Now that’s progressive

Steven Hayward thinks Paul Ryan is Progressivism’s Worst Nightmare because he makes the case against it like no one else can.

The old progressives were an oddly mixed bag; the movement’s roots could be seen in both parties at the time. On the one hand, people such as Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey explicitly rejected the natural-rights philosophy of the American Founding in favor of an admixture of Hegelian and Darwinian “pragmatism,” according to which “progress” is essentially the growth of the state. Many progressives thought our Constitution was obsolete, though they were able to fix that problem by bringing it to life. These beliefs remain the philosophical core of modern liberalism, though very few liberals, now that Richard Rorty is dead, can puzzle out the deep presuppositions of it anymore. Instead, today’s progressives hold a lazy presumption that progress entails politicizing every problem without end…

The old progressives differ sharply from today’s progressives in some important ways. Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party, at least, saw themselves as a bulwark against socialism and redistributionism, while today’s progressives are stealth socialists and resentful egalitarians. Moreover, many of the old progressives were overtly religious. The 1912 conventioneers sang and swayed to Christian hymns including “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and TR’s famous oration at the convention began with the ringing statement that “we stand at Armageddon” ready to “battle for the Lord.” That kind of language at a Democratic-party convention today would get you arrested. The old progressives were also pro-family in ways completely alien to liberalism today. “The purpose of this republic is to produce manhood and womanhood,” said the Republican progressive Albert J. Beveridge. Today, that’s Bill Bennett talk. Many progressives were even quite comfortable with American imperialism, while the assertion of American principles abroad today is anathema to multicultural liberals.

There is an important connection between Progressive Era historicist philosophy and today’s liberalism… Both make individual rights a matter of assertion and positive state provision, sweeping away all limits on government power in the process

Another crucial aspect of modern progressivism that is in complete harmony with the older kind is front and center in Ryan’s attacks on Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board: belief in the need for politically unaccountable expert administrators to regulate society in ever more exacting detail

Ryan has made this argument more effectively than anyone since Ronald Reagan, who spoke against centralized “intellectual elites” from the earliest days of his political career and said in his first inaugural address, “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Both Reagan and Ryan are channeling the founder of the Democratic party, Thomas Jefferson, who said in his first inaugural address, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

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