The Modern World and the Election of 2016

Lost amid the constant coverage of presidential campaigns, caucuses, speeches, debates, dramas, arguments, strategies, posturings, and platforms are historical perspective and true proportion.

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in an April 19, 1924 column in The Illustrated London News. The essay was titled “The Blunders of Our Parties”, with the parties in question being the Tories (conservatives) and the Whigs (progressives).  Despite being nearly a century old and being written about another country’s political conflicts, the essay provides plenty of food for thought, as do the many other essays by Chesterton from the same period—many of them about America (a country that both fascinated and rather confounded the great English writer, who confessed “I really did feel as if I were on another planet when I was in the United States.”)

“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes,” wrote Chesterton, who then stated:

The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

The current Long March to the White House is a perfect case in point. Perhaps even the best case possible, for it is, to my mind, yet another round of the same old song-and-dance routine that is presented under the auspices of “liberal vs. conservative”. Now, I am not denying there are real and substantive differences between the various candidates, as I think there are; nor am I saying that it won’t really matter who is elected since nothing ever really changes and improves—although I confess to being tempted at times to resign myself to such a perspective.

Rather, consider what FOX News, the leading “conservative” news/opinion outlet, covers approximately 94.38% of the time: the presidential campaigns, caucuses, speeches, debates, dramas, arguments, strategies, posturings, and platforms. It’s not just that news stations and outlets focus nearly all of their time and energy on politics, with occasional forays into the world of entertainment and celebrities (and, really, who can tell the difference between candidate and celebrities?). It’s the incessant, constant, and unremitting coverage of the cult of the presidency, which has in recent decades been married (or adulterated) with the cult of celebrity, further fusing together the essential qualities of the dominant American culture: power, fame, and salesmanship.

So, we are told that Candidate X is “liberal” and Candidate Y is “conservative” because of differing stances on the economy, immigration, marriage, race relations, solar power, and so forth. That’s all well and good, but we hear and ingest these labels and positions with the assumption—it really is the political air we breathe—that Candidate X or Y is going to bring about remarkable change on all these fronts. He or she is going to bring about “change”, impart “hope”, restore “order”, manifest “sanity”, inculcate “fairness and equality”, procure “prosperity”, establish “accountability”, grant “freedom”, and once again plant—in the town square, or on your television screen—the shining beacon of “greatness” that has been soiled and sullied by President Z.

Yet that was not the role of the President of the United States prior to the 20th century. Quite the contrary. As Gene Healy demonstrates in his 2008 book The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato Institute), the Founders and the first several Presidents would have shuddered at the thought of the President being considered the “World Leader”, the “Protector of the Peace”, and the “Voice of the People”—all roles described with affirmation in 1956 by political scientist Clinton Rossiter. As Healy remarks, “Rossiter gives us a remarkable vision of the president. He’s our guardian angel, our shield against harm. He’s America’s shrink and social worker and our national talk-show host.” In reading Healy’s book, one cannot help but conclude that the most curious aspect of the messianic character associated with candidate Barack Obama prior to the 2008 election was not the breathtaking arrogance of it all but the fact that anyone would really be surprised at all. It was, in short, due to happen.

The Founders, of course, had vigorous debates about the exact nature and powers of the executive branch, in large part because it made little sense of cast off the monarchial bonds of King George III and Company and then succumb to a home-grown tyrant who might, as political philosopher Robert A. Dahl explained in a 1990 article, use his popularity to “claim a mandate for his policies, who in order to mobilize popular support for his policies would appeal directly to the people; who would shape the language, style, and delivery of his appeals so as best to create a political opinion favorable to his ambitions…” That conservative vision stayed mostly in place throughout the first century or so of the American Republic. “The late 19th-century president,” notes Healy, “was no more imposing at home than he was abroad. Despite Lincoln’s unmatched eloquence, the post-Civil War president didn’t become Rossiter’s Voice of the People.”

