Meet Herbert Croly, one of the most important political theorists in American history. Along with Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly was instrumental in describing an alternative vision of government that was radically different than the one pictured by the Founding Fathers – Progressivism.
Croly lived during the Progressive Era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like many Americans at the time, Croly was troubled by inequality, corruption, and poverty. Croly concluded that the Constitution was too cumbersome to adequately address modern social problems. Croly also disliked the love Americans had for the Constitution. He thought it was “rigid and dogmatic.”
In Croly’s opinion, the Founding Fathers had been too distrustful of human nature. They created a Constitution with separated powers, federalism, and checks and balances – all designed to prevent inherently flawed human beings from doing something that might restrict liberty. Croly thought that human nature had progressed. In his view, Americans had outgrown the Constitution, with its stubborn insistence on individual rights.
Croly thought that the government should not exist to protect individual rights, but rather to realize social justice. In other words, he wanted government to actively intervene to eliminate any perceived inequality in society or in the economy.
Croly knew that the Constitution had to be dismantled in order to establish this view of social justice. But Croly was also aware that the American love of the Constitution would make it unfeasible to openly abandon it. Instead, Croly wanted to set up a massive national government. A vast body of “expert administrators” could carry out the “experimental social program[s]” created by progressive legislators. Eventually, Croly believed that they would tinker their way to Utopia.
Herbert Croly and the Progressives were tremendously successful. Today, the influence of the Progressives can be seen in many facets of American political life.
The Progressive Movement was particularly influential for American liberals. Today, liberals advocate for many of the social programs originally proposed by the Progressives. But what few people realize is that “social justice” requires nothing less than the radical restructuring of the U.S. Constitution. It requires a massive, ever-growing national government unchecked by constitutional safeguards like the separation of powers, checks and balances, or federalism.
At its core, the Progressive vision is a vision of despotism in the name of social justice. Writing over a century before Herbert Croly, Alexis de Tocqueville issued a prescient warning.