When FDR stole the name of "liberalism" to disguise the fact that he was a Progressive, he succeeded in doing more than simply confusing America's voters in his day, many of whom had been made suspicious of Progressivism by Woodrow Wilson's policies. Taking for the Progressives the name that once belonged to the American founders was more than a brilliant election-winning tactical masterstroke. FDR's plan to sow confusion in the minds of the political opposition to Progressivism has become a war-winning strategy. We see the results all around us. While flying the flag of liberalism, the Progressives laid waste to the liberal Republic of the American founders.
The classical liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government. The purpose of the founders' design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government. Taking their cue from the German thinker GWF Hegel by way of Woodrow Wilson, the Progressives instead put their faith in the state. They rejected the idea of the American Republic root and branch. But the original Progressives understood the American people well enough to know that overthrowing the Republic by force and violence was out of the question. So they set out to overthrow it little by little, progressively.
FDR's capture of the flag of his political opponents made it easier for the Progressives to advance their project. FDR left without a name the political opposition that wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution. What should they call themselves? As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change, "FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded ...vaguely un-American[.] ... Robert Taft, "Mr. Conservative," was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946."
They finally gave in and started calling themselves "conservatives." Giving in had a bad consequence, because the American idea is not conservative. It is true that the American miracle includes the prudence of the founders, and prudence is a virtue prized by conservatives. But the American Republic is the most radical regime of liberty, the most radically liberal regime in human history. By calling themselves conservatives and thinking of themselves as conservatives, Progressivism's opposition gradually tended to lose sight of the principles that made America.
Conservatism is fundamentally a disposition. It represents the political expression of caution and the underappreciated virtue of prudence. It defends the traditional. Since drastic, hasty change is likely to have unintended consequences, even terrible ones, we must protect our traditions, make change slowly and carefully, and be on the lookout for unintended consequences, says the prudent-minded conservative.
Probably every society and every time has its conservatives, with tenets specific to each society's traditions. For example, English conservatives today might want to preserve the monarchy, the Church of England as the established church, and the British aristocracy. In the same way, those Iranians who opposed the revolution that changed Iran from a monarchy to a radical Islamist theocracy or those Russians who long for the return of the Soviet Union are often referred to as "conservatives." However, to call them conservative is not to suggest that they hold similar political principles or that their political principles are similar to those of an American dedicated to the principles of the American Founders.
According to F.A. Hayek, whether British, Iranian, Russian, or American, the trouble with conservatism is this:
It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.
Hayek's description does seem to capture the story of the last century in American politics – the Progressives setting the agenda and their opposition dragged unwillingly along a path not of its own choosing. During the past century, the classical liberal order of liberty, free markets, and limited government has been in the process of being systematically dismantled by the Progressives. Change has become the name of the political game, and the direction of change is being set by the Progressives. The rate of change is not the problem; America's problem is the direction.
But worse, because the opposition began thinking of themselves as conservatives, they began to look to traditional conservative thinkers for guidance – thinkers like Edmund Burke, the brilliant and eloquent champion of prudence and tradition but not of the American idea. Burkean conservatism is a far cry from the classical liberalism of the American founding; it cannot light our way home.
We need to find our way by making the founders' principles once again our polar star. If Americans decide to reclaim the limited government and achieve the truly liberal, the classically liberal, society envisioned by the founders, we must be guided by the founders' wisdom. It will require a complete change of direction. Slowing the rate of the Progressive advance won't save the Republic.
There is much to undo and a bountiful harvest of progress and liberty to be gained.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding. He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. You can preview the book here.