The defeat of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election is an astonishing and unmistakable repudiation of the “transformation of America” to which Barack Obama dedicated himself as constitutional chief executive. Obama’s transformation of America disavowed the natural law principles on which the country was founded. For more than a century Progressive reformers assiduously indoctrinated Americans in the philosophy of pragmatist relativism. Faithful to the Progressive tradition, Obama appealed to pragmatism to rationalize the transformation of America. While post-mortems are being prepared to explain what went wrong, it is pertinent to reflect on how Left-liberal opinion makers understood the “once-in-a-life-time” opportunity that Obama’s election provided to achieve long sought progressive goals.
The Progressive apoplexy over Donald Trump—which is justified on myriad grounds, many of them other than those his critics are articulating—ought not obscure this decisive fact: Trumpism is a disease of Progressive constitutionalism. Its symptoms include an inflamed presidency and Supreme Court—and embrace of the former and a reaction against the latter.
There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about what candidate would be better for the rule of law—Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. At City Journal I recently pointed out that both candidates pose some legal dangers.
But whoever is elected President, there can be no doubt that a Republican Senate would be best for originalism and thus the long-term prospects of the rule of rule. Begin with the election of Clinton, because that is the far more probable outcome and thus should be counted most heavily in the calculus. She would nominate justices who are outright hostile to the meaning of the Constitution. At the Presidential debate she said nothing about wanting justices who would follow the law, just judges who have empathy and who would follow her litmus tests of being in favor of Roe and against Citizens United. That latter comments were too much even for the Washington Post.
Even more importantly, she comes from a progressive movement that is dedicated to transforming the Constitution without going through the amendment process. As I said in my City Journal essay:
Is America in a constitutional crisis or is the country already post-constitutional and merely adjusting to a regime of quasi-law? Bruce Frohnen joins this edition of Liberty Law Talk to discuss this question and his latest book, coauthored with the late George Carey, Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law.
In this year’s presidential campaign, it would be a wonderful contribution to the republic and perhaps a winning move to run credibly on a rule of law platform. This kind of platform is to be distinguished from a “law and order” one, because it emphasizes that in a well-ordered republic that government must enforce order only through law. And this slogan also underscores that the problem we face is not simply or indeed mainly lawlessness on the streets, but lawlessness in government. Respect for law must begin at the top.
Progressivism was born in no small measure from opposition to the rule of law, because it wanted to overthrow the Constitution by means other than the amendment process, if necessary. But today progressivism’s opposition to the rule of law is not confined to the Constitution.
The latest example comes from Yale, a bastion of progressivism. There a dining hall employee purposely destroyed a stained glass window that depicted African Americans picking cotton, because he found it offensive. Initially, Yale fired him and referred him for prosecution. But after protests from professors and students, Yale declined to prosecute and is in negotiations to reemploy him. The protesters celebrated his act of “civil disobedience.”
The support for this act of vandalism and Yale’s pusillanimous climb down are misguided on many levels.
Many people are concerned about Donald Trump’s commitment to the rule of law, a concern I share. But the other choice in this election is a Progressive one, and Progressivism by its nature lacks that commitment. Moreover, its history shows that it permanently damages the constitutional foundations of the United States. And the United States suffers from the fevers of progressivism more than any time since the 1960s. Thus, this election pits a candidate lawless by virtue of temperament against one lawless by virtue of ideology and emboldened by the spirit of the times. The rule of law is under threat, whoever wins.
Progressivism has proved a greater long-term danger than any single individual, because it is born in part out of systematic rather than personal hostility to the Constitution. Federalism and separation of powers are obstacles to the social engineering at the heart of progressivism, and thus progressivism has tried to eviscerate these restraints. Packed with FDR appointees in the 1930s, the Supreme Court gutted the enumerated powers. The administrative state has eroded the separation of powers, making the executive ever more powerful in domestic affairs. The theory used to justify these departures from the original constitution, living constitutionalism, is itself a threat to the rule of law, because it devalues the formal rules laid down by the Constitution.
And today we see all across a society a renewed progressive disdain for the rule of law.
To review Stephen M. Griffin’s new book, Broken Trust: Dysfunctional Government and Constitutional Reform, is to envy his comfortable life within the academic university cocoon, a place where dissenting views fall safely within a very narrow range of well-mannered and moderate Progressive reasonableness.
This conversation with Michael Anton explores how the gargantuan wealth of Silicon Valley allied with San Francisco Progressivism and is now redefining American culture and politics. But how durable is the alliance?
Ilya Somin has disagreed with me that Trump is likely to be better for constitutional jurisprudence than Clinton. But his arguments rely on the implausible premise that Trump is likely to change the jurisprudential commitments of the Republican party. Even more importantly, he does not address the elephant in the room: Clinton’s appointments would likely return us to a Court unconstrained by our fundamental law.
Ilya is right that if Trump could change the Republican’s basic philosophy of judges from originalism to something else, that would itself impose long-term harm to nation. But Trump’s election is unlikely to have this effect. Trump is not coming into power with a parliamentary majority and or even at the head of a well entrenched ideological movement. The way to think of Trump is that has rented the party for his own ambitions and that he will be forming a coalition with orthodox Republicans who will make up the vast majority of Republicans in the legislature. He is thus going to have to deal with the Republicans who have an independent power base and who hope to be there long after he leaves. That not only includes legislators but the Republican establishment. And as in coalitions generally, he will focus on the issues most important to him where there is least resistance from his partners.