The Progressives’ Destruction of Constitutional Rights

Editor’s note: This is one of many coming articles from The Center for Vision & Values dealing with the topic of our April 15-16 conference on "The Progressives." Click here for information.

One of the most telling moments in the healthcare reform debate occurred when Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trademark expression of perpetual astonishment kicked into hyper-drive after a reporter inquired about the constitutional status of ObamaCare. Pelosi paused and asked, "Are you serious?"

The shocking nature of the question jarred her sufficiently to repeat her response, pushing out something like a rhetorical hiccup. The subtext was impossible to ignore: progressives simply do not take the Constitution seriously, a point that also informed the statement issued by her office later, which assured all interested parties that the federal government can do pretty much what it wants through the commerce clause.

Quite possibly, this may have been the first time anyone in her entourage had ever perused this document. And for good reason:

The foundation of the republic so revered by most citizens is considered by modern progressives as an outmoded formulation created by individuals whose views are only of antiquarian interest today. This perspective must be held quite firmly, because taking the founder’s views on natural rights seriously undermines the entire progressive project. Especially during the colonial era, America’s serious political thinkers insisted that rights were intrinsic to a person’s moral being; indeed, in the words of Clinton Rossiter, rights were considered "inherent, universal, unalterable, inestimable, sacred, indefeasible, fundamental, imprescriptible, divine, God-given, hereditary, and indelible." For good measure, rights are also endowed by humanity’s Creator, a point even the skeptic Jefferson pointed out.

People fought for their rights, especially the right to be free from external impediments, from arbitrary decrees, from being told what to do in the minutiae of life by unrepresentative government. Fighting required courage, perseverance, hardship; in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant Lyceum speech, the founders knew that "their all was staked upon it:—their destiny was inseparably linked with it." That meant risking one’s life to preserve timeless moral truths. The founders risked it all; their actions are forever recorded in ledgers of heroism, in annals of freedom. That’s what taking rights seriously really means.

Which is also the reason why entitlements are not rights. Progressives’ moral relativism consigned the founders’ convictions to irrelevancy by insisting that they applied only to a particular historical era, one that is now safely in the past and best forgotten. In the place of rights, modern progressives have substituted entitlements, which constitute transfer payments from government to individuals, not timeless truths that call for courage or sacrifice by recipients. Quite the opposite, in fact.

For instance, demonstrating for healthcare or against welfare cuts or tuition increases is more akin to a whining-and-crying temper tantrum than an expression of moral seriousness grounded in a knowledgeable understanding of constitutional rights. Rights are ennobling and inspire courageous actions; entitlements are enfeebling and generate infantilism and complaints. Contemporary progressives have hijacked the moral vocabulary of rights and applied it to a very different sort of behavior, the sort that does not engender freedom, but nurtures dependency. Or worse, submission to an entitlement-obsessed citizenry that invites tyranny.

America’s founders recognized such a danger. They knew that freedom gained by rights is only a generation deep, but tyranny can last indefinitely, unless free men and women steel themselves to preserve the one and abolish the other. The question is, after years of subjection to a regime of entitlements, how much rights-based freedom will remain for individuals to make any choices? Progressive statism narrows the capacity of people even to conceive of alternatives to the creeping servitude of entitlements, until finally, as Tocqueville predicted, the last vestiges of independent thought and action succumb to government’s numbing tutelage, which reduces humanity to a status lower than that of beasts.

Further, as Abraham Lincoln warned, the concept of America as the last best hope of man on earth has been increasingly bludgeoned into disrepute by ambitious intellectuals and forgotten by citizens consumed by personal agendas. Forgetting our country’s inheritance of liberty founded on rights relegates American exceptionalism to a distant memory chased by desultory whims into an historical anachronism created by decades of progressive indoctrination. The ultimate price is the loss of our concept of rights, the loss of the only civilization in world history based on protecting rights and advancing freedom for all men and women. What once was, never shall be again.

Another Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stated that freedom could only be won, never regained. In light of the current confusion about rights and the prevalence of an entitlement mentality, there is no greater challenge for Americans today than to refute this proposition.

— Dr. Marvin Folkertsma is a professor of political science and Fellow for American Studies with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a high-energy novel titled "The Thirteenth Commandment." The topic of this op-ed will be discussed at length by several speakers at our coming April 15-16 conference on "The Progressives." Click here for more information.