by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Charles Murray explains for Wall Street Journal readers why liberals are not to blame for progressives’ foibles.
A few weeks ago, I was thrown into a situation where I shared drinks and dinner with two men who have held high positions in Democratic administrations. Both men are lifelong liberals. There’s nothing “moderate” about their liberalism. But as the pleasant evening wore on (we knew that there was no point in trying to change anyone’s opinion on anything), I was struck by how little their politics have to do with other elements of the left.
Their liberalism has nothing in common with the political mind-set that wants right-of-center speakers kept off college campuses, rationalizes the forced resignation of a CEO who opposes gay marriage, or thinks George F. Will should be fired for writing a column disagreeable to that mind-set. It has nothing to do with executive orders unilaterally disregarding large chunks of legislation signed into law or with using the IRS as a political weapon. My companions are on a different political plane from those on the left with that outlook—the progressive mind-set.
Wait, doesn’t “progressive” today reflect the spirit of the Progressive Era a century ago, when the country benefited from the righteous efforts of muckrakers and others who fought big-city political bosses, attacked business monopolies and promoted Good Government?
The era was partly about that. But philosophically, the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century had roots in German philosophy ( Hegel and Nietzsche were big favorites) and German public administration ( Woodrow Wilson’s open reverence for Bismarck was typical among progressives). To simplify, progressive intellectuals were passionate advocates of rule by disinterested experts led by a strong unifying leader. They were in favor of using the state to mold social institutions in the interests of the collective. They thought that individualism and the Constitution were both outmoded.
That’s not a description that Woodrow Wilson or the other leading progressive intellectuals would have argued with. They openly said it themselves.
It is that core philosophy extolling the urge to mold society that still animates progressives today—a mind-set that produces the shutdown of debate and growing intolerance that we are witnessing in today’s America. Such thinking on the left also is behind the rationales for indulging President Obama in his anti-Constitutional use of executive power.