I am very happy to say that the distinctions between left and right, and their historical and philosophical foundations, are being discussed more than at any other time in the years that I have been politically and culturally aware. That would be, I hate to say, almost 30 years.
I think we have President Barack Obama to thank for that. A progressive to the very core of his being, and thus a man of the left, he has prompted interesting responses from both sides of this cultural divide.
After the election of 2008, progressives believed this was their time. With a presidential administration and congressional majority full of committed statists, what followed, they were sure, would be a flourishing of government committed to alleviating every possible ill American society has inflicted upon its citizens.
To their chagrin that hasn’t worked out so well. The expansion of government, and the cost for it, hasn’t seemed to go over so well with the American public.
What excites me about this time in American history is that we may have an educational moment to see our political and cultural debates from a broader perspective outside the confines of the present. There are many commentators contributing to this conversation. George Will is an elegant and erudite contributor to this debate. In a recent article he gets to the heart of the matter in just a few paragraphs:
Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians — James Madison, class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of “progressivism,” was the first President critical of the nation’s founding. Barack Obama’s Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake’s rejection of limited government.
Lack of “a limiting principle” is the essence of progressivism, according to William Voegeli, contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books, in his new book “Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.” The Founders, he writes, believed that free government’s purpose, and the threats to it, is found in nature. The threats are desires for untrammeled power, desires which, Madison said, are “sown in the nature of man.” Government’s limited purpose is to protect the exercise of natural rights that pre-exist government, rights that human reason can ascertain in unchanging principles of conduct and that are essential to the pursuit of happiness.
Wilsonian progressives believe that History is a proper noun, an autonomous thing. It, rather than nature, defines government’s ever-evolving and unlimited purposes. Government exists to dispense an ever-expanding menu of rights — entitlements that serve an open-ended understanding of material and even spiritual well-being.
Why is this important? Because all of the debates over the role of the state in American life have been dominated by the assumptions of Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and the other founders of the welfare state. Their assumptions are rarely questioned, if ever, by the mainstream media and academia. Instead they are just accepted as the way things are.
That is why government keeps growing regardless of who is in office. It will always be difficult for things to move in the direction of James Madison and the nation’s other founders as long as the professions of cultural influence are dominated by progressives, but maybe the terms of the debate will not remain so one-sided.