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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. R.J. Pestritto On The Progressives

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HH: This is the last hour of the radio week, and therefore, it’s the last hour of the Hillsdale Dialogue, which many of you, no matter where I go in this country, come up to tell me that you have come to treasure, as I have. Thank you so much for doing that. This may be the hour that drives you crazy, though. It’s the hour on the progressives. And to remind you over the last six weeks, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and I, have reviewed the rise of Abraham Lincoln, his political theory, his wartime generalship, the tragic assassination, and the era of Reconstruction. And briefly put, after that era of Reconstruction was the so-called gilded age, which we are gliding over the gilded age, to come to a period of time known as the progressive era. And I am not an expert on either the Reconstruction era or the progressive era except as so far as the Supreme Court decisions go. And Dr. Arnn himself said he would call for reinforcements. So joining the president of the college today is Dr. Ronald Pestritto, who is in fact an expert on the progressives. He is the graduate dean at Hillsdale and the associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he teaches political theory, American political thought and American politics. And he is the senior fellow of the college’s Kirby Center. He gets occasionally to go down and visit at the criminal law, philosophy and public policy center at Bowling Green State University, and he’s published so much on this, we are in good hands. Dr. Pestritto, welcome. Dr. Arnn, welcome back.

LA: Good to talk, Hugh.

RP: Good to be here, Hugh.

HH: Now I want to begin by noting on your vita that was sent to me by Mr. Murnen, there is a note that you are currently working on a scholarly article on Lincoln and the progressive movement. Given where we have been for the last seven hours of the Hillsdale Dialogues, that shocked me a little bit. I thought Abraham Lincoln was in our rear view mirror except in our hearts. What is that about, Dr. Pestritto? And how does Lincoln connect to the progressive movement?

RP: Well, you know, everybody wants to claim Lincoln. Everybody wants a piece of Lincoln. This is true today, of course. You see many on the left who want to claim the legacy of Lincoln. And it was true on the left a hundred years ago. And some of our most prominent national progressives, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, justified a lot of their progressivism on the basis of Lincoln and Lincoln’s statesmanship, a profoundly erroneous understanding of Lincoln’s statesmanship. But that was just as popular on the left during the progressive era as it is today.

HH: Oh, I’m relieved. I thought you were making a Kim Philby-like argument that Lincoln was one of them and we didn’t know it.

RP: Oh, no, no, no, not at all. In fact, I’m trying to do some justice to Lincoln from the bad effect on his name because of the progressive claims on it.

HH: Oh, then I will retreat from my worry and go back to the beginning. Dr. Arnn, when last we talked, we had seen Reconstruction abandoned in the aftermath of the 1876 election. And we entered this age of laissez faire and let the good times roll, and growth and recession, and growth and recession. Here we are at the progressive era. Are you surprised that in recent years, people as diverse as Jonah Goldberg, with Liberal Fascism, and the wonderful Charles Kessler with his book, and everybody in between has been writing about the progressive era. Hillsdale College, in fact, did an entire online course on the progressives.

LA: We did. Well, first of all, you’ll find it in Jonah Goldberg’s book, lots of quotes by R.J. Pestritto. And of course, R.J. Pestritto was a student of Charles Kessler, so these connections are not so amazing as you think. But also, it commands attention for two reasons, I think. One is it’s a great movement of thought, that is to say great in the sense of large. In the 19th Century, an idea was born that has become the commanding idea. And the second thing is it’s a great movement of politics, and it has restructured and redirected the American government to a very considerable extent. So it’s a topic. And you have to talk about it.

HH: And Dr. Pestritto, I spent most of last week preparing for, and all day Monday of this week interviewing Richard Norton Smith about his massive and wonderful biography of Nelson Rockefeller. And when Nelson Rockefeller arrived in the governor’s mansion in Albany in 1958, he was very much the end stage of progressivism at all practicality and trying to make, bring all the scientific geniuses together and no ideology. Was that foreseeable when the movement got underway?

RP: You have to repeat your question there for a second, Hugh. Was what foreseeable?

HH: You know, a Rockefeller-like approach to every problem, let’s just get the experts together and fix it.

RP: Yeah, no, very much a part of progressivism. I mean, what, part of, I like to talk about the connections between progressive thought and the rise of modern bureaucracy, and it’s one of the reasons why I argue that discussions like this about progressivism are still so relevant today, is because you know, we’re governed so much by regulation. And this sort of attitude in the culture of it is very much a part of the original idea of the progressive movement. The idea, what I like to, it’s just the authority of science. You’re talking about people when they were young who came up in the second half of the 19th Century, and you know, wanted to make their mark, and were looking for some opportunity. Where’s the place, and what’s the way in which me, and educated people like me, can make our mark on our country? And politics at that time was thought to be quite low and corrupt. And there’s a certain historical context for that, obviously, to some degree.

HH: Do we credit Leon Czolgosz, I think that’s how you say his name, the man who shot William McKinley as the man who unleashed progressivism on the country?

RP: I certainly don’t. No, I mean, progressivism is, it’s unleashed on the country long before that. And it’s unleashed through the universities.

HH: Oh, interesting.

RP: I mean, this is why, no, this is why we, many of us are so passionate about what we do as teachers, because when, talk about how we got away from Constitutional thinking in 20th and 20th Century America, modern America, it’s a long project. It was decades and decades in the making. And it started, you start at the top. And that’s what Aristotle says, you know. In any regime, you start at the ideas at the top, and they filter down. And so progressivism came in through the universities, starting back into the middle of the 19th Century, some would argue even earlier.

HH: Who’s the first progressive?

RP: Well, the first progressive politician probably on the national scale, someone like Woodrow Wilson. And he’s an intellectual long before he’s a politician. But you know, you have to look at, for example, the influence of places like Johns Hopkins University.

HH: Yup, I thought you’d go there, yeah.

RP: …which was founded in the 1870s on the German model, and educated not just Wilson, but John Dewey, the most prominent public philosopher in the first half of the 20th Century, Frederick Jackson Turner. Just a host of progressives came in around there.

HH: Would you pause for a moment, Dr. Pestritto?

RP: Sure.

HH: Tell people what the German model is.

RP: Sure, just for a moment, I’ll tell you about the German model. No, the idea, you know, German political philosophy in the 19th Century, the idea that everything is contingent on history. So you could talk about questions of good government or justice or truth, and you couldn’t really speak about those things in absolute terms or in universal terms. Everything would be contingent, right? Justice means one thing in one age, and another in another. And so you know, the German political philosophers brought history to talks about, to discussions of justice.

LA: So let me add. Okay, so history is not any more a record of the past, which especially at key moment shows all the human potentialities. So you can study the Greeks or the Romans or the British, or the great things, or the Chinese, and you can see at the peak what human beings are capable of doing. Now history is a formative experience. It has an effect on people and shapes them, and effect on nature, too. And so now history is a record of making, and as the making goes on, what comes later is not as, is not the same as what went before.

HH: And so this gets going in the universities in the United States at Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876. I know that, because it was on my birthday, February 22. And off it went. And as I recall, I read a history of it once, specifically areligious, almost militantly so, Dr. Pestritto.
RP: Yeah, and what’s going on at Hopkins, I mean, Hopkins is the most obvious representative of the sort of transference of the German way of thinking into the United States. But it’s not the only instance of it. I mean, at this time, you have not just at Hopkins, but in the major universities, you have all these orthodox universities, orthodox boards of trustees. But they think the thing that they need to do to be trendy, to be elite, is to hire PhD’s from Europe, and especially from Germany. And so a lot of the universities, you know, are affected. You know, such a great difference if you look at, say, 1860 versus 1900 in the American college or university, they’re just radically different. And so by the time you get to the turn of the 20th Century, this way of thinking is in, I like to say, it’s in the air and the water.

—- – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, a moment on John Dewey. He’s come up a few times in our conversations in a few asides. Why is he such a critical fixture in American conversations about what went wrong?

LA: Well, he had a long academic career at Columbia, mostly. He’s what R.J., Professor Pestritto called him. He was a public intellectual. He was connected in politics, and these guys were very much like that, because their ideas drove them to think that this process of history that shapes everything can be understood, and in fact, can only be understood scientifically. You have to understand the process of history. And if you understand it, then you could affect it, cooperate with it, maybe change it. And so they have a motive that’s different from the motive of the founders. The founders wanted to learn the lessons of history and arrange the society so that it accorded with the best things that you could find in history, the best principles and the best practices. What these guys think is there’s a process going on, and the process gives us an opportunity for a more radical kind of improvement. And that means that we have to be scientists as we approach, a discipline that they pretty much invented, public administration. And so Dewey is a man, like most of these guys, who’s an academic guy who has a lot to say about what we ought to do. My favorite thing written by him, which because it’s the most horrific, is the general report of 1916. Sometimes, I think it’s 1906. I bet R.J. knows, because he knows most about this. And what it is, is the founding document for the teachers union for colleges.

HH: Oh, my.

LA: And he explains the new basis of the university, and he divides things that used to be together. He thought the university’s purposes were teaching and research, which in the classical university, are the same thing. You learn together. That’s what universities do. But then he added a third, contributing to the social evolution of the society. And then he, and so that’s a new task, right? And if you think about that for a minute, that’s an exercise in power. You’re going to influence things now, not just understand. You’re going to make. And then religion comes up in the document three times, associated each time with the word propaganda. Universities that have religious commitments, and by the way, there were hardly any old universities in history since the first ones of the 13th Century that didn’t begin with Christians, specifically, or with religious purposes. But now, those, they can continue, he says, but they are obliged in honesty to identify themselves as propaganda institutions.

HH: Wow. And Dr. Pestritto, anything to add to this, as to Dewey? Those are some radical concepts right there and major breaks. But at the same time, I like to point out, we spent hours on Marx and Engels earlier in this series. They were revolutionaries. Was Dewey a revolutionary? Or was he merely, did he consider himself a scientist?

RP: Dewey, he didn’t want to present himself as a revolutionary. The argument that he made is, you know, that his version of liberalism, that progressive liberalism, modern liberalism, was a natural outgrowth, that it was just, you know, history was bringing about positive change to liberalism. And so he wanted to make an argument of continuity. One of the ways he did that, Hugh, the sort of one point I was going to add, and this is something that you see talked about a lot in politics today, he says you know, that old understanding of liberty, the founders’ understanding, is a negative understanding, right? It’s about what your rights are, what government can’t do to you. And so it’s a right you have in principle. But the problem is, if you’re, in a material sense, if you’re poor, if you’re, if you don’t have any money, if you don’t have any food, then you really can’t enjoy liberty. And so Dewey talks about the difference between negative liberty and positive liberty. He talks about, you know, effective liberty. And this is very influential, for example, if you look at FDR’s, you know, the 1944 annual message, where he talks about the second Bill of Rights. You know, you’ve got all these negative rights in the original Bill of Rights, and then there’s all these other rights that we need to have, right to food, right to a job, right to shelter, right to all of this. And you need the second to enjoy the first. And so for Dewey, you know, that’s just an outgrowth out of the old liberalism.

HH: And so now, when Dewey, as you said, ideas, and Aristotle said, ideas begin at the top, and they move their way down through the universities, and Dewey is the representative of that movement, which is much broader than Dewey, and then they move into politics. And you cited Wilson as the first sort of, the prime mover of that both as governor of New Jersey, obviously, and then as president. Before that, though, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book earlier this year, the Bully Pulpit, in which she talked about the muckrakers and about TR, and about Taft, and about the whole undoing of TR and his love of attacking things big, and his pseudo progressivism. Are you rejecting that, Dr. Pestritto? Was TR not a progressive?

RP: No, oh, far from it. And in fact, I’ve published nationally on the question of TR’s progressivism, and identifying him as a very fervent progressive. Both TR and Wilson are progressives going back into the 19th Century. I guess I would say the reason Wilson came to mind not only as someone I figure I know better, which may have something to do with it, but when TR was president, you know, there’s, I don’t want to say a transformation, but there’s certainly a much harder edge to his progressivism that takes place after his presidency. He leaves office, he goes on safari. On his way back, he reads Herbert Croly’s Promise Of American Life, which had just come out.

HH: Ah.

RP: Croly, you know, another very prominent progressive intellectual, probably the most important one we haven’t mentioned, yet, one of the founders of the New Republic, the founding editor of the New Republic.

HH: We have to mention Lippmann as well, correct?

RP: Absolutely, yes. That’s very good. So you know, TR becomes, in a way, sort of, I don’t want to say transformed, because I think he’s a progressive all along. But you know, as progressivism takes on a sharper edge, he returns and becomes a critic of Taft. And this is when you get to speeches like the new nationalism, and these sort of much more radical accounts of American progressivism from TR, as really almost as a critic of Wilson. They see Wilson as a kind of conservative, Croly and TR do.

HH: And so Larry Arnn, is that where the Republican Party gets its occasional outbursts of populists in progressive rhetoric, because of that TR branch of the party?

LA: Well, it was deeper, and wider and deeper than him. You know, these were the ideas, right? And they had a basis in popular sentiment, too. One of the expressions of it was trustbusting and these big corporations. You know, the politics of today are recognizable in the politics of the time of TR and later, and for a long time. And you get what I regard as a profound and beautiful reaction against that, and a return to the idea of the founding, in Calvin Coolidge.

HH: But it does not last. Its roots are not deep enough, and we’ll tell you what happens next.

— – – – –

HH: No one has become more controversial in the last ten years, I’m going to say, Dr. Pestritto, among conservatives than Woodrow Wilson. I put a lot of this down to Jonah Goldberg and Charles Kessler, as I mentioned earlier. People might have had a different view of Wilson, tragic or well-intentioned, or whatever, but now they’ve come actually on our side of the political aisle to view him as rather sinister. Is that deserved?

RP: I mean, I think partly deserved. I don’t know if he was necessarily a sinister man personally, but he, I think people have come to understand Wilson’s pivotal role in the transformation of the American regime. You know, when I started my scholarship, my scholarship was on the founding, and I became interested in what happened to the founding, and the development of our country. And that’s why I got interested in the progressives. In fact, Charles Kessler was a teacher of mine, whom you mentioned, put me onto Wilson for that reason. And you know, I studied him a lot, learned a lot about him, and have argued in recent years, long before it became popular to talk about Wilson, by the way, among conservatives, that he was this very important figure. I do think, I think TR is a more, the case for TR’s progressivism is a more controversial case. I run into a lot of conservatives who have admiration for TR, and of course, that’s understandable, right? I mean, he’s a much more sort of manly, attractive figure than Wilson.

HH: Bully. Bully, bully.

RP: Yeah, and the guy gets shot…

HH: And the Great White Fleet, yes.

RP: He gets shot giving a speech, you know, in 1912, and that’s at the beginning of the speech, and he finishes the speech, and it’s some 90 minutes long or whatever. That account’s probably apocryphal to a certain extent. But you know, Wilson, you’d never mistake that person for Wilson. And so for a lot of conservatives, what, they can’t get past that. But if we conservatives think the problem in our time is the out of control government that we have, the idea that government knows no Constitutional bounds, then you really can’t find someone who is a bigger advocate of unlimited government than Teddy Roosevelt.

HH: And you can also find very few people who speak as bluntly as Woodrow Wilson about the ability to set aside the uncomfortable parts of the Constitution that limit his authority, Larry Arnn. He was very glib when it came to saying he could do what he wanted done.

LA: Oh, yeah. And see, constitutionalism, which Madison describes in the case of the American Constitution to be a reflection of the order of nature, is supposed to provide a fixity of form. And through this fixity of form, that we proceed in certain ways when we do things, that is to add deliberation and protection to the process. It’s not, by the way, meant to stifle the government. They’re powerful ways that it’s meant to liberate the government, make it powerful. They were building a more powerful government when they wrote the Constitution. What these guys think is you just have to adjust all that, all the time, because facts are coming up. Our Professor Pestritto has written what I think is a really, he’s written a lot that I think is great, but he’s written a really great essay on the subject of separation of powers, which is by the way the key, it gives the structure to the Constitution, and how lightly they took it, and how contemptuous the leading progressives were of the very idea of it. And of course, Wilson himself was a big critic of that.

HH: Well, if you took them all and you distilled them down, Dewey and Lippmann and Croly and TR and Wilson, and eventually FDR, who overwhelms your favorite, Coolidge, Larry, what is it that they all believe? What is, how would you summarize it? I always put it to my law students, you’ve got to be able to make an argument that a 7th grader understands. So Dr. Pestritto, what is it that brings them all together and binds them together under that title, progressive.

LA: Ooh, I thought I was going to get the 7th grade question.

HH: (laughing) You can have the 4th grade question after I don’t understand Pestritto’s answer to the 7th grade. Then I’m going to go to you.

RP: Okay, I’m going to let you say that, Hugh, to my boss. So look, what I always say, progressivism is an argument to get over the founding, get over the Constitution, get beyond it. And the amazing, you know, the tie in a lot of the things that the progressives you just named, the things that they write and say, you go back and read that stuff, so many of those things will begin with a, they’ll bring up the political theory of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and they need to discredit it before they can move on. And that’s something that’s common to most of them.

HH: That is, hold onto that. We’re going to come right back. An argument to get over the founding. How well put.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, Dr. Pestritto was saying as we went to break that progressivism always is an argument to get over the founding. Now my question becomes why would people want to get the founding. Now I guess the answer is in the form of Jane Hall or others who hate the squalor and the suffering of industrialization. But you tell me. Why do they want to get over the founding?

LA: Okay, now the 4th grade.

HH: Yup.

LA: So the point is, the classics teach us that people do things for some good. They see a good. And their argument really, especially their political argument, goes like this. Look at the world. The powers of man are growing all the time. We can do so much more than we used to be able to do. We have so much more wealth than we used to be able to do, and that, by the way, is a continuity in the human story. we are the tool making people, the contrivers. We can overcome nature. And so now we’ve reached the stage where we should be more systematic about it, because great gains can be had. And it’s great that the American Revolution happened. It prepares the way for us, for the next thing. But also, it can be in the way. And all these obstacles that it puts up, you have to be impatient with those, because much better things are possible now. And I will add, and that’s their argument. And then I will just add to that that if it’s true that human nature is the overcomer of all nature, then what is the standard that you would measure better and worse by?

HH: That’s…

LA: How do you know you’re making it better?

HH: That’s what I was saying. Much better things can be accomplished, but if they have jettisoned religion, then why do they have, what basis do they have, like Catholic social teaching, you could have held onto and argued for the halt
, the blind and the lame or something like that. But they’re all atheists or agnostic, Dr. Pestritto. What is it that they’re, they want to make better?

RP: Well, we have to be careful about that, because they’re, conservatives often assume that progressives were atheists. Many were. But there’s as big a branch of progressivism that is profoundly intertwined with religion faith.

HH: Well see, they I would understand much more easily than those who were not, right?

RP: Yes, no, that’s a good point. I mean, for social gospel, for example…

HH: Exactly.

RP: …is a kind of religious arm of progressivism, and sees God essentially in history manifesting itself ultimately in the state.

HH: And that they would want to sweep away the founding if they really thought that they could do more for good for the lost, the least and the blind, the halt and the lame.

RP: Well, here’s the view. The view of nature in the founding is that it’s fallen, that human nature is fallen, and that perfection is not possible in this life, and so human government has to be limited. And the, and there’s, the progressive account, both theological and philosophic is man can be perfected, and so there can be the perfection of human nature in this life. And therefore, human works can be perfect, and we can do more with the state. That’s the big conflict here.

HH: And so Dr. Arnn, has that crashed and broken now, I mean, beyond repair? FDR had his way of being wily about it, but now we’ve been through a couple of iterations of it, and we are in the end stage of progressivism with President Obama, aren’t we?

LA: Well, that’s the $64,000 dollar question, and that depends on the future, right? There’s a great controversy about it now. As progressivism has installed itself in the government, the government has become less trusted and less popular very steadily, and that’s now reached a pitch, you know. There’s an intensity about it. And that wasn’t true of the government, let’s say, in 1920 or 1955 in the way that it is now, and there’s some polling about that at least since the Second World War. But on the other hand, the government also grows steadily more powerful. And so the question before the House, in my opinion, is are we going to have a government built on principles and of such a scale and such a set of powers, and operating in such a way that it doesn’t matter so much what we think anymore? And that seems to me the question before the House these days.

HH: And Dr. Pestritto, my question to you is would the progressives of the early 20th Century recognize the progressivism of a hundred years later and applaud it?

RP: They would differ with a lot of the specifics. I mean, you know, the liberalism of the 60s and post-60s, you know, would in many respects be unrecognizable to the early progressives. On the other hand, it comes out of progressivism, because progressivism, original progressivism, sets in motion the contempt for the Constitution, the contempt for limits, the contempt for nature. You know, all of that is utterly consistent with modern iterations of progressivism.

HH: And so do you think it’s end stage? Or is there even more government to be had in America?

RP: I’m the worst predictor in the world. This is why I’m a college professor. I really, you know, what gets me out of bed in the morning is the hope for the future, but I fear greatly where we are.

HH: Wouldn’t the true scientist, Larry Arnn, and I’ll close this week on this, and this year on this. Wouldn’t the true scientist, if there were true scientists in progressives, asses the last century and say failure, start over?

LA: No, the dynamic in it prevents that kind of thing, right, because there’s enormous scientific progress all the time, and gaining speed, it looks to me like. And that gives an argument for this idea that we can just organize everything. And then you know, people have a stake in it. And remember about the future, Churchill always said, the future, though imminent, is obscure. And it’s the progressives who think they can predict the future. What I think, and what, I’ll speak for him, Professor Pestritto thinks, and what you, Hugh Hewitt, think, is you think that what the future, it depends on choices me make, right? And how good are we? How lucky are we? That matters. How much does providence smile on us?

HH: How virtuous we are.

LA: That’s right. That’s good, right? And that, those are unanswered questions, right? I mean, for example, if you go back to 1940 in the month of May, Britain is beat, and they’re going to get out of the war. But then somebody intervened, and they didn’t.

HH: Well, that is a great way to end the year. Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Dr. R.J. Pestritto, who is the graduate dean there, thank you both very, very much. I think we’ll be returning to this subject in the new year.

End of interview.

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