Along with many of our allies, we here at Heritage have been focusing attention on “Progressivism,” the political movement which is largely responsible for the growth and vast expansion of centralized administration in the federal government. As I have argued in my own book, progressivism challenged the original principles of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution as outmoded 18th century ideas and instead promoted “evolving” rights and a “living” Constitution that constantly adapts the founding principles and unlimits government to address any and every social problem of the day. Many decades ago, Progressivism was very controversial, but nearly all Democrats and most Republicans over the decades have made their peace with it.
One exception to this is Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin—ironic since that state can claim to be the geographic source of Progressive politics in this country. In light of his work in thinking through the many great challenges we face today, but especially since the election of Barack Obama, Ryan has focused on the Progressive movement and its responsibility for the growth of big government, and argued that the American people must reject the Progressives’ vision and restore the Founders’ principles as the basis for this nation’s liberty, prosperity and independence.
Several of Ryan’s recent speeches on this subject are particularly incisive for their unusually rich analysis of Progressivism, the first at a Hillsdale College event, then more recently at a Heritage Foundation event in Dallas, Texas and at an Oklahoma City political dinner.
There has been some misunderstanding of Ryan’s analysis of Progressivism, particularly in his Oklahoma City address. Ryan rightly explains that the “first wave” of Progressive reforms emphasized populist ideas such as recall elections and the Initiative and Referendum process by which public policy questions were put to a vote. As the Progressive movement developed, it moved away from its first phase and openly advocated centralized bureaucracies as the real answer to political problems. This is not an argument to return to the early Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, but to understand Progressivism’s steps so we can unravel its damage.
Now that the American people have been awakened to the profound and ongoing harm done to this country by Progressivism’s drive to transform America in to a European social state, it will take statesmanship of the highest magnitude, shaped by rigorous arguments and great prudence, to actually get us out of the statist web that has been developing in America for over 100 years.
In the United States Congress, as of right now, Paul Ryan has been the singular voice persistently questioning the very essence of Progressivism in both principle and policy. And more, he has gone back again and again to the original principles on which this nation was founded, and followed these principles as the only fixed and sure guides to the policy reforms America needs going forward.