Progressivism’s Dark Side

In early March, I had the privilege of attending the oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole at the U.S. Supreme Court. It was both an extraordinary and eerie experience.

The eight justices questioned Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller and pro-abortion advocate Stephanie Toti about a 2013 Texas law – passed in response to the gruesome Gosnell revelations and trial in Philadelphia – which requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within a thirty mile radius of the place at which the abortion is being performed.

I was seated in one of the seven guest rows, where most attendees were pro-abortion. To my left: Planned Parenthood C.E.O. Cecile Richards. Fives minutes before the justices took their seats, President Obama’s top aide, Valerie Jarrett, came in and sat down in front of me.

The issue before the Court was whether the Texas law imposes “undue burden” on women seeking abortions. The progressive justices’ cross-examinations were very clinical. In fact, I have never heard the word “abortion” used so often in such a detached manner.

For instance, when Solicitor General Keller pointed out that the law would save the lives of victims of botched abortions, Justice Stephen Breyer dismissed the argument as immaterial because there were only 200 such instances out of Texas’ 70,000 abortions per year.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor snapped at Keller, asking sarcastically, “The slightest benefit is enough to burden the lives of a million women. That’s your point?” In other words, all lives don’t matter.

By the end of this morbid session, I thought I was in a eugenics court. Then it dawned on me, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the modern Progressive movement has been dominated by a self-anointed elite, like several of the justices, who had contempt for the common people. In the early 20th century, they even promoted social and economic policies driven by anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic impulses.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Read the excellent new book by Princeton’s Thomas Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Under the banner of a “New Nationalism,” progressives called for a centralized administrative state manned by expert managers and planners, who would use “scientific methods” to enhance human welfare.

Believing that social progress “required the individual to be controlled, liberated and expanded by collective actions,” progressive intellectuals perceived human persons as “lumps of human dough” to be formed on the “social kneading board.”

That molding, Leonard points out, was to be done “by the best and the brightest, those who, uniquely, ignored profit and power to serve the common good – which is to say, the progressives themselves.”

These experts denied inalienable rights. Their hero, Woodrow Wilson, called them “nonsense.” The editors of the progressive journal, The New Republic, spoke for the movement when it ridiculed individual liberties as “quaint and retrograde.” The leading progressive legal scholar, Roscoe Pound (1879-1964) author of Social Control Through Law, argued the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights “were not needed in the [founders time] and they are not desired in our own.”

Believing that the State superseded even God, progressives encouraged government officials to embrace eugenics – “the social control of human breeding” to rid the nation of perceived undesirables.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Progressive-era eugenics, Leonard writes, “required agreement upon three things only – the primacy of heredity, human hierarchy rather than human equality, and the necessary illiberal idea that human heredity must be socially controlled rather than left to individual choice.”

In 1911, N.J. governor, Woodrow Wilson, signed into forcible sterilization legislation aimed at “the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” Numerous states and municipalities followed Wilson’s lead.

In America’s inner cities, Anglo-Saxon Progressives took aim at Catholic and Jewish immigrants. They looked upon Eastern European immigrants as inferiors who “out bred their biological betters” and agreed (with Wilson) that “low-standard races” were undercutting genuine American workers by accepting very low wages.

Progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner accused Italians, Slovaks, Poles, and Russian Jews of turning N.Y.C. into a pipeline draining “the misery pools of Europe.”

Then there was Eugene V. Debs who said that the “Dago” worked for pittance because he lives “like a savage or a wild beast.”

M.I.T. President Francis Amasa Walker, an economist, described Eastern European Catholics and Jews as “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence.”

Many progressives supported the recommendations of the Congressional chartered Dillingham Commission (1907-1910), which was created to examine the “immigrant problem.” The forty-two volume report, totaling 20,000 pages, which Theodore Roosevelt endorsed, was an anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic eugenics diatribe that claimed the new immigrants were “less-skilled, less literate, less progressive and less assimilable” than earlier immigrants from Nordic countries. The findings (which historian Oscar Handlin noted were “neither impartial nor scientific”) provided the foundations for the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which limited eastern and southern European immigration to 20,000, down from 700,000 yearly.

In addition to supporting literacy tests, forcible sterilization, abortion, and government control of human heredity, Progressives also called for a legal “minimum wage.”

They believed a minimum wage would deter “immigrants and other inferiors from entering the labor force” and would idle “inferior workers already employed.” In other words, given the choice of hiring a native Protestant or immigrant Catholic at the same pay, the employer would undoubtedly hire the superior Protestant. Unemployable inferiors would be institutionalized, sterilized, or banished to work in rural “celibate colonies.”

The dark side of the Progressive movement, ably described in Illiberal Reformers helps explain why Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a staunch Wilsonian, banned the term “progressive” and instead called himself a “liberal” when he ran for president in 1932.

F.D.R. ran away from the Progressive movement because he knew “the intellectual champions of the regulatory welfare state proposed using it not to help those they portrayed as hereditary inferiors, but to exclude them.”

Today, however, the new “progressives” in the White House and on the presidential campaign trail are promoting an agenda, similar to their forbears, that includes ideological conformity, suppression of free speech and religious liberty, unlimited abortion, and euthanasia.

And if they win in November, they’ll take even greater control over the federal courts, which will impose the progressive agenda by judicial fiat.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.