Ronald J. Pestritto, "America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism" (Encounter Books, 2021)


What’s a “progressive?” We hear constantly about the rift in the Democratic Party between its “progressive” wing and its “moderate” one. But what exactly was “Progressivism?” And why do we hear the word “progressive” but not much about “Progressivism?”

The answer may lie in the fact that modern day progressive Democrats or those who ally with them (such as Bernie Sanders) don’t want to dwell on the fact that much of their political program descends from political leaders they now disown (such as Woodrow Wilson) or who were, at various times, Republicans (like Theodore Roosevelt).

Additionally, progressives are probably not eager to be so openly opposed to the basic principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the U.S. Constitution as their political and intellectual forebears were because that might hurt their poll numbers among average Americans.

Moreover, the progressives really do not need to embrace the idea of the rule of the elites and the need for an administrative state and to fight for those things because that is the world we live in thanks to the Progressive thinkers and leaders profiled in the 2021 book America Transformed: The Rise and Legacy of American Progressivism by Ronald J. Pestritto.

The book is must reading for everyone who wants to understand why unelected people such as the personnel of federal agencies, city managers, federal judges at many levels and so forth wield so much power and are so unanswerable to the bulk of the population.

Pestritto reveals the dual legacy of Progressivism. To wit, via illuminating and meticulous examination of the writings and speeches of well-known figures such as Wilson and Roosevelt and lesser known but influential thinkers such as the theorists and academics Richard Ely, Frank Goodnow and James Landis, Pestritto documents how the Progressives disempowered average Americans even as those figures harped on the theme of accountability in government and dismissed the safeguards for individual liberty that the Constitution provides.

Pestritto traces the intellectual incoherence of much of progressive thinking and policy c. 1880-1945 and demonstrates how the conflict between the oft-stated concern of the progressive left for the common man and the reality of bureaucratization has its roots in the Progressive Era and why so many Americans are frustrated by the fact that Congress has willingly signed over to the administrative state the right to write its own rules, to determine if those rules are fair and to implement those rules and regulations.

It is not for nothing that Pestritto uses the word “transformed” given the curtailment of involvement by everyday Americans in their own governing processes that the Progressives ensured. A particular strength of his book is his exposure of the way that progressives from Wilson down to Obama and since have disingenuously claimed that Abraham Lincoln was a proto-progressive even though Lincoln was one of the most ardent, eloquent proponents of the Declaration of Independence and natural rights.

We often hear from progressives that we need to be on the “right side of history.” In this valuable book, Ronald J. Pestritto explains to us the intellectual background of such platitudes. Give a listen.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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