Days of Change

Democracy is Not Progressive

November 13, 2014

Progressive is one of those terms that isn’t fully described by its dictionary definition, much like conservative, liberal or libertarian. For example, people who call themselves liberals might object to me using liberal and progressive almost interchangeably. This time, I will define progressive in a historical context. Let’s start with the Progressive Era of a century ago.

Progressives were the first ones to try fundamentally transforming America. The movement saw the trouble with America as laying squarely at the feet of big businesses and political bosses who controlled local government. In many cases, their solutions involved changing things at a federal level. The 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments plus the primary election process, were due to progressives. This was a mixed bag, including the creation of an income tax, the direct election of Senators, Prohibition and women getting the vote. Progressives were represented by Republicans and Democrats, although Republicans were the first to take the mantle.

The Progressive movement worshiped math and science as the solution to  corruption and inefficiency. The problem is that while progressives argued that direct democracy was an advancement over political machines and powerful corporations, they also felt that there was a class of more reasoned people, trained in the sciences, who could make society work better. What happens when voters reject an idea that is supposedly better?

That is where you get people line Jonathan Gruber. If progressivism was simply about direct democracy, a lot of new ideas would be voted down. Democracy does not operate on what is objectively good or bad, but on what people choose. Progressives started to lose their love of democracy when they found they couldn’t progress as fast as they wanted. Gruber believes that Americans are¬†stupid about a number of things and chose to exploit democracy to pass something that was never popular, but confusing enough not to raise enough objections.

Consider what “progress” has resulted from changes to the Constitution. We have a federal income tax that is frequently regressive compared to those with the highest incomes. The direct election of Senators means that we have about 54 Republican Senators even though two-thirds of state legislatures are in Republican hands. Prohibition, which was originally designed as a way to break the spirits industry, was repealed a few years later. The Nineteenth Amendment got its final push from progressives and socialists, but had been in the works for decades.

Ultimately, progressive plans are toxic to the operation of democracy. An oligarchy of the learned cannot exist in the same society with citizens who might disagree with them. I don’t believe in democracy because I think people will vote my way. I believe in democracy because I believe that we have a moral right and obligation to choose our own destiny. France tried to free the people from corrupt government and enact benevolent rule by academics. In resulted in the Reign of Terror.


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