Obama and the Death of Progressivism
Jefferson White /January 2017
The rise of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency marked the beginning of a new era of American politics. It also marked the beginning of the end of American progressivism as a coherent spiritual force.
It is an accepted convention of the historians that there were two New Deals and that both occurred during the twelve year presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, it would be more accurate to call FDR’s entire administration the First New Deal and the Lyndon Johnson administration of the nineteen sixties the Second New Deal. This is because Johnson's Great Society legislation, together with the radical Supreme Court decisions of that era, vastly expanded the authority and power of FDR’s New Deal state.
And then the progressive revolution stalled for forty years. This was primarily because Republicans dominated the presidency from 1968 to 2008. Even the two Democratic presidents of that era were constrained in what they could do. They were forced to campaign, and even to govern, as political moderates.
That did not mean that the progressive revolution had ended. But during this long era, progressives were forced to employ indirect strategies. Indeed, this era could be called (to use Mao’s term) the progressive “long march” through America's major institutions, during which progressives took effective control of American society. Still, there was no great political "leap forward" during this era. Progressives were forced to proceed incrementally.
The third New Deal came into existence with the Obama election in 2008. It was widely believed by progressives, even before he took office, that the progressive revolution was now entering its final phase and that any effective opposition to progressivism would now disappear from American life. Progressives really believed that they were on the verge of radically reshaping American society.
The first New Deal had been focused on the economic disaster that was the Great Depression. It was not an attempt to morally spiritually transform America, except through economic legislation. While the liberal elite of that era viewed themselves as being spiritually superior to ordinary Americans, it would never have occurred to them to attempt to use the state to reshape the morals and beliefs of ordinary Americans.
To begin with, the dire economic straits of the time concentrated their minds. Secondly, the practical work of creating a new and centralized national American state on the ruins of a radically de-centralized political order was a task that was all-consuming. And thirdly, most New Deal liberals simply did not think in terms of using the power of the state for the moral reform of society. They had, after all, just repealed Prohibition.
Even the second New Deal of the sixties was mainly a continuation, although also a vast expansion, of the authority of the New Deal state. The spiritual revolution of the sixties occurred outside of politics, although it would have immediate political implications. And as the Baby Boom generation took control of the national administrative state, and also of higher education, they would merge the libertine sexual morality of the sixties with their newly acquired puritanical conviction that control of America's bureaucratic institutions was the key to a spiritual transformation of American life.
It was the Supreme Court of the sixties that laid the groundwork for everything that followed. The major Court decisions of that era, driven by liberal justices who had been young during the first New Deal, cleared the legal ground by judicially declaring that “religion” was to be made completely separate from American law and social mores. The real progressive goal was to separate only one religion – Christianity – from shaping American society. The liberal justices fully intended that their own religion – progressivism – would become the new spiritual basis of that society.
The death of the American Constitution took place in three stages.
First, during the thirties and forties, the political ascendency of the American central state effectively ended American federalism. Second, during the sixties and seventies, the vast expansion of the national state eventuated now eventuated in the creation of a vast, bureaucratic “administrative state.” Third, beginning in the sixties, the federal courts and the judicial elements of the administrative state effectively became the key players in American government. The "administrative state" created its own laws, enforced its own laws, and adjudicated its own laws largely in independence of the elected branches of government.
However, this new administrative system was only an interim form of government. In the thirties and forties, most liberals had believed that the presidency should become the capstone of American government. They believed that the Congress, the national courts, and the national bureaucracy should be subordinated to presidential authority. Between 1933 and 1968, most liberals publicly argued for the necessity of an imperial presidency, since they believed that only the president represented the people as a whole.
This core liberal belief would abruptly vanish by the end of the nineteen sixties. And during the next forty years of the Republican domination of the presidency, liberal intellectuals would write essays and books condemning “the imperial presidency.” Liberals would fight, often successfully, to achieve their goals through the rulings of the courts and of the administrative state, effectively bypassing presidential authority.
However, this forty year liberal aversion to an imperial presidency abruptly came to an end with the election of Barak Hussein Obama. Even before his election, Obama was being touted by progressives as the next FDR. Progressives believed that Obama would now radically transform American society. The American presidency would finally come into its own as the primary means of enacting a permanent progressive revolution.
During the Obama administration, progressives even came to believe that congressional legislation was no longer needed to alter the laws of the United States. Instead, executive orders were issued that would effectively nullify those laws with which liberals disagreed. Large parts of the administrative state under Obama now treated congressional statues as open-ended charters that authorized those agencies to do what a few years previously had been thought to lay outside their legal authority. Key governmental agencies issued regulations and undertook programs with no discernible connection to the Congressional laws that supposedly authorized them.
Even when liberal federal judges struck down those new regulations as unlawful, the agencies would simply ignore those federal court decisions. The same regulations would simply be "re-issued" under a "different" claimed legal authority. Parts of the administrative state were now engaged in an illegal collusion with outside progressive organizations. Those friendly organizations would sue them and then "judge shop" to find a judge who would grant the agencies the additional authority that they sought.
Almost no news of these events was ever covered in the major media, which was now little more than the public relations arm of the revolution. In essence, Obama became America’s first dictator, with effective progressive control of the administrative state being the key to a new kind of presidential government.