What changed? The short—but only partially simplistic—answer is the combination of the Progressive Era (1870-1920) and the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), William Howard Taft (1909-13), and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21). While many of the American Progressives of the late 1800s sought to address crime, poverty, and related ills, many others viewed the work of social reform as part of a quasi-religious remaking of man and nation. They believed that the science of economics and an objective, scientifically-based approach to social and political order would create a new and better world, one freed of old notions about personal freedom, the value of the individual person, and the centrality of traditional structures and religious belief. Progressives believed, explains Princeton scholar Dr. Thomas C. Leonard in his exceptional book Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era (Princeton University Press, 2016), that economic and social progress could only be guaranteed and brought to fruition by “the visible hand of the administrative state, and the duties of administration would regularly require overriding individuals’ rights in the name of the economic common good.” And:

The progressives’ break with their classically liberal roots was one of the most striking intellectual changes of the late nineteenth century, one with far-reaching consequences. Progressives embraced holism, drawn by a powerful confluence of postbellum intellectual currents: the German Historical School’s view that a nation was an organism, something greater than the sum of the individuals it comprised, Darwinian evolution’s implication that the individual’s inalienable natural rights were only a pleasant fiction, the Protestant social gospel’s move from individual salvation to a collective project of redeeming America (indeed, the world) and the liberating effects of philosophical Pragmatism, which seemed to license most any departure from previous absolutes, provided it proved useful.

Needless to say, all of those beliefs are, in some form or another, part and parcel of the thinking of many Americans today. Another key aspect of the Progressive approach to remaking America was eugenics. “In the first three decades of the twentieth century,” writes Leonard, “eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream.” The devastation and horror of the First World War convinced many progressives that “superior heredity” was in danger of being lost. “Because Europe was destroying its best genetic material, the duty to protect humankind’s future was now thrust upon the United States. More than ever, [Irving] Fisher declared [to the New York Times], America must improve its hereditary resources by banning alcohol, barring immigrants, and segregating or sterilizing the unfit.” Fisher (1867-1947) was a leading economist and Progressive social campaigner who, though born the son of a Congregationalist minister, became an avowed atheist—a not uncommon biographical note for many of the early Progressives who left forms of Protestantism in order to preach a secular gospel built on efficiency, racism, technocracy, and centralized power.

Woodrow Wilson was certainly no stranger to centralized power; he pursued it his entire life. In his doctoral dissertation, published as Congressional Government (1885), the young Wilson originally set out to argue for a centralized parliamentary system but ended up writing an apologetic for centralized power. “Wilson fully abandoned his faith in congressional government,” says Jonah Goldberg in Liberal Fascism (2007), “when he witnessed Teddy Roosevelt’s success at turning the Oval Office into a bully pulpit. The former advocate of congressional power became an unapologetic champion of the imperial presidency.” In 1908, Wilson wrote:

The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution, – it will be from no lack of constitutional powers on its part, but only because the President has the nation behind him, and the Congress has not. … The old theory of the sovereignty of the States, which used so to engage our passions, has lost its vitality. The war between the States established at least this principle, that the federal government is, through its courts, the final judge of its own powers…

The rest is, as they say, history. Except we are still living it today. We are still constantly urged to vote for Candidate X, Y, or Z because he or she is the “candidate of progress” who will lead us to even greater heights, all in pursuit, apparently, of even more incredible altitudes, from which we can aim even higher. If the Tower of Babel comes to mind, you are probably in the right ballpark, even if you’re not sure which team to root for.

Chesterton, in a May 31, 1924 essay “Progress and Proportion”, said that the “fundamental controversy” of his time “is a controversy between two ideas which may be called Progress and Proportion.” According to the proponents of “Progress”—in 1924 as well as in 2016—we live in an “epoch of evolution”; things are changing and are, in fact, “everlastingly changing”. Progress is an imperative. Chesterton noted, however, that “those of us who have the cult of proportion are at perpetual cross-purposes with those who have merely the cult of progress.” By “proportion” Chesterton refers, in part, to proper relationships and proper balance—whether in one’s personal life, or in society, or in politics. It also, of course, involves right relationship with who and what we are as humans, as citizens, and as creatures who owe worship and adoration to God, who is Creator, Savior, and Lover of Mankind.

Finding such proportion in this life is difficult; finding it in the political process or a system of government is improbable, if not impossible. It behooves us, however, to be mindful of where we’ve been and where we wish to be headed. The progressive has, time and again, made a mess of things. “The progressives,” notes Jay Cost in A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption (Encounter Books, 2015), “successfully curtailed many of the corrupt [political] practices of the late nineteenth century, but they failed to end them once and for all. Indeed, they made matters worse.” Indeed. And it continues today. The problem, as Chesterton, suggested in 1924, is that the conservative sometimes defends what was the mistake of the progressive. Politics may be the art of the possible, but how possible is it to use the ruins of progressives to build in proper proportions?

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About Carl E. Olson 1226 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.