By Ralph Benko
Possibly the most powerful, and dangerous, euphemism in politics today is “progressive.”
This writer has many cherished progressive friends. He considers them beautiful… but, often, misguided. Yet perhaps they are more “guided” than he has supposed.
Perhaps progressives, many of them, are precision guided. A pattern is emerging. That pattern is to assert government control over, well, everything. Government control … in the name of social and economic justice, of course.
There’s another word for this: totalitarian.
The New American Oxford Dictionary defines totalitarian as:
of or relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state : a totalitarian regime.
a person advocating such a system of government.
Might this be the progressives’ precision-guided purpose?
The progressive flagship magazine, The Progressive, defines its mission:
winning back for the people the complete power over government —national, state, and municipal—which has been lost to them.” [LaFollette] attacked private greed in the form of corporate monopolies that hoarded power. He championed the public interest, campaigning for social and economic justice.
The stated ends (although by no means the means) of the progressive mission are identical to those of classical liberals, libertarians and principled conservatives: power of the people over government; opposition to corporate monopolies; in favor of the public interest; social and economic justice.
It was shrewd of the progressives to appropriate these values and gain prestige thereby. Yet the means — and the real outcomes — are as important as the stated ends. And the reigning progressive means now — one hopes temporarily (in a center right America) — are becoming an Orwellian creature.
The empirical progressive track record decidedly is mixed. Progressives enjoyed some noble victories (from which they drew, and to this day still draw, legitimacy). Foremost among these were securing women’s right to vote.
Many progressives, though, according to historian James H. Timberlake, supported Prohibition.
Let us also count the “progressive” income tax. And the Federal Reserve System. The empirical evidence persuades this columnist — and many working and middle class Americans — that these have done, and do, far more to create misery than progress.
The Progressive talks about … progress … and “winning back for people the complete power over government.” Meanwhile it finesses, or at least leaves implicit, another aspect of the progressive agenda: winning the complete power of government over people. For “the people’s” own good, of course. Complete power of government over people is, of course, totalitarian.
Public intellectuals Thomas G. West and William A. Schambra address this, in measured tone, in a essay published in 2007 at Heritage.org:
While the Progressives differed in their assessment of the problems and how to resolve them, they generally shared in common the view that government at every level must be actively involved in these reforms. The existing constitutional system was outdated and must be made into a dynamic, evolving instrument of social change, aided by scientific knowledge and the development of administrative bureaucracy.
“[G]overnment at every level must be actively involved ….” Heritage firmly resides in the sweet spot of the classical liberal tradition. Its status as such does not distort this characterization.
Much of what appears baffling in American politics today is more easily understood if one grasps the unspoken progressive axioms that drive so much of our national conversation. Confusion comes because many axioms that underpin many Democratic and left-wing claims are veiled. Unveiled, the Democratic agenda begins to gain coherence. For classical liberals, that coherence is ominous.
If governing progressive axioms, unveiled, are totalitarian in substance it would explain the baffling assault by progressives on the Constitution. There is an ongoing, relentless, assault aimed at the governance structure of the Constitution, against the civil liberties explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights, and directed at those who take a stand for the classical liberal, small-r republican, political order.
This fundamentally totalitarian assault on the Constitution goes way back. As highlighted by West and Schambra: “’All that progressives ask or desire,’ wrote Woodrow Wilson, ‘is permission — in an era when development, evolution, is a scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.’”
Thus, that favorite liberal trope, “the living Constitution,” turns out to be a cunning demand to set government officials free to ignore what the Constitution explicitly says. It is a plea to authorize government officials to reinterpret the text, even beyond recognition, as they deem best.
How candid, then, is the ur-Progressive Wilson’s characterization:Darwinian. This suggests a ruthless “survival of the fittest.”
The Constitution, explicitly, is the Supreme Law of the Land. There is no other honest way to view a call for Darwinism other than as a counsel of totalitarianism.
Many progressives, from many prestigious and influential venues, currently are conducting open war on the Constitution. This was nicely laid out by theNew Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin in a recent column aggressively entitled Our Broken Constitution. Toobin cleverly enlists a couple of non-representative conservatives in his indictment to mask the entirely progressive locus of the assault on the Constitution. Most classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives consider the Constitution to be just fine, thank you. What they consider broken is a government that blithely ignores the supreme law of the land.
Toobin, succinctly presenting the progressive (or totalitarian) critique:
It’s often noted that the United States is governed by the world’s oldest written constitution that is still in use. This is usually stated as praise, though most other products of the eighteenth century, like horse-borne travel and leech-based medical treatment, have been replaced by improved models.
This makes absolutely no sense … unless of course, one happens to be a totalitarian, or totalitarian sympathizer. To a totalitarian, since “government at every level must be actively involved” in our lives, anything that stands in government’s way — antique provisions such as checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, the Bill of Rights — is, ipso facto, bad.
A totalitarian worldview is beginning to bleed through the pores of the progressive movement.
Failure of the Senate majority to persuade and enlist even a modest fraction of the minority party to support a nominee? Solution: Repeal the (extra-Constitutional) filibuster! The filibuster rule is not a protocol for consensus-building. It’s… leech-based medical treatment.
Congress refuses to pass anti-CO2 legislation — cap and trade — that would have caused, as Obama once acknowledged (confirmed by PolitiFact), our electricity rates to skyrocket? Solution: Have the EPA redefine carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Enacting legislation is just so… leech-based.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause?” United States Senator Rand Paul Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
said that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has been as harmful to American intelligence gather[ing] capabilities as leaker Edward Snowden. ‘That Clapper is lying to Congress is probably more injurious to our intelligen[ce] capabilities than anything Snowden did,’ Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. … ‘I don’t know how you can have someone in charge over intelligence who has known to lie in a public forum to Congress, to lie without repercussions,’
reports Politico. Being meticulously honest with Congress is just so … horse-borne.
Demand laws to restrict freedom of political speech (so vilified by the left)? Check. Pass laws to restrict the free exercise of religion by forcing religiously serious Christians to provide health insurance policies that fund abortions antithetical to their religious values? Check.
Check. Check. Check.
The idea that putting government in charge — totalitarianism — will cure our woes is a form of romantic Utopianism. The world has had many romantic flirtations with totalitarianism. They all ended in tears. Admittedly, our present crop of totalitarians, and totalitarian-sympathizers, are much prettier, more stylish, more elegant, and, probably, kinder, than were their predecessors. But totalitarianism is not benign.
Let us take to heart what George Orwell wrote, in a letter dated 18 May 1944, talking about the world situation:
the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. … Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.
“Progressive” is so much nicer a word than “totalitarian.” Yet progressives are in danger of turning their brand into a frighteningly Orwellian euphemism for totalitarianism. To the Ministry of Truth’s “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,” we now may be required to add:
“TOTALITARIANISM IS PROGRESS.”
Big Brother is watching.
Ralph Benko is an economist and regular contributor to Forbes Online. Read more here.