The Constitution Is Inherently Progressive

John Podesta and John Halpin on how the values in the Constitution are those that both progressives and conservatives should cherish and protect.

Progressives disagree strongly with tea party views on government, taxation, public spending, regulations and social welfare policies. But we credit the movement for focusing public debate on our nation’s history, the Constitution and the core beliefs that shape American life.

This conversation is long overdue—and too often dominated by narrow interpretations of what makes America great.

Since our nation’s founding, progressives have drawn on the Declaration of Independence’s inspirational values of human liberty and equality in their own search for social justice and freedom. They take to heart the constitutional promise that “We the People” are the ultimate source of political power and legitimacy and that a strong national government is necessary to “establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.”

Successive generations of progressives worked to turn these values into practice and give meaning to the American dream, by creating full equality and citizenship under law and expanding the right to vote. We sought to ensure that our national government has the power and resources necessary to protect our people, develop our economy and secure a better life for all Americans.

As progressives, we believe in using the ingenuity of the private sector and the positive power of government to advance common purposes and increase freedom and opportunity. This framework of mutually reinforcing public, private and individual actions has served us well for more than two centuries. It is the essence of the constitutional promise of a never-ending search for “a more perfect union.”

Coupled with basic beliefs in fair play, openness, cooperation and human dignity, it is this progressive vision that in the past century helped build the strongest economy in history and allowed millions to move out of poverty and into the middle class. It is the basis for American peace and prosperity as well as greater global cooperation in the postwar era.

So why do conservatives continue to insist that progressives are opposed to constitutional values and American traditions? Primarily because progressives since the late 19th century rejected the conservative interpretation of the Constitution as an unchangeable document that endorses laissez-faire capitalism and prohibits government efforts to provide a better existence for all Americans.

Progressives rightly charge that conservatives often mask social Darwinism and a dog-eat-dog mentality in a cloak of liberty, ignoring the needs of the least well-off and the nation as a whole.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1944 address to Congress, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Yet according to modern conservative constitutional theory, the entire Progressive, New Deal and Great Society eras were aberrations from American norms. Conservatives label the strong measures taken in the 20th century to protect all Americans and expand opportunity—workplace regulations, safe food and drug laws, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, limits on work hours, the progressive income tax, civil rights legislation, environmental laws, increased public education and other social welfare provisions—as illegitimate.

Leading conservatives, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, claim that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) even argues that national child labor laws violate the Constitution.

They lash out at democratically enacted laws like the Affordable Care Act and claim prudent regulations, including oversight of polluters and Wall Street banks, violate the rights of business.

This is a profound misreading of U.S. history and a bizarre interpretation of what makes America exceptional.

There are few Americans today who believe America was at its best before the nation reined in the robber barons; created the weekend; banned child labor; established national parks; expanded voting rights; provided assistance to the sick, elderly and poor; and asked the wealthy to pay a small share of their income for national purposes.

A nation committed to human freedom does not stand by idly while its citizens suffer from economic deprivation or lack of opportunity. A great nation like ours puts forth a helping hand to those in need. It offers assistance to those seeking to turn their talents, dreams and ambitions into a meaningful and secure life.

America’s greatest export is our democratic vision of government. Two centuries ago, when our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to craft the Constitution, government of the people, by the people and for the people was a radical experiment.

Our original Constitution was not perfect. It wrote women and minorities out and condoned an abhorrent system of slavery. But the story of America has also been the story of a good nation, conceived in liberty and equality, eventually welcoming every American into the arms of democracy, protecting their freedoms and expanding their economic opportunities.

Today, entire continents follow America’s example. Americans are justifiably proud for giving the world the gift of modern democracy and demonstrating how to turn an abstract vision of democracy into reality.

The advancements we made collectively over the years to fulfill these founding promises are essential to a progressive vision of the American idea. The continued search for genuine freedom, equality and opportunity for all people is a foundational goal that everyone—progressives and conservatives alike—should cherish and protect.

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John Halpin

Former Senior Fellow; Co-Director, Politics and Elections