America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism
by Ronald J. Pestritto.
Encounter Books, 2021.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $29.

Reviewed by John C. Chalberg

If Ronald Pestritto is right, then Barack Obama was wrong. Recall candidate Obama’s now famous (or should that be infamous?) pronouncement on the eve of his 2008 electoral triumph: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

More than that, if the Pestritto argument prevails, the Barack Obamas of our day may yet turn out to be the end of something rather than the beginning of something.

According to Pestritto, the real transformers of America were the original progressives of better than a century ago and not their twenty-first century ideological descendants. The transformation that he has in mind was undertaken by progressive presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and it was undergirded by progressive intellectuals and authors of the same era. Prominently among the latter were John Dewey, Frank Goodnow, Herbert Croly, and Richard Ely. For that matter, that list included a college professor by the name of Wilson (as in Woodrow) and an amateur historian by the name of Roosevelt (as in Theodore).

The specific transformation that all of the above (and Pestritto) have in mind was the replacement of the original American Constitution with something Pestritto properly identifies as the “administrative state.” The result is not actually a second constitution, but something on the order of the British “constitution,” namely something less than a written document, but something on the order of a series of understandings that operates as the functional equivalent of a constitution.

More than that, as Pestritto details, at the heart of the original progressive project was a glaring contradiction that the original progressives may or may not have fully grasped. Their transformative goal was essentially twofold: 1) make American government at all levels more openly and thoroughly democratic; 2) make government more efficient by making it more and more reliant on the expertise of disinterested professional bureaucrats.

On the one hand, the original progressives sought to enhance the clout of the electorate by converting the original American republic into something closer to resembling an American democracy; hence the direct primary, the triad of initiative, referendum, and recall, and the direct election of senators.

On the other hand, those same progressives sought to enhance the power of the state by building permanent bureaucracies at all levels staffed by those same disinterested experts.

If there was a conflict here, and there was—and is, there was also a consistency. The targets of both these progressive initiatives were the two major parties. (The consistency today is that the bulk of the federal bureaucracy is aligned with one of the two major parties.) The goal of the original progressives was to reduce the influence of both parties, thereby reducing the power of the conservative wings of both. In the process more power would accrue to, well, to the people, as the progressives intended. Or did they intend? Or would it wind up in the hands of the disinterested experts whom they were about to call into being, as was also their intention?

The inherent conflict in the progressive project had long been brewing before matters came dramatically—and ironically—to a head in 2016 with the election of one Donald J. Trump. Ironically? Without the progressively inspired vehicle of the presidential primary there would have been no Trump nomination for president. And once there was a Trump presidency a progressively inspired permanent bureaucracy filled with careerists who were neither disinterested or uninterested were there to wage war against the new administration.

That conflict has certainly subsided now that Mr. Trump has, well, once again become Mr. Trump. But the potential for conflict remains. So does this question: Is it possible to return to an America governed by the Constitution of 1787? In other words, can the country be re-transformed or, better yet, untransformed?

Another former president, namely the aforementioned Mr. Obama, apparently still thinks that there is still considerable work yet to be done to bring about the sort of transformation that he has had in mind. And the dominant wing of his party is clearly in agreement with him.

Just what is the goal of their desired transformation? Perhaps it is to turn the United States into a very large Sweden (even as the actual Sweden seems to be trying to head in a less statist direction). But who knows for sure. Those who promote and defend the administrative state tend to be conveniently silent, or at best vague, when it comes to detailing ultimate goals.

While Professor Pestritto does not attempt to answer this question, he is certain of something. Note the absence of a question mark in the title of this book. Then pay attention to the subtitle. As far as he is concerned, the transformation desired by the original progressives has not just been accomplished, but bequeathed to us as well.

Nonetheless, Pestritto has written this book to encourage his readers to begin the necessary process of squandering their progressive inheritance. The book itself is largely a collection of essays written over a number of years. The result is occasional repetition, but the overarching message is clear: the original progressive movement constituted a fundamentally unconstitutional wrong turn in our history.

If there is a major villain in these pages it is Woodrow Wilson. Primarily a Wilson scholar, Pestritto finds no smoking gun akin to Obama’s promise of some sort of “fundamental transformation.” But he does come close more than once.

In a 1911 speech honoring Thomas Jefferson, Pestritto finds it more than curious that the future president cautioned his listeners “not to repeat the preface” of the Declaration of Independence “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence.” In other words, Pestritto adds, ignore that irrelevant, annoying (to progressives) bit that only “enshrines natural rights as the focal point of American government.”

Wilson had equally little time for the Constitution. That would be the very document that Pestritto properly regards as having been written to continue the process of securing the “natural rights principles” of the Declaration of Independence.

Borrowing from the young Charles Beard, progressives of the early twentieth century dismissed the Constitution of 1787 as a reactionary document written of, by, and for men of wealth. Wilson, therefore, did his fellow progressives one better by dissenting from both the Declaration and the Constitution. The latter, according to Wilson, had been designed to assure that government would function as a “machine.” But to Wilson government was a “living thing.” Therefore, so must be its constitution.

