10-24-15 – Progressivism and the Decline of the West (Part 1)

posted by Tom Licata

This is the first piece in a series on the roots and impact of Progressivism

Progressivism – so pervasive in today’s Democratic Party – is the ideology of American suicide and specifically of American Constitutionalism. This is the first in a series of writings dissecting and analyzing Progressivism’s ideological beliefs and ideas, to which the just stated conclusion will become self-evident. “Suicide” is an emotive term but here I use its cognitive ‘self-inflicting’ meaning. That is, the demise of American Constitutionalism is coming almost entirely from internal or domestic sources, rather than external or foreign.

The frameworks of these writings are largely taken from James Burnham’s 1964 work, “Suicide of the West,” a detailed analysis of liberalism’s history and beliefs, which ends in the conclusion that “Liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide.”

Mr. Burnham – who graduated atop of his Princeton class and became one of the great political theorists of the 20th century – knows this subject. As a Marxist in the 1930s, he was befriended by Leon Trotsky and became an influential leader in the American Trotskyite movement, after which he turned to the political Right. During World War II, Mr. Burnham took leave from his professorship at NYU to work for the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), where he lead the “Political and Psychological Warfare” division. President Ronald Reagan awarded Mr. Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

Before delving into Progressivism’s ideological beliefs and ideas (what Mr. Burnham calls “Liberalism,” I take liberty of updating to “Progressivism”), it’s important to define just what an “ideology” is and what impact it has on one’s thinking.

An ideology is a systematic set of beliefs and ideas about society and the nature of man. An ideologue’s thinking calls for a commitment independent of specific facts, experience or even of reality. Ideologues cannot lose arguments because their answers are predetermined in advance. If there are conflicts between their doctrines and reality, then reality surrenders. The primary functions of ideologues like Vermont’s Progressive-Democrats – and this is very important – is not to state truths as much as to adjust attitudes.

This explains why reforming something like Vermont’s education and property tax Gordian Knot of Act 60/68 or Vermont’s “single-payer” healthcare plan of Act 48 is so difficult: It’s bound up in all kinds of ideological beliefs and thinking, such as egalitarianism, rationalism and the nature of man’s perfectibility or “plasticity,” terms I’ll elaborate on in future writings. Vermont’s Progressive-Democrats are much more interested in bending attitudes towards their “ideological beliefs,” than in stating truths or reality.

Progressivism rejects both natural rights theory and the concept of man’s “Creator-endowed” inalienable rights, found in our Declaration of Independence. Instead, Progressivism enshrines a new doctrine of “socioeconomic rights.” These rights no longer attach to individuals, but to groups, such as to women, class, race, etc. Instead of rights springing from the individual (liberties as preexisting claims against the government), rights are created by the State (liberties as grants of relief from government). Such government relief comes in the form of things such as food stamps, housing allowances, free college education, etc.

But don’t take my word for it; take the explicit words of this rejection from the “father” of Progressivism himself, President Woodrow Wilson, in 1908: “No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual.…” And the even more explicit words from his protégé, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1932: “The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem of Government in terms of a contract…. Under such a contract rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order….”

“Nonsense [in] talk[ing] about the inalienable rights of the individual”? The Declaration of Independence as contract? Where would you find man’s “inalienable rights” written down in any contract, as they are “endowed by our Creator” and understood only in the “Laws of Nature”? And do we really want “rulers” rather the representatives, governing us? And if the “task of statesmanship” is the “redefinition of [our] rights,” are we still a free people, ultimately accountable to both the rights and duties endowed to us by our Creator?

If it’s not already self-evident that Progressivism and American Constitutionalism don’t go together and are mutually exclusive, then stay-tuned. Next up will be a dissection and analysis of Progressivism’s ideological beliefs about the nature of man.

–  Tom Licata is a member of the Ethan Allen Institute’s Board of Directors & founder of Vermonters for Economic Health.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Willem Lange October 24, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I have been waiting for years for the EAI to come up with practical alternatives to the evils they deplore. But so far nothing; just negative attacks on policies, programs, people, and the motives of others. How about a bright, shining conservative vision with specifics, not glittering generalities, eh?


John Cisar October 25, 2014 at 5:13 am

The EAI website is full of specifics. This article is a brief overview of an ideology so don’t make it into your straw man.


