The Good Ol’ Progressive Contempt for the Founding
David Azerrad /
Any conservative who takes his bearings from America’s founding principles can’t help but miss the candor with which the early Progressives dismissed our founding documents as antiquated relics of a bygone era.
Unlike liberal politicians from FDR onward who couch their statist agenda in the rhetoric of the Founding, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, and their contemporaries made it clear that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stood in the way of their progressive agenda and had to be discarded.
“If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface,” Wilson advised an audience at the Jefferson Club in Los Angeles. “Make a new table of contents, make a new set of counts in the indictment, make a new statement of the things you mean to set right.”
In The Promise of American Life, Croly readily admitted that “any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of constructive national democracy.”
What refreshing frankness! Back then, at least you knew where a man stood. The Progressives were out to completely remake America, and they just flat-out said it. They admitted plainly that their big-government agenda simply could not be squared with natural rights, federalism, and enumerated powers.
Today, by contrast, liberals invoke the Founders to justify any and all of their pet policies, no matter how far they stray from the Founders’ constitutionalism.
Thus Time magazine devotes a special issue to George Washington in which we are told that our first President “began the political tradition that produced a Union victory in the Civil War, the Federal Reserve Board, Social Security, Medicare and, more recently, Obamacare.” First in war, first in peace, and, now, it seems, first in federal entitlements.
Thus President Obama presents his entire second-term agenda—from climate change to same-sex marriage—in an ode to the Founders and the Constitution. We the people, in order to curb carbon emissions and redefine marriage.…
And in the latest iteration, John D’Amico, a retired judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, slams the Tea Party, CPAC, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, conservative Republicans, and “the far Right” for their stubborn refusal to see that our founding documents demand the enactment of the entire Democratic Party platform. In a rambling essay written for Salon, he explains:
The pursuit of happiness is dependent on, and calls for, governmental protection of our life and health. Viewed through the prism of the Declaration, then, universal background checks for gun purchases, health care reform legislation to cover the uninsured, child care, workplace safety, laws and regulations protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink, and measures to slow or reverse global warming that science tells us is threatening the health of our planet and its human inhabitants, are essential to protect our right to life and abet our pursuit of happiness.
Judge D’Amico then invokes the only part of the original Constitution liberals really love—the Preamble—to justify the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform Act, a treasure trove of unconstitutional provisions.
Not once does he even hint that the Constitution may in any way limit the powers of Congress. Not once does he even mention the Tenth Amendment or distinguish between different levels of government. Not once does he even contemplate the possibility that the various positive economic rights he’s so enamored with may stand in tension with the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.
D’Amico’s diatribe essentially boils down to the following syllogism: Our founding documents speak of the pursuit of happiness and the general welfare of the people. These, in turn, are dependent on and call for government. Therefore, the federal government may do whatever it pleases to secure the happiness and general welfare of the people (catch-all terms for every progressive idea in the book).
This would be funny if it weren’t written in such earnestness.
Constitutional conservatives can, however, still find solace in the occasional liberal who doesn’t mince words. Last year, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave the following piece of advice to the Egyptians: “I would not look to the U.S. constitution, if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”
If only all liberals could be so forthright.