Progressive and Populist Strands in American Constitutionalism
77 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2019 Last revised: 8 Apr 2021
Date Written: June 24, 2019
Many modern liberals believe that the federal government is captured by a “billionaire party” determined to wield public power for private gain. But many of them also believe in giving the federal government greatly enhanced powers, like administering “Medicare for all.”
There is a history to this contradiction. Modern liberalism is an amalgam of older populist and progressive impulses with deep roots in the country’s past. The populist impulse locates the source of economic oppression in government corruption. The solution to this problem is direct, popular democracy. Progressives tend to locate the source of economic oppression in the malfunction of private markets. The solution to this problem is government regulation by elite experts shielded from popular control.
Bernie Sanders speaks as a populist when he complains about the billionaire party; he speaks as a progressive when he advocates Medicare for all; and he speaks as a liberal when he fails to notice the tension between these two views.
This article’s primary focus is on how this contradiction plays out in the context of constitutional law. Populists and progressives had different conceptions of the corruption that constitutional law should address. For progressives, corruption consisted of contamination of government expertise by ignorant and prejudiced mass opinion. In contrast, populists distrusted rationalistic, elite opinion. The corruption they feared was elite government control that led to the oppression of ordinary people by “their betters.”
This article examines the dispute between populists and progressives in the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Buck v. Bell, Skinner v. Oklahoma, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Warren Court era, and our present period. A conclusion explores ways in which the conflict between populists and progressives might be resolved.
Keywords: liberalism, progressivism, populism
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