Two-thirds of this highly valuable book deal with the “rise” of the progressive transformation engineered by Wilson and company. The last third dwells on its chief legacy, namely the modern administrative state. Its rise is not simply attributable to power-driven presidents, as well as power-desirous experts, but to decade upon decade of congressional and judicial deference to those presidents and to those experts.

Written with the layman in mind, Pestritto does his best to avoid the weeds in laying out his case. In fact, when it comes to criticizing the 2010 Affordable Care Act he is content to offer a devastating two-word summary of what might be loosely termed “legislation”: the “law” that reached pages numbering in the four digits was itself “extremely vague.”

The ACA ultimately left pretty much everything in the hands of unelected bureaucrats. That alone is damning criticism. Then again, maybe failure to achieve specificity was really the point of it all.

On this matter of points does Pestritto point to a solution? On the one hand, he is unwilling to follow the “arc of history” that is the extremely vague Obama path toward an ever more powerful administrative state. On the other hand, Pestritto remains cautiously optimistic that the country can and will find its way back to its original founding.

That said, he is not confident that Congress will reassert its “constitutional duty to make law” any time soon. Nor can we rely on the courts to force agents of the administrative state to cease and desist what amounts to lawmaking. After all, those original progressives envisioned that unelected judges and unelected bureaucrats would cooperate in the name of creating and managing an efficiently run administrative state.

To be sure, there is reason to place a measure of hope that the courts, especially the Supreme Court, will reverse the progressive trend of administrative law-making. But Pestritto cannot avoid concluding that the “involvement of agencies and courts in making policy seems unlikely to diminish.”

That leaves the presidency as the only remaining branch of government that might be able to lead the way back to the Founders. Not so fast, cautions Pestritto. After all, powerful presidents throughout the twentieth century have been able to take advantage of significant congressional majorities to build on the original progressive achievement. And today? Today that process continues despite (or perhaps because of) a figurehead president, not to mention razor-thin congressional majorities.

All of this leaves Pestritto with one very vague, but very large and potentially very significant “branch” of government. That would be the electorate.

Pestritto curiously concludes his book with a chapter titled “Progressivism in State and Local Government.” Like other chapters, it was once a standalone piece. At first blush, it strikes one as little more than a tacked-on afterthought. Why spend the bulk of the book dwelling on high politics at the national level only to conclude the whole thing with the nuts and bolts of small scale progressivism?

Then again, why not? After all, given that the original progressives were determined to empower state and local voters, perhaps a similar effort at the national level could gradually reverse the empowerment of the administrative state.

Here a great irony intrudes. As Pestritto notes, the original progressives were “simply not concerned about potential tyranny by government in the way that Madison and America’s other founders” had been; hence their willingness to risk majority rule, while simultaneously reducing checks on government by checks and balances.

In other words, if the original progressives were, in effect, calling on the voters to help them abandon the original Constitution, Pestritto is calling for twenty-first century voters to get behind the abandonment of the progressive transformation of that same Constitution. More than that, he is doing so because he is rightly concerned about the potential—and actual—tyranny of the very offspring of progressivism that is the administrative state.

In a brief postscript Pestritto jumps back to the 1850s when the country was as divided as it is today, if not more so. And once again, why not? After all, the “fate both of progressivism and the natural rights philosophy it sought to replace” are at the heart of our current divisions. Therefore, their dual fate stares the voters in the face “in the election cycles of our day.”

What was at stake in the 1850s is once again at stake today, namely the “nature of our republic.” As was the case then, our debates today are not just about this or that policy, but about the “regime’s first principles.”

Then the compelling issue was whether or not the country could survive half slave and half free. Was American republicanism simply a matter of the will of a democratic majority? Should the Stephen Douglas doctrine of popular sovereignty be the answer to everything, including the ownership of fellow human beings? Or should the permanent lodestar be “the equal protection of natural rights for the majority and minority alike?”

Jarring as this may sound to modern progressives, Pestritto correctly links the original progressives to the southern Confederacy in that both rejected the principles of the American founding. In addition, both did so in part by hiding behind the pretense of science, as each pursued their different, but similarly unrepublican, goals.

Ronald Pestritto is an historian, and not a futurist. But it does not take a crystal ball to see trouble ahead. In the meantime, the question at hand remains to be answered: Will the original progressive transformation be reversed, as Pestritto clearly and dearly hopes, or will it not? No doubt he also hopes that this book will help make the choice increasingly crystal clear to voters.

But no matter the outcome, candidate Obama remains wrong. A fundamental transformation had long been underway when he declared his intention to bring one about. It’s also quite possible that he will one day land on the wrong side of history. In sum, he will eventually either be seen as a minor cog in what was already a semi-ancient process, or he will one day be consigned to that proverbial ash heap of history where Stephen Douglas and John C. Calhoun already are—and where Woodrow Wilson might someday belong.

John C. Chalberg writes from Bloomington, Minnesota and performs as G. K. Chesterton.

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