The Original “Progressives”

“A well-meaning man may vaguely think of himself as a Progressive without having even the faintest conception of what a Progressive is.” Theodore Roosevelt

In recent years the word “progressive” has had a resurgence in popularity among American leftists (perhaps because the word “liberal” is too well understood by the American public). In 1991 the most liberal members of the United States Congress joined together to form the “Progressive Caucus.” Hosts on the now-defunct Air America radio network billed themselves as “The Aggressive Progressives.” Income tax structures that force high wage earners to pay taxes disproportionate to their income are called “progressive,” while tax structures that require everyone to pay in proportion to income are derided as “regressive.”  Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter what name left wingers use for their agenda. The agenda never changes.

The word “progressive” comes to us from the early twentieth century, when leftists like US Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson used it to portray themselves as agents of progress. History textbooks refer to the period during which these three men ran the government (1901 to 1919), as the “Progressive Era.” Most modern textbooks reflect the leftist bias of their authors by framing this period as a time when enlightened leaders used the power of government to promote “social justice.”1 The other side of the story, generally downplayed by history professors and other leftists, is the way the original “Progressive” politicians trampled on the Constitutional principle of checks and balances, and ushered in an era of unprecedented government power.

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Judicial Activism in Context

“The very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’” John Adams

Over the last few decades Americans have gotten used to the idea that Supreme Court Justices can and should create new “Constitutional” principles, as grounds for overturning laws that they, the justices, do not like. In an off-the-record conversation with Supreme Court clerks, Justice Thurgood Marshall once described this judicial philosophy quite candidly: “You do what you think is right, and let the law catch up.” (Justice Marshall had the good sense to abstain from statements like that in public.) A close look at American history will show that the kind of judicial activism Justice Marshall was talking about was not seen as either normal or proper when our nation was founded. But, ironically, the very scholars we trust to teach American history to the next generation of voters have been hiding the historical context of the issue.

Having judges create new government policies based on what they “think is right” violates in both letter and spirit the Separation of Powers principle that the Founding Fathers labored so hard to build into the US Constitution, and it was extremely rare until the late twentieth century; but don’t expect to hear that in a typical college history class.

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Forgetting Federalism

“That government is best which governs least.” Thomas Paine

Today the United States Government spends trillions of dollars annually, on everything from prescription drugs to teapot museums. It already exerts significant control over the relationships between doctors and patients, and Congress is grasping for still more power over the health care industry. The government owns banks and car companies. It confiscates money from unpopular businesses and groups of people, and transfers some of the money (after infrastructure costs) to more-favored business and groups.

The government uses taxpayers’ money to buy corn, then “lends” more tax dollars to third world governments that have no ability to repay the “loans,” so those governments can buy the corn from the US government with US money. It levies punitive taxes on cigarette sales, and subsidizes tobacco growers. For a while in the 1990’s the government forbid condom companies to advertise their products on television, while spending taxpayers’ money on TV adds to promote condom use. The national government dictates the marijuana laws your state has to implement, the curriculum at your local public schools, and the amount of water your toilet can use when it flushes.
It wasn’t always this way.

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Academia and The Second Amendment

“Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.”  Mao Tse-Tung

According to college professors and other leftists, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution does not guaranty individual citizens a right to keep and bear arms. As with many other classroom representations of history, this one is designed to influence the way the next generation thinks about (and votes on) current political issues.

Liberals and conservatives disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment. The argument is fueled by the somewhat ambiguous wording of the Amendment: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Advocates of gun rights claim that the Second Amendment ensures a right of gun ownership for all individuals. Advocates of gun control take the position that Second Amendment rights are restricted to members of state-sanctioned militias, which no longer exist, hence there is no constitutional right to own guns. There are arguments to be made for both sides, but only one side is presented in a typical college history class. 

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