal government. Why? The answer is simple: First, from the progressive perspective, the limited government established by the Founders was outdated. Second, the social and economic ills of modern society required action. Third, history had progressed to such an extent that a powerful central government no longer posed the threat to life, liberty, and property it did in 1776.

Progressives saw the constitutional limited government of the Founders as a barrier to much-needed progress. Progressives thought that the rise of big corporations and the Industrial Revolution required more extensive government regulation. They desired to move away from the enumerated powers, separation of powers, and federalism of the Constitution to a more active government. The move from the thinking of the Founding Fathers can be seen in several ways.

First, the rejection of natural rights theory, the idea that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights governments are instituted to protect. The end of government, after all, is the establishment of justice.

Second, progressives held to the idea of historical contingency over the constancy of human nature. Progressives held that the social and economic conditions had changed so greatly that the regime of the Founders was inadequate to address the situation.

Third, due to historical progress, government was no longer the threat it was perceived to be by the Founders but could be instead entrusted with increased power to meet the needs of a new era.

Progressives argued that the Constitution is a product of its time, designed to defend against the issues of the day. This stands in contrast to the Founders’ view that it was intended to instantiate the abstract truths applicable to all men at all times found in the Declaration of Independence.

Their aim was to make the national government a dynamic agent, directly responsive to changing social conditions. Practical parts of achieving this was the initiative, referendum, open primary, and passage of the 17th Amendment that brought about the direct election of senators.

Furthermore, progressives shifted how the executive office is viewed and the duties he assumes. For progressives, the executive would provide the unity of direction their movement required.

The product of progressivism, the current administrative state violates the Constitution in three distinct ways. First, the principle of non-delegation. Only Congress has been vested by the Constitution with legislative authority. Instead, agencies now legislate — creating laws and regulations. Second, the combination of functions within an agency violates the separation of powers. Agencies have been given the ability to legislate, adjudicate, and enforce their own rules. Third, the principle of the unitary executive. The administrators of the law should be accountable to the elected president. However, independent agencies violate this principle.

Progressives intended to separate politics from administration. At the same time, they were attempting to make the system more democratic. They tried to shield bureaucrats from political influence under the theory that well-educated, idealistic, and well-paid men would be able to be objective and politically neutral. This separation violates the consent of the governed. Americans do not elect the vast majority of bureaucrats who have a greater influence upon their lives than most politicians.

The administrative state has had doleful effects upon the national government: centralized bureaucracy, irresponsibility of Congress, and the compliance of the judiciary in bowing before administrators and their expertise.

Because of the administrative state, Americans are faced with a grave problem: Elections no longer change the character of government. The nature of the administrative state is insidious and is a different answer than that of the Founders to the political question of who should rule. Despite Republican elections in the past, little has been achieved to change the direction of the government. This led to dissatisfaction among the people and is perhaps best summarized in the phrase “drain the swamp.” The reaction of Washington bureaucrats to the election of Donald Trump, duly elected in accordance with the Constitution by the people, has shown the depth of this problem.

As Americans go to cast their vote in elections this November they should consider whether those they vote for and the party they are a part of support in practice the rule of the people or the rule of experts. It is time for Americans to choose men and women who will support the Trump administration’s goal of making the government accountable to the people who elect them and whose taxes pay their salary.

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