Today’s Left has turned away from its democratic roots
The period since Donald Trump was inaugurated president has been one of left-wing #Resistance. Trump, progressives have claimed, is a would-be tyrant who must be stopped at all costs.
Liberal animus toward Trump is hardly surprising. These days, every president is guaranteed to face ideological opposition soon after he takes over the job. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush all saw their job-approval ratings erode during their first six months in office as they pursued their agendas. President Trump was always going to have the same problem. Add to that his carnivalesque approach to public relations and the ongoing investigation regarding purported collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, and all the elements of a progressive freakout were in place.
Still, there is more to it than this. Increasingly over the last several generations, the American Left has placed executive power at the center of its domestic agenda. Liberals have, again and again, advocated the expansion of executive authority at the expense of the legislature. Now, with Trump in the White House using the many tools that go with his job, a number of left-wing accomplishments are in severe jeopardy.
Although the Left once took a Jeffersonian view of popular sovereignty, emphasizing the role of the masses in government, it has grown stridently Hamiltonian in recent years — searching instead for ways to separate the governing elite from the demands of electoral politics. More often than not, it has chosen the executive bureaucracy as the solution to this problem. This has had the effect of increasing, often dramatically, the power of the president.
With the possible exception of Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton was the most unabashedly elitist man to sign the Constitution in 1787. His proposed system of government was distinctively “high toned,” in the parlance of the age. While Hamilton’s lower house would have been popularly elected to three-year terms, his senate and president would have been selected by electoral colleges (one for the senate and two for the president) for life tenure. By his reckoning, this would have liberated them from the grubby concerns of politics and allowed them to promote the general welfare. In Federalist 70, Hamilton argued that “energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” and his tenure as secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 demonstrated his belief that a “vigorous executive” should be the mainspring of governmental agency.
Hamilton’s elitism explains why he was so disdained by the pre-progressive American “Left,” the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Jacksonian Democrats, whose enduring legacy was a more democratic United States. It is why his memory had to be maintained in the 19th century largely by his son John Church Hamilton, the author of a multi-volume biography, and by Henry Cabot Lodge, a pro-business Republican senator from Massachusetts. Nobody else would do it.
Even as the Left abandoned the libertarian physiocracy of Jefferson and Jackson in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it still could not see its way to embracing Hamilton. Part of this had to do with the received, and erroneous, caricature of Hamilton — that his interests were primarily in serving the wealthy rather than the general welfare. Hence Herbert Croly’s Promise of American Life called for pursuing Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means.
But there was more to this progressive reluctance, as the Left was still firmly anchored in democratic politics. For instance, even as Woodrow Wilson was extolling the virtues of dispassionate public administrators, he proposed remodeling Congress after the House of Commons to make it more reflective of public opinion and thus better able to govern for the general welfare. The Progressive party’s platform of 1912 was in a similar vein: While it called for an expansion of federal power, it also demanded reforms to further democratize the government.
The democratic focus of the American Left endured through the Great Depression and World War II. The First New Deal’s animating theory was decidedly pluralistic — the government would bring together the major players in a given economic sector and induce them to come to terms that were mutually beneficial and good for the nation. In this way, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act were Jacksonian, even though they were basically socialistic. The Second New Deal was even more pluralistic, with the Wagner Act intended as a spark for thousands of political conflicts on factory floors throughout the country: “Workers of the world, decide for yourselves!”
Thus, American liberalism by the end of World War II called for a muscular central government, which increasingly placed the president at the center of the action. But it was still a deeply participatory government. Its forebears were Jefferson and Jackson, its icon was Franklin Roosevelt, and its embodiment was Harry Truman.
In the ensuing decades, though, there was a notable shift in the liberal approach, which not coincidentally tracked the declining power of the industrial- and trade-labor unions. “There’s no party that can match us,” George Meany once remarked of his AFL-CIO, which not only provided reliable Democratic voters but financed liberal politics (campaigns, lobbying, etc.). But those days are long gone. In place of labor unions have come well-heeled liberals, predominantly from the coasts, the Beltway, and the academy, animated by cultural, environmental, and “intersectional” concerns.
Whereas once labor unions could reasonably claim to represent the values of the working man, these new elites can claim only to defend workers’ interests, as defined by the elites. The new Left unabashedly considers itself to be the vanguard of public opinion. In other words, the bulk of the people do not agree with it, but they will . . . someday.
The financiers of American politics have always enjoyed outsized influence over deciding what policies will — or will not — be considered. So it is little wonder that the old Jacksonian ethos of the American Left has been replaced by a growing distrust of our governing institutions. Usually the criticism is worded in a way that expresses disdain for “politics,” but politics is just what happens in any participatory process when people disagree. Whereas the Left once saw such disagreement as an essential element of good government, now it is often cast as a limitation.
We have seen this shift in a wealth of policy initiatives and maneuvers over the last decade. Consider President Obama’s efforts to thwart senatorial will by making recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess, or his wholesale revision of existing immigration laws under the guise of “prosecutorial discretion.” Consider the widespread celebration of the Obergefell decision, which tossed out dozens of state-ballot referenda on the basis of a novel reading of the 14th Amendment. Consider the effort to create an ever-wider mandate for regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, even without congressional authorization. Consider Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is tasked with making cuts to the Medicare program but subject to virtually no oversight by either Congress or the president.
These policies cover a wide range of issues and situations, but there is a consistent theme: The preferred governing hierarchy of the new Left seems to place the executive above Congress, independent boards above both, and the courts above everybody. The ethos is no longer a modern updating of Jefferson and Jackson, enabling people to use a powerful central government to shape their own destinies. Instead, the attitude is “We know what’s best for you, so just let us take care of things.”
The critical factor in this equation is a vigorous president committed to the liberal agenda. The president nominates the judges, independent board members, and cabinet secretaries who will rule in place of Congress. Without such a president, the advance of the liberal agenda not only grinds to a halt but can begin to reverse — especially with a vigorous president opposed to the liberal agenda. For all his many faults, Trump has proven himself to be such an opponent. His feisty administration has rolled back a number of Obama-era executive mandates, decrees, and judgments.
This is a major problem for the Left, which explains last year’s progressive conniption over the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). The pièce de résistance of 21st-century progressive policymaking, the CFPB regulates a broad swath of the financial-services industry, shielded almost entirely from the political process (its funding is guaranteed and does not need to be appropriated by Congress). Such independent agencies are not unheard of (the Federal Reserve is another), but the CFPB vested enormous power solely in the director, rather than in a board whose members could balance and check one another.
In late November, Richard Cordray, director of the CFPB, resigned his post, presumably to seek the governorship of Ohio. Before leaving, he made a last-minute appointment of his chief of staff, Leandra English, to the position of deputy director. After Cordray resigned, English claimed that this title made her the acting director instead of President Trump’s choice, Mick Mulvaney.
This startling power grab by Cordray and English was celebrated by congressional Democrats, who rushed to arrange photo ops with English. Fortunately, Cordray’s stunt was little more than a tempest in a teapot. The courts refused to intervene on English’s behalf, and Mulvaney is firmly in charge of the CFPB. Still, this effort of liberal bureaucrats — with the support of Democrats in Congress — to shield “their” agency from a duly elected president highlights the new progressive governing ethos. For all of his many faults, Donald Trump is to be credited for standing athwart this progressive high-handedness.
– Mr. Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.