Polling data revealed that about one third of the American people understood that Obama, his appointees, and the permanent bureaucracy, were routinely breaking the laws of the United States. That left about two-thirds of the American people who were either ignorant of these events, since they got their news from the major media, or even because they supported the illegal activities of the Obama administration so long as they advanced progressive "reform.". A major poll revealed that a near-majority of Democratic voters believed that Obama should simply ignore any federal court order that stood in the way of his reforms.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, all the major institutions of American life were under progressive control: the mass media, mass education, the administrative state. Even large private corporations were now fully onboard with progressive ideas of political correctness. More decisively, progressives had reached a stage in their political evolution in which they increasingly considered any public opposition to their beliefs to be illegitimate. Progressives were increasingly committed to ending public expression of non-progressive beliefs.
At the same time, an anti-progressive news media had taken shape on talk radio and on the Internet. The Internet in particular has become a direct threat to progressive control of the news. Obama took the initial steps to bring the Internet under control by turning over the institution governing its addressing to an international body that would be free of First Amendment litigation. Obama packed the FCC with hardline progressives who believed in the social necessity for re-regulating radio broadcasting and for regulating the Internet in the interest of “social fairness.”
But the key event in Obama’s attempt to suppress opposition to progressivism was the eight year effort to use the IRS to go after political opponents. Although some American presidents had previously used the IRS to harass certain of their political enemies, under Obama this intimidation went from being directed at a relative handful of people to becoming a major program directed at tens of thousands. The Obama Justice Department engaged in the unlawful support of this effort and even participated in legal cover-ups associated with the project.
In some states, Democratic public prosecutors launched investigations of their political opponents on a scale previously unknown in American history.
Although the major media was forced, to some extent, to cover the IRS scandals, no full account would ever be reported. The media began by denying that the IRS was engaged in a massive effort at all, but soon switched to the claim that the IRS intimidation had been minor and immediately ended by Obama when he “discovered” what was going on. The real truth was that the IRS engaged a massive program of political intimidation throughout Obama’s two terms. Participating IRS officials were given raises, bonuses, and were also promoted. The program was never ended.
Again, none of this was reported by the major media. However, it was reported by the alternative conservative media. Similar scandals, involving the massive corruption of large swathes of administrative government, were also reported by the conservative media. But as Obama left office, the major media would feature story after story on how “scandal free” the Obama administration had been. The major media was as corrupt as Obama's government.
During the Obama era, it was widely believed by progressives that there would never be another Republican president. Progressives had become convinced that Obama was creating a new political order that would mark a decisive turning point in American history. After more than a century of progressive struggle to create the progressive state, they believed that a final revolution was in sight. And organized dissent was expected to largely disappear.
In part, this belief stemmed from a real demographic trend. A huge, and growing, illegal immigrant population was now pouring into American, an invasion deliberately orchestrated by progressives within the administrative state since the Clinton administration. Progressives believed that, within twenty years, Hispanics and blacks would be a near majority of voters. White progressives viewed the coming “browning” of America as the key to the final progressive triumph.
Since polling data consistently revealed that most new immigrants favored a vast expansion of governmental services, and since progressives believed that most new immigrants would become the permanent users of those services, the American left was celebrating a future in which they would completely dominate American politics.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, key agencies of the national state engaged in a massive manufacturing of as many new citizens and voters as could be managed. Attempts by Republicans to require voter IDs, so that only citizens could vote, were fought to a standstill by progressives in the bureaucracies and in the courts. But progressive efforts, at least for the 2016 election, turned out not to be enough.
Not only was the anti-immigration candidate Donald J. Trump elected president, but solid Republican majorities were returned in both houses of Congress. The Republican Party now dominated most state governments. The Democratic Party was reduced, at least temporarily, to a near political irrelevancy.
But the progressive expectations of a final revolution were based on more than mass immigration. Because of progressive control of American education, American school children were now being taught that progressive beliefs alone were politically and socially legitimate. Most American universities had become little more than progressive seminaries. “Holiness spirals” were now the collegiate norm, in which young progressives outbid each other in denouncing, and attempting to purge, any professors or students who were insufficiently progressive.
Progressives believed that, as this new generation of Americans came to a majority, they would ruthlessly act to suppress any remaining opposition to progressive belief. These deliberately illegal acts of the Obama administration were just a foretaste of the political revolution to come. A future American progressive state would exercise a complete surveillance and control of all human relationships so as to finally create a new kind of human society.
The only real question was whether that one third of the American people who were more or less consciously anti-progressive would seriously revolt against this revolution. But a serious political or social revolt against progressivism, at least before Trump, seemed unlikely.
The election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016 was a shot across the bow of the progressive revolution. But whether the Trump presidency would energize into a serious popular revolt remained an open question. Since this essay is written immediately after Trump's inauguration, there is as yet no answer to this question.
There is also the interesting question of whether the American economic system was headed for a financial collapse, no matter who was president. The ongoing financialization of the world economy by the world's central banks and the major private banks – in the view of many experts – made a major economic collapse inevitable.
The only question was how this economic collapse would play out politically. If Trump and the Republicans were in power when it happened, which seemed likely, then the political worm would immediately turn and progressives would take full control of American government. And under the guise of responding to that economic emergency, the final progressive revolution could finally begin.
But that would also clearly mark the point at which progressive belief would cease to have anything to do with political idealism and would become little more than an ideological justification for authoritarian rule. The final progressive revolution would usher in the death of progressivism.