Two weeks ago, I wrote about James Madison’s view that the way to deal with special interest groups was to have lots of them. In his perceptive analysis, various factions would sometimes work together. Then, when circumstances changed, they would change alignments and compete against each other. These ever-shifting alliances would prevent the emergence of a permanent majority that could tyrannize the rest of us.
Madison’s approach, of course, was embedded in the U.S. Constitution as a brilliant system of checks and balances. It was bolstered by the protections in the Bill of Rights. That system empowers the American people by requiring factions to compete for their support. Last week, I showed how that approach continues to work in the 21st century.
Most Americans continue to embrace and celebrate that constitutional system. However, over the past century-and-a-half, a competing world view has been offered by the progressive movement. The Center for American Progress, or CAP, a progressive advocacy organization, rejects Madison’s approach. Instead, it expresses confidence that “an effective government can earn the trust of the American people.” The government will then use that trust to “champion the common good over narrow self-interest.”
In the progressive view, the way to control special interest groups is by creating an even more powerful central government. Relying on experts and neutral administrators, progressives trust that the government will honestly assess competing needs and determine the fair balance that is best for everyone.
Madison, of course, would be skeptical that any experts or administrators could act in a neutral manner and clearly determine society’s interests. So do most Americans. Still, the progressive movement is a powerful force. An early example of how these clashing world views work in practice was seen in the New Deal era.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, or NIRA, giving the federal government dominant control over the economy. The law empowered government regulators to set prices and wages, establish production quotas for all industries, and block new companies from entering an industry.
Take a moment to absorb the breathtaking sweep of that regulatory effort. The entire economy was to be micromanaged by official Washington. Not surprisingly, opposition quickly arose on many fronts.
Just two years later, in 1935, the Supreme Court found NIRA to be unconstitutional. A very unhappy President Roosevelt said the ruling would take us “straight back to the old thought that every farmer is a lord of his own farm and can do anything he wants, raise anything, any old time, in any quantity, and sell any time he wants.”
For most Americans, of course, that’s exactly the way it should be. Individual freedom is a cherished American value. Why shouldn’t the farmer have such rights? Why shouldn’t everyone? The essence of the American Creed is that we all have the right to do what we want with our life so long as we respect the rights of others to do the same.
Progressives, according to CAP, “challenged excessive individualism in social thought and politics.” Many shared FDR’s belief that the federal government needed more power to control both farmers and the nation’s economy. When the Supreme Court disagreed, the president complained that “We have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce.” In other words, a limited federal government may have been OK in the 18th century, but it was not up to the demands of modern times. Progressives believe “that rigid adherence to past versions of limited government had to be discarded.” As CAP puts it, we need fewer limits on government “to promote genuine liberty and opportunity for people at a time of concentrated economic power.”
The progressive movement today has tens of millions of supporters around the country including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. However, it has so far failed to replace the Madisonian system of checks and balances in the hearts and minds of most Americans.
That’s largely because the progressive vision requires people to have trust in government. In today’s world, that’s a pretty big challenge. Fewer than 25% of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Such distrust has been a prominent feature throughout the history of our nation.
Rather than seeing an all-powerful federal government as the way to control special interest groups, a solid majority of Americans recognize that the federal government itself has become a special interest group. Most voters believe it looks out primarily for its own interests and few think federal officials and agencies prioritize the needs of the American people.
So far, these fundamental flaws in the progressive world view have protected our system of checks and balances. But the challenges keep coming and it is not enough to simply point out why the progressive approach won’t work. We need to make the positive case for why our system of government makes sense in the 21st century.
That’s why I’m writing this column series. In my view, it’s not enough to say we do something because it’s in the Constitution. We need to go further and explain why a constitutional system designed long ago remains the best possible hope for America’s future.