Inspiration for this post comes from Meghan McCain, daughter of John McCain and Rush Limbaugh, talk show host. Back in March of 2009, during an interview on “Larry King Live” in response to a question, Meghan McCain proudly announced that she was a “progressive Republican”. Today a caller to Rush’s show wanted to know why he insisted on using the word liberal instead of progressive. Rush’s answer was basically because the term liberal in recent years has picked up a negative image while progressive still carries the positive image of being forward looking and modern, and he uses liberal because he likes to tweak Democrats.
I am a fan of labels, particularly in the political arena. The use of a truthful and accurate label to describe someone’s political philosophy is an efficient way to identify one’s approach to the issues that affect our lives. However, in modern times, the use of labels has fallen into disfavor and using one leaves one open to the accusation of “name calling”. In addition to that, a major problem with labels is that adherents to an unpopular political philosophy will attempt to hide their true beliefs by applying a misleading label to themselves. Conversely, they will adopt a popular label in order to hide their true political philosophy. For example, virtually every Republican politician today, from Mark Kirk to John McCain to John Boehner refer to themselves as “conservative”.
Democrats, who for the most part, support a socialist agenda, insist on calling themselves “progressives”. The result is that the average voter has a difficult time distinguishing a Republican from a RINO or a liberal Democrat from a socialist. This confusion of labels is what causes many Americans to throw up their hands and declare “a pox on both your houses”, you’re all the same; which brings us to the question, what is the difference between a socialist, a progressive, a Republican and a conservative?
To understand these differences properly we have to look at the history of the terms. Socialism, as an organized political philosophy began in the mid-nineteenth century, primarily from the teachings of Karl Marx in Germany. Its stated ideals of social and economic equality, a popular democracy and its opposition to the inequities of some segments of capitalism quickly won favor with many Americans. However, Americans are different from Europeans so these socialists doctrines had to be Americanized. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the American version of socialism adopted the label, “progressive”.
Political leaders of that era, which ended in the Great Depression, used many of the same tactics used today by the Democratic Party. One that stands out is the demonization of capitalism. Leading capitalists were labeled “robber barons” and their financial empires were broken up or destroyed amid the cheers of the general public. Theodore Roosevelt became one of America’s most popular progressive leaders, earning the nickname of “Trust Buster” for his success in breaking up some of the largest capitalists institutions of his day.
The twentieth century dawned with progressivism being the most popular political philosophy in America. The Presidential Election of 1912 featured four progressives vying for the office, representing four different political parties. William Howard Taft, the incumbent ran as a progressive Republican, Woodrow Wilson as a progressive Democrat, Eugene Debs ran as a Socialist and Theodore Roosevelt ran on the new Progressive Party ticket. Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote giving the election to Wilson.
The 1912 election was the beginning of the end for Constitutional government in America. No matter who won the election the American people would have elected a progressive President. The one thing all four candidates had in common was the advocacy of a progressive income tax designed to facilitate a more equitable redistribution of the nation‘s wealth. A second similarity of the 1912 candidates was the belief in government’s ability to manage and eventually solve all of the country’s problems, if only its institutions were made more “democratic“. In 1913 two progressive amendments were added to the Constitution, the Sixteenth, establishing a progressive income tax and the Seventeenth, requiring the popular election of Senators.
Socialism in its Americanized version, progressivism, was instrumental in bringing about the Great Depression. America was slower than Europe in emerging from the Depression because of the twelve plus year reign of the Democrat Saint of Progressives, Franklin Roosevelt. Today, while the progressives make up the base of the Democrat Party, progressivism also exercises a strong influence on the Republican Party.
Progressive Republicans label themselves as “moderates” or sometimes as “fiscal conservatives”. It pains me to point this out, but many of those in the popular tea party movement would be more properly classified as “progressive conservatives”. If that seems on the surface to be oxymoronic, let me clarify the term. Many self-identified conservatives are perfectly content with unconstitutional spending by the federal government as long as it is limited to things they perceive as being of personal benefit to them. Education, infrastructure, and health care for example. They are content with unconstitutional taxation as long as it is not too oppressive to them personally. The same can be said of government regulation of businesses. Unconstitutional regulations are considered Okay by many conservatives as long as they perceive it to be in their personal best interest.
It is difficult to define true conservatism today because there are so few examples to point to. To understand it properly we again have to go back in history to the first conservatives. During the early-post revolutionary period, the conservatives were known as anti-federalists. After 1891 and the ratification of the Bill of Rights conservatives were popularly known as republicans. The identifying characteristics were defense of the Constitution, rule of law, intolerance for government corruption, love of liberty and the sanctity of private property. Conservatism prevailed in America until the progressive era. The last bulwark of conservatism was lost when the Supreme Court was successfully politicized by President Roosevelt in the mid-nineteen-thirties.
Since that time, conservatives have been in the minority, as they are today. A recent Gallop poll is being touted as evidence that conservatives are the largest voting block in America today. Forty percent of those polled identified themselves as conservative, thirty-six percent as moderate and only twenty percent as liberal. Before you break out the Champagne, consider the fact that most of those who identified themselves as conservatives were simply expressing their dissatisfaction with the excessive progressive policies of the Obama Administration not an ideologically understood preference for true conservative principles.
No one can rightfully claim the label of “conservative” who tolerates and often encourages the wanton violation of the Constitution by their elected officials whether they considerer themselves as fiscal conservatives, social conservatives or blue dog Democrats. When I hear self-proclaimed conservatives call for bipartisan federal solutions to things like health care, education, alternative energy and so forth, I fear for my country.
Progressivism is the American version of socialism. Socialism and our Constitution are mutually exclusive. Constitution based conservatism cannot compromise with progressivism. It must defeat it or perish. The call for bipartisanship is nothing more than a call for surrender, one battle at a time and can only lead to despotism. True conservatives do not want “smaller government”; they want a constitutionally limited government. They do not want “lower taxes”; they want constitutionally authorized taxation only. They do not want a “less intrusive government”; they want the federal government out of their personal lives, period.
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