The idea of progressive governance is, on the surface, rather appealing. This idea is that if the populous is to give something, the government, in return, will satisfy the populous’ needs or desires. This seemingly mutually beneficial transaction is what makes progressive ideology popular among younger Americans. However, the founding documents of America speak against such action.
The Framers of the Constitution knew that the idea of having a limited central government was unheard of and was fundamentally different from the makeup of every other countries’ political structure. Furthermore, studying the ideas of multiple Enlightenment thinkers — particularly John Locke — the Framers were able to create a radical, for its time period, structure of government to be based on the idea of separation of powers.
The purpose for this form of government was best described by James Madison in Federalist No. 48:
“After discriminating, therefore, in theory, the several classes of power, as they may in their nature be legislative, executive, or judiciary, the next and most challenging task is to provide some practical security for each, against the invasion of the others.”
It should be noted that Madison said that these three powers are different in their nature, and the Constitution can only be considered a functioning document if this idea can be properly understood. Framers clearly believed that separation of powers was crucial for our government as they mentioned separation of powers in three of the seven articles of our Constitution.
At the time of our Founding, looming threats of tyranny were plaguing other nations. By creating purpose-driven institutions, the Framers hoped to avoid this fate.
The Progressive Era brought about many structural changes to America. The catalyst for this legislative overhaul was Politics and Administration by Frank Johnson Goodnow, which suggested that there are two main functions of government: expression and execution of the will of the community.
The word “execution,” did not mean executive power as the Founding Fathers intended. Likewise, politics does not just relate to legislative power. Instead, progressives in the early twentieth-century believed that legislative power, as defined by the Constitution, was divided between both politics and administration. This led to legislators’ jobs changing from making laws to including the expression of the goals of the community in terms of wide-ranging objectives. This change led to numerous extensive policy proposals in the 1900s that were wiped of specific verbiage and instead focused on broad goals. As a result, Congress lost a lot of its muscle. The specificity of many of these policies were left to a federal bureaucracy to decide and implement.
Progressives believed that the Founders’ idea of separation of powers was ineffective and could not solve the problems of modern society. Therefore, they wanted to streamline the process. This change came as many progressive leaders believed that an act of legislation was a means of controlling social behavior. This belief became the bedrock of many of the early 1900s reforms in Congress.
This shift became a key point for political campaigns too. Many elected officials of the Executive Branch, including the president, were considered not just executive officials, but rather chief legislators who were dependent on public support. To get public support, they had to have a plethora of policies that the legislator could enact, and it also had to play a role in their chances of getting re-elected. This revision of the presidency can easily be seen in the importance of a president’s approval rating as it directly correlates to how much of his agenda can get passed.
This growth of executive power would have horrified the Founding Fathers. Yet, in the past one hundred years, policy packages have been critical for presidents. Most of these policy packages were the presidents’ most significant accomplishments during their time in office. Some of these packages included the New Freedom from Woodrow Wilson, the Square Deal from Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Great Society from Lyndon B. Johnson.
Each of these packages were legislative proposals brought forth by the Executive Branch that embodied a vision of where the United States should go. A sad side effect of this was that Congress became less of a legislative institution. Pursuant to progressive ideas of politics, the administrative state has taken over the power of Congress and has been turned into a fully autonomous bureaucratic branch of government — opposite of what the Framers intended.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.