It can be hard to remember now, but “progressivism” as a political ideology was on life support during the Clinton administration. Clinton declared that the era of big government was over, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and signed (after vetoing it a couple times) the Welfare Reform Act in 1996. These were not just conservative victories: RFRA, the bane of the Left today, passed nearly unanimously out of both houses of Congress. The Reagan Revolution did not end in January 1993. It shifted the political landscape for a generation.
So it was perhaps a little surprising when Hillary Clinton eschewed the label “liberal” in 2007 when running for president, in favor of being called “progressive.” President Obama embraced the same label in 2008 when some on the Left accused him of tacking to the center. By doing so, the current president and the once and future presidential candidate implied that they were for “progress” (whatever that means). As Clinton made explicit in 2007, the label identified its adherents with the progressive age of the early twentieth century, and especially Woodrow Wilson.
One tenet of Wilsonian progressivism was a strong belief in the capacity of the administrative state. Better administration was the cure for society’s ills, Wilson thought, and as a professor of political science he studied administrative science in considerable depth.
Wilson’s zeal for good administration (if it is truly possible to be zealous for such a mundane, if valuable, thing) was tempered, however, by another side of the Progressive plank: a strong defense of the democratic process. Teddy Roosevelt was a great champion of rule by the people, especially much more direct rule than our Constitution allowed, and Wilson certainly shared this belief in the value of the democratic process. The cries of foul on the Left over restrictive voter ID laws are part political calculation, but they are also part and parcel of the Progressive emphasis on rule by the people. (Conservatives, it should be said, also support rule by the people, but they are less optimistic about the capacity of unbridled popular rule to produce good results—hence their emphasis on constitutional limits on power.)
President Obama Versus Progressivism
President Obama’s apparently imminent order to legalize and normalize millions of illegal immigrants—and granting work permits is nothing other than normalization, and is the part that even liberals sometimes struggle to support—is being pitched as a merely administrative solution to a truly bad state of affairs. Families could be torn apart through deportation, so Obama simply wants to administer the law, under the very real constraints of the limited resources at his disposal, to save many people from this nightmarish scenario. He is applying the law with judicious discretion to effect a better outcome.
But his impending executive order flies in the face of the older, Wilsonian kind of progressivism that emphasizes democratic process. Hear Wilson in his seminal essay, “The Study of Administration.” After noting that distinguishing “administration” from “political ‘management’” and “constitutional principle” can be difficult, Wilson says:
Perhaps this ease of confusion may explain such utterances as that of Niebur’s: ‘Liberty,’ he says, ‘depends incomparably more upon administration than upon constitution.’ At first sight this appears to be largely true. Apparently facility in the actual exercise of liberty does depend more upon administrative arrangements than upon constitutional guarantees; although constitutional guarantees alone secure the existence of liberty. But—upon second thought—is even so much as this true? Liberty no more consists in easy functional movement than intelligence consists in the ease and vigor with which the limbs of a strong man move. The principles that rule within the man, or the constitution, are the vital springs of liberty or servitude. Because independence and subjection are without chains, are lightened by every easy-working device of considerate, paternal government, they are not thereby transformed into liberty. Liberty cannot live apart from constitutional principle; and no administration, however perfect and liberal its methods, can give men more than a poor counterfeit of liberty if it rest upon illiberal principles of government.
Let’s go over that again: Wilson, the great champion of administration, in the very foundational article in which he lays out the science of administration, says that administration in America must be limited by the liberal principle of democratic rule according to a set system. “Liberty cannot live apart from constitutional principle.” If we, a free people, are to remain free, we must preserve our constitutional order. If we lose our constitutional order, we lose our freedom: “no administration, however perfect and liberal its methods, can give men more than a poor counterfeit of liberty if it rests upon illiberal principles of government.”
Tyranny in Executive Orders Means the End of Freedom
That Obama is preparing to act against our constitutional order, if not the outright letter of the law, in his position as chief executive is shown by the fact that he is willing to trash his executive order if Congress passes a particular law. His executive order is intended as a substitute for a law that Congress has not passed. He is executing what he wants Congress to do, not what they are doing.
This executive order is not the administration of the law that Wilson, much less the framers of our constitutional order, envisioned. This is executive fiat to bypass a Congress that is unwilling to pass the president’s favored law. This is government by illiberal principles.
Conservatives can and do find much to object to in Woodrow Wilson’s writings. Some even see him as the great destroyer of our constitutional order. His “science of administration” is profoundly problematic on a number of levels. But Wilson was no king, and he at least said he wanted to preserve democratic rule. President Obama, it appears, does not. Since his resounding defeat on election day, he and his liberal defenders are left appealing to the people who did not vote to justify his executive action. This argument is simultaneously laughably lame and deeply cynical.
President Obama is not just betraying the Constitution by ramming through what he wants. He is betraying his Progressive heritage. We cannot know what Wilson would have thought of this kind of order, and progressives have always been the party of “getting stuff done.” But progressives have always sought to preserve democracy in some form. Obama is wrecking it.