This review appears in the Fall 2022 / Winter 2023 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

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

Ronald Pestritto has written a weighty book, rich in context and richer still in compelling, sometimes overwhelming, analysis. His basic argument is historical. It can be broken down to these core components:  

1.) Inherent in the Founding of the American republic, and therefore its essence or nature, is a coherent moral and political philosophy expressed best in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution as read in light of the Declaration, and the Federalist Papers.  

2.) Contra reigning historical interpretations, American progressivism began and remains a coherent philosophy (perhaps better called an ideology), and one that is utterly incompatible with the nature of the American constitutional order.  

3.) The nature of this progressivism is not liberalism, from which it did not spring, but an ideology imported from Germany. Progressivism is alien to the American order, and progressives seek to transform the country, to change its nature.  

4.) This transformation of America, which began in the early twentieth century, has succeeded to a shocking degree, and we now face an existential choice as a nation:  progressivism (which necessitates elite governance through administration) or American constitutionalism that defends natural rights and limits governmental power. Which will we choose—and are we still able to choose?

As Pestritto turns his attention to the origins and development of progressivism, the sobriety and evenhandedness of his historical analysis can hardly conceal the urgency of his argument. The hope of the book, emerging from rather bare sentences that one might wish had more of a scream about them, is that we have reached a stage in American history when a large number of citizens have begun to take seriously the question of who we are as a nation. These people have compelling reasons to rediscover their admiration for and love of the American constitutional order. However cautious in expression, Pestritto’s account, for those it persuades, must produce a realization that this is a time to fight over the very nature of our national being—that we have entered a phase of open-air conflict between those who seek to destroy the American republic and those who are willing to defend it.  

Pestritto addresses a dangerous categorical error: if one believes that progressivism is a development of liberalism rather than a radical ideology that compels its followers to the task of transformation (overturning the old America), then one will continue to seek persuasion and bipartisanship and a foolish acceptance of progressives as part the American system. To this point, Pestritto must establish that progressivism is not simply different in kind from liberalism but that it represents a radical European import that cannot live within the constitutional system.  While I will later examine some of the claims he makes about the nature of the American Founding and, by implication, liberalism, for now I want to stress one part of his argument: American constitutionalism and the progressive administrative state are incompatible, making this a fight for keeps.

A fundamental divide in all of these debates is whether human beings have a fixed nature or whether human “nature” is mutable and transformable. The Founders believed that human nature is fixed, that humans are fallen and prone to selfishness, that humans are also endowed by their Creator with natural rights. One needn’t apply anachronistic labels, like liberal or conservative, to these claims, but one must recognize how much this view of human nature shaped the Constitution and how it protected rights and liberties while seeking to limit power in a way that would prevent tyranny.  

This view of human nature, as seen through the Anglo-American context (a point that I, rather than Pestritto, emphasize), pushed the Founders and their supporters to separate and limit powers, to make the Constitution into a limiting document (particularly with the Bill of Rights), and to express support for the American people to live their lives on their own terms so long as their rights were secured by the government to which they consented. However important government is to serve the needs of the people, the Founders had no wish to use expert knowledge wedded to government power to transform the people into something better.

Nothing important about the progressive ideology stands without a view that humans are malleable and that all humans are defined relative to the culture or time in which they live. This species of “historicism” (many apply this label promiscuously to thinkers who very much believe in the fixed nature of humans, and separating out this use of the word is important) is the neglected intellectual source of most leftist ideology. Two corollaries are at play here. If human flaws emerge from specific historical conditions—tied to culture, social order, economic conditions, etc.—then we can hope to improve humans by controlling those conditions.  Also, if humans have no fixed nature but are evolving relative to material circumstances and the increase in knowledge that allows us to control our environment, then natural rights are simply obstacles to improvement.  

Pestritto’s historical argument about the adoption by American leaders—most compellingly Woodrow Wilson—of certain themes from German philosophy has persuaded me on a point of historical debate. He has changed my mind about the role of these ideas in the development of American progressivism, which is to say American leftism. In his comprehensive overview of progressive ideas, Pestritto traces a view of the legislature, of the presidency, and, later, of the vast administrative system that emerged after World War II, each of which has roots in German thought.

