The brilliant and personable R.J. Pestritto comments in today's Wall Street Journal on the connection between Glenn Beck's message and his own academic study of American Progressivism. I've chewed over the subject once in person with Prof. Pestritto and I'm excited to continue it here. In the Journal, Prof. Pestritto praises commentators like Beck and Jonah Goldberg who have reworked his critique of the Progressives for a popular audience. But contra Beck, Pestritto argues that Wilson, TR, and the rest of the American Progressives were not socialists. Actually, they saw socialism and democracy as two related expressions of a single principle. Pestritto quotes Wilson:
"In fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members.... Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none."
Given the clarity and force of these remarks, Pestritto continues, the Progressives -- and Progressivism today, alive and well -- are fair game. Here, there is no room for squishes. Pestritto singles out Ricochet's own Matt Continetti, who has written that "progressivism is a distinctly American tradition." "In fact," writes Pestritto, "it was anything but." Progressives, Pestritto quickly shows, borrowed whole cloth from European academia. Sure enough, the evidence is clear: Wilson and other Progressives gobbled up the transatlantic intellectualizing of French and German political and social theorists who cashed out their ideals in quasi-systematic terms.
But I'm not convinced that means liberal progressivism is alien to America. (You might see how this skepticism resonates with my comments earlier about how Obama's enemies can't understand him unless they understand his Americanness.) Tocqueville famously called Americans 'practical Cartesians' who didn't need to read Descartes because they were already living out his principles in everyday life. Whereas Europeans had to come up with theories about how to order society in a democratic age -- and then had to apply those theories to their people, using state power, from the top down -- America and democracy grew up naturally together. The American social order rose freely, from the bottom up. Rather than the enforced artifice of Cartesian philosophy, Americans enjoyed the organic social arrangements that pointed in the direction of Cartesian principles.
Living the American way of life, to generalize the point, made it possible for Americans to become conscious of their way of life -- what it was, what it implied, where it lead, and how to perfect it. Look back at certain trends in American thought from about 1830-1880, and you'll see how this worked with liberal progressivism, too. Before the Civil War, the Whigs advanced an agenda appealing to the professional classes and promoting government-driven cultural modernization, financial centralization, and economic development. After the Civil War, radical nationalist proto-progressives praised Lincoln for turning America into a single unit while downplaying his commitment to the ideals of the Founding. Meanwhile, transcendentalist Yankees, including Emerson and especially Whitman, wrote the founding texts of a romantic, almost religious faith in the democratic life that have given brainy progressivism a pulsing heart right up through the Obama era. These strands of distinctly American thought set the table for the formal Progressivism to follow.
Arguing that the Progressives pulled off a Europeanizing coup is akin to insisting that Americans were not a psychotherapeutic people before they discovered Freud. What the Progressives did do for the first time was succeed in politically institutionalizing the worldview they shared. That was the coup. But it's impossible to understand how they could have done so by focusing on the alien aspect of Progressive doctrine. And it's impossible to do the same today with Obama and his policies.