Resolving the Contradiction of “Progressivism”

Historians and political theorists have long puzzled over how to resolve the glaring contradiction of Progressive ideology—namely, that Progressive “reform” emphasizes greater “democracy,” and championed innovations like the direct election of Senators, the initiative and referendum, etc. Give the people what they want! Up with democracy! At the same time, Progressives also advanced the theory of government administration deliberately remote from politics and popular accountability—the Administrative State staffed by elite “experts.” We can’t have those grubby people telling the government what to do! Down with democracy!

It is hard to make out, but there is a deeper dialectic at work in the Progressive mind, not unlike that more famous dialectic conjured up by that hairy German fellow. The purpose of the Administrative State—best understood with Saint-Simon’s famous single sentence description about how “the government of men is replaced by the administration of things”—is to create a new people.

The late, great Martin Diamond—a former Leninist—understood this clearly. I ran across this old passage from Diamond over the weekend, writing back at a time (the late 1960s) before the more accurate term “Progressive” had re-emerged (hence his use of “liberal” here, which means the same thing as today’s “Progressive”):

The liberal aim is thus clear. In order to transform the human condition, which is his deepest aim, the liberal seeks to make the political order fully dependent upon a transformed people. To achieve the transformation, he seeks the right kind of constitutional institutions to produce the right kind of party to produce the right kind of majority. At the very center of liberalism there is the theory of the truly democratic party—unified and coherent and thus capable of summoning up from the unformed mass the majority acquiescence in the liberal goals that, the liberal believes, is the natural inclination of the true majority. To such a majority, the Constitution with its “auxiliary precautions” does indeed obstruct the way.

Yes, this is a polite way of saying Progressives are indistinguishable from totalitarians. An elitist minority defines a priori what the majority must believe to be truly “democratic.”

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