The U.S. Constitution presents the most formidable obstacle to progressive transformation since it rests on protections of rights and limits the role and reach of government. The task of transformation, whether attempted by American progressives or Mao Zedong, requires a government that is not only powerful enough to compel people but also comprehensive enough to crowd out any real political power that could challenge that administrative apparatus. In his detailed account of the development of the contemporary administrative state, Pestritto wonderfully, frighteningly, lays out the social-engineering ideology lurking behind the bland mask of administrative objectivity and competence.  


One of the most influential thinkers in support of this anti-liberty vision of an administrative state was James Landis, whose book The Administrative Process (1938) is both comprehensive and radical and became commonsensical to administrators of later generations. Among the assertions in his book, all of which have become governing assumptions for this class of managers and elites, are  that constitutional ideas about separation of power and fears about majority rule were understandable for the eighteenth century but are now archaic and that the way forward is to create and empower an administrative class that has wide discretion to make policy, replacing lawmaking through the political process. This class can be trusted, Landis writes, because its members will be not only knowledgeable (and thereby competent) but also selfless and objective.  

Broadly conceived, this progressive ideal would include a democracy of largely powerless citizens who are led by charismatic, enlightened political leaders while the real governance takes place among the vast administrative machinery, separated from the self-interest of politics, molding the citizenry according to the expert knowledge of the common good vested in the “disinterested” managers of social order. In due course, all aspects of life would be brought under the tutelage of these administrative systems, making possible the complete transformation of the nation and its inhabitants.  

The transformation of the people is the telos of progressivism and all forms of leftism. Progressivism ought to be understood as a species of social engineering, which places it in very dubious ideological company in modern history. Once stripped of euphemisms and distortions, such an ideology is terrifying, and its contrast with our constitutional order raises important questions about the nature of sovereignty in America. “We the People” is a statement about sovereignty. With sovereignty—the authority or right to rule—come implied powers. The Founders asserted a single sovereign (the people—made brilliantly complicated by federalism), but they chose to assign the right to exercise the implied powers to different bodies, always subject to the will of the people. In this way the people are prior to the government and are the only legitimizing authority for the exercise of power in their name.  In America, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the people have a government rather than the government having a people.

If “We the People” remain sovereign, progressives have long sought to rule in their name only in order to change their character. In the process progressives seek to rob the people of mechanisms of resistance to the state, including access to information about how the state subverts the Constitution. The only meaningful response to a state that is the enemy of the people and their inheritance is for the people to reassert their rightful sovereignty in the context of a constitutional republic. The progressive state is the enemy of the republic.

I conclude with observations concerning more intramural debates about the nature of the American Founding. Any disagreements here, while important, are not the focus of Pestritto’s book, nor should they distract from the compelling account Pestritto has offered about the dangers of progressivism. I hope my brief attempt to clarify the competing views demonstrates both respect for rival understandings and a humble defense of my own view.

Pestritto contextualizes the thinking of the Founders in light of what he calls “18th-century liberalism.” While he is applying the term liberalism to a period before it was widely used in this way, it is nonetheless accurate in key respects. On the one hand, it seems that Pestritto believes it was fortuitous that the Founding took place during such an age (and is, in some respects, a product of that historical era) because it was during this period in America when intellectual and political leaders recognized the moral truth of natural rights. Nothing is more important to him than the assertion that the Constitution rested on the natural rights articulated in the first part of the Declaration of Independence. Since the United States was constituted in light of, and in defense of, universal moral principles, it produced a regime that naturally, as it were, fights against the relativism of almost all other regimes. While a Founding upon the bedrock of natural rights does not ensure a just regime, the story of America has been the struggle to live faithfully by these truths. Or, rather, this was our story until progressivism made Americans doubt their bedrock moral beliefs, eroding the very foundation of the American order.

If Pestritto considers the American Founding an expression of a certain species of liberalism, rooted in arguments made by John Locke, he associates liberalism with natural rights and with the grounding principles of a good regime—a regime according to nature. Others, such as Patrick Deneen at the University of Notre Dame, also assert the liberal nature of the Founding and the regime. With less historical evidence than Pestritto and his fellow scholars in the “Claremont School” have produced, Deneen finds in James Madison (primarily) proof of a hypostatized liberalism complete with natural rights. The problem with liberalism (again a label that the Founders would not recognize) is that it emphasizes—more so over time—individualism, leading to atomization. The complex cultural, communal, and religious systems of belief that served as the protective and non-liberal framework for this liberal order might have mitigated liberalism’s effects for a time. But liberalism’