Robert October 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

It would appear Mr. Lange unwittingly proves one of the primary points in this post by demonstrating that he is much more interested in bending attitudes towards his “ideological beliefs,” than in stating truths or reality. He does not indicate any interest in a constructive dialogue, just unfriendly derision in an attempt to bend the attitudes of anyone reading the post.

Mr. Lange’s behavior is the same behavior I observe in nearly all Vermont leftists. They operate on feelings, unverifiable promises and predictions, and with a fervent belief that the state (ie Vermont progressives) is omniscient and cannot be reasonably questioned or challenged.

Because Vermont progressives are willing to trade their liberties and freedoms on an incremental, day-by-day basis in exchange for a feelings-based government who sees as its duty converting Vermont into a statewide commune, they assumes the rest of us should be willing to trade our liberties accordingly and are confused when we resist.

But the answer to his disingenuous question is that those who created this country gave us a bright, shining vision, and it is the straying from that vision that has and continues to cause nearly all the problems we face as a people.


D Og October 25, 2014 at 12:10 am

W. Lange,

I can answer your question…

The answer is freedom. It works whenever it is tried. In the history of man, it has not been tried very often or very long. America is the best example. It was great, but there is a constant loss of freedom that is unstoppable from my perspective.

The bright shining vision is the US Constitution, the document Progressive are shredding before your eyes.


Rob October 25, 2014 at 12:52 am

Mr. Lang,
Thanks for your comment. EAI has proposed practical, free market solutions to Vermont’s challenges.

For Education/Property taxes, we advocate strongly for expanding Vermont’s 150 year old, pioneering tuitioning program. This would provide all students in the state with the opportunity to attend any public or approved independent school with a substantial tuition to following the child. This tuition would be funded by a statewide tax compatible with the Brigham decision.

For Energy Policy, we advocate a policy that focuses on bringing cheap, reliable, base load power to market. We embrace all technologies, so long as they are financially self-sufficient, and stress the benefits of carbon free, nuclear power, which also has a small geographic footprint that does not require sacrificing huge swaths of Vermont’s pristine landscape for energy production.

For Tax Policy, we advocate for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights program like the one implemented in Colorado during the 1990’s, which contributed greatly to that state’s earning both the fastest job growth in the nation and the greatest reduction in childhood poverty in the nation while it was in effect.

For Healthcare, we advocate for a number of programs to achieve the goal universal, affordable coverage, including the purchasing of insurance across state lines, allowing individuals to purchase health insurance with pre-tax dollars, and a program that would reward doctors for serving the poor free of charge in clinics in exchange for the state assuming the costs of their malpractice insurance (this is a policy working its way through the NJ legislature currently).

We do not attack people or their motives, but certainly question policies that have demonstrably failed or are likely to fail due to the flawed principles upon which they are built.

Thanks again for participating in the conversation.


Ralph M McGregor October 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Rob has said it all but I doubt Mr. Lange will really read and think about his answer. The left trusts government completely but has no faith in the common sense of the average man !!


David Usher October 30, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Thanks, Tom, for taking on the task of explaining the beliefs that describe why people act the way they do. I am looking forward to the next chapter.

Ideologies and the actions that spring from them fundamentally revolve around what an individual believes about the nature of Man. The sources of those beliefs are religious writings and the facts of history. Ignoring either will lead to an erroneous belief in Man’s perfectibility.


Winifred McCarthy October 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm

How inspiring to see Mr. Lange join in the discussion about our civilization’s ideals and the abuses of propagandistic ideological policies.
These concepts are a compass for the ‘geography’ of everyday political events. But what appears glaring to me, aside from our loftier pursuits of conceptual differentiations, are the dangers of an expanding bureaucratization in political/governmental life. The greater the distance between the taxpayers’ hard earned income and those who spend that public portion of it, the larger the area for abuse. The flippant, arrogant, and greedy approaches of that bureaucracy can become the weight unbearable to a republic’s structure.
Well meaning goals are overwhelmed by the protective layers bureaucrats place between their own economic advantage and the implementation of policy. Well meaning citizens unwittingly can generate a whole new elite, an elite untouched by the pressures of the marketplace and with no oversight by government agencies–they have become the agency of both enforcement and oversight. Even President Roosevelt saw the danger in that integration of powers, powers that must always remain separate. The policies of the New Deal were built upon the assumption of that separation.


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