The Progressive Movement Rejected The Founders’ Model For Lawmaking

By Madeline Osburn FEBRUARY 1, 2019

When the founders of our country designed the legislative branch, they envisioned lawmakers relying on natural law and reason. They gave the legislature the power to create rules that either prohibit or allow behaviors, and would apply generally to the people as a whole, not specific groups. About a century later, the American Progressive movement took off in American politics and threw the founders’ vision out the window.

The American Progressive movement’s leaders and ideologues included Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Herbert Croly. Progressives rejected the natural law and natural rights arguments of the Declaration of Independence, and believed they were outdated for the needs of modern society. You can learn about the Progressives’ model of government in the third lecture, “Politics and Administration,” in Hillsdale College’s online course on Congress.

The Progressives disagreed often on the details of their philosophy, but the generally agreed model for legislative power was divided between politics and administration. “Politics” was the side they viewed as most closely connected to the people, and included anyone who was in an elected position such as Congress and the presidency. “Administration” is what we know today as the bureaucratic state, and it was (and still is) the furthest from the control of the people.

The administrative side was to be made up of supposedly non-partisan experts in various fields who are given the power implement the goals established by the political side. Their legislature worked like this: the political side was legislating the ends, or the stated goals of the people, and the administrative side was legislating the means to those ends.

“Legislation is but the oil of government,” Wilson wrote. He saw as legislation directing others to act, but it not acting in and of itself. That’s because to the progressives, it was not up to the elected representatives to solve society’s problems in exhaustive detail, that was up to the administration. Rather, what Congress should pass is more like a vision statement — goals expressing the wills of the communities that elected them.

They reasoned that the real power to create rules and change behavior should lie within the administration because those in the elected positions would be limited in their scope of knowledge, as would the people who elected them. Neither average citizens nor those they vote for are experts in knowing what chemicals shouldn’t be in our air, our complicated health care system, or how to standardize factories. But they do know they want clean air, affordable health care, and safe workplaces. A good progressive policy would be a clear, broad goal expressed as the will of the community, and then the details would be fleshed out and implemented by the administration.

The role of the president fell under this political umbrella. He was seen as a representative of everyone, and his constituency was the whole country. Public opinion needs to be shaped, formed, and focused on a particular direction for this model to work. The president can develop, and even get elected on, a specific platform to press onto the legislators. As we’ve clearly experienced, nearly every president since the Progressive movement has done just that.

Progressives also instilled our modern framework for a more democratic electorate. Some of the reforms introduced in this era included the recall, the first campaign finance legislation, direct primaries for nominations, and the direct election of senators. They believed in tying the people as closely as possible to elected officials.

The irony of their democratic conviction is that by their own model, the real power was stripped away as far as possible from the people. The people’s representatives would voice the public’s opinion, but it was the wholly unaccountable bureaucratic administrators who implemented their desired changes to society.

Madeline is a staff writer at the Federalist and the producer of The Federalist Radio Hour. Follow her on Twitter.

The Federalist