Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, conventional wisdom had it that the 2020 election would simply be a referendum on President Donald Trump. Now the result could prove to be a referendum on something much more important.
That something is the phenomenon of American progressivism and question of where it is headed.
Thanks to the Trump presidency and the reaction of progressives to it — and now further thanks to an invading virus and the resulting assertion of large new governmental powers, mainly by governors — what really should be at issue in November 2020 is the understanding of “progress” in a political movement ushered in by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the early years of the 20th century. Continued by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, the progressive impulse thrives to this day.
The country has a decision to make and a direction to choose.
Today’s progressives insist that there is an inexorable direction in modern American history. That direction leads toward the full embrace of an increasingly powerful central government to cope with modern challenges and complexities.
But if history teaches us anything, it should teach us to be suspicious of inevitabilities, especially when it comes to the choices of a free people.
The original progressives certainly believed in government by the people — but there was from the first a fundamental contradiction at the heart of this movement. On the one hand, progressives sought to make America’s political system much more open and democratic. On the other hand, they were determined to build a federal government that made use of experts, albeit politically neutral, even politically disinterested ones.
Progressivism in practice has proceeded to give the country a healthy, and at the same time an unhealthy, dose of both democracy and government by expertise.
To advance the first goal, we got the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage. Many states also chipped in with initiative, referendum and recall. Then came primary elections, which gradually moved the business of parties nominating candidates out of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms and into the hands of voters.
Meanwhile, these same early progressives also gave us the early stages of regulatory government — complete with bureaucracies staffed by those aforementioned experts.
All good things, we’d all like to think.
But what happens when the experts and a sufficient number of voters don’t agree? In theory, the disinterested experts of the permanent government would follow the lead of those elected and carry out their policies. Right?
This brings us first to the Trump candidacy and then to the Trump presidency. We now know that at least some members of the permanent bureaucracy, especially within the FBI, were working surreptitiously to derail that candidacy. We also know that many Washington bureaucrats were not exactly lining up to carry out the policies of the incoming Trump administration.
The original progressives certainly worked to ensure that elections would go their way. They assumed that, over time, they would. But they presumed that elections would set the tone and bureaucrats would carry out the mandate of the electorate. They could not have anticipated the political interestedness of some 21st-century bureaucracies that constitute interest groups all their own.
It’s also important to note that the original progressives promoted regulation to blunt the advance of socialism, not to move the country toward it.
Theodore Roosevelt, for example, sought a regulatory middle ground between what he termed the “wealthy criminal class” of capitalists and the “lunatic fringe” of socialists and their fellow travelers.
Since then, the power and reach of the regulatory state has grown enormously. For many on the left, its expansion has become the path toward socialism, not an alternative to it.
About halfway between the original progressives and us, Dwight Eisenhower warned against “creeping socialism.” We’ve creeped quite some ways since his time.
Ironies abound in all of this. No smoke-filled room of party bosses would ever have anointed a candidate like Donald Trump. His only conceivable path to power was the primary system conceived by the original progressives.
But once in office, Trump had to contend with another progressive creation — namely the not-so-hidden hand of the not-so-disinterested bureaucracy. The deeds of that hand will soon be further revealed by the Barr-Durham (“Obamagate”) investigation.
In short, in a very real sense, progressive reforms of more than a century ago have given the country both the Trump presidency and many of its enemies.
And now the country has been forced to confront a new and unconventional enemy in the form of COVID-19. Will the battle against this threat speed and solidify the progressive drive toward centralization and our reliance on government-by-expert? Or will it lead to a reckoning of sorts?
Having printed billions of dollars to rescue ourselves from the consequences of the pandemic shutdown implemented through executive orders, will we shrug our shoulders, throw up our arms and embrace “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal, free college for all and more, at the cost of untold billions more? Or will we begin to face up to paying for and even trimming entitlements already on the books?
Having welcomed Drs. Fauci and Birx into our homes, will we become ever more comfortable with government-by-expert? Or will we take a second look at bureaucracies like a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has expanded into areas that have nothing to do with disease or its control?
For that matter, will we take a fresh look at the speed and efficiency with which private industry, working with government, responded to a crisis that many “experts” not so long ago told us wasn’t going to be a crisis at all?
In sum, if the result of the 2016 election laid bare the inherent contradiction within progressivism, the 2020 election might well become an opportunity to begin to resolve it. Will we continue to creep, if not leap, toward socialism? Or will we at least — and at last — begin to inch our way in the direction of a more limited federal government and wisely divided powers? We could call it creeping federalism.
Clearly, we are a divided people. On one side are those who worry that the republic — government by the people — is being lost. On the other side are those who hope this crisis is the moment to take a final and irrevocable step into the sheltering arms of a permanently centralized state. We can only hope that both the worries and the hopes can be proven exaggerated.
Many modern progressives want to plunge further into a future of mass democracy by jettisoning the Electoral College. The result might be the worst of both worlds — a frightening combination of absolute majority rule, courtesy of a few heavily populated states, with a permanent bureaucracy of highly “interested” experts.
On second thought, maybe that has been the progressive dream all along.
If so, progressivism has been wrong all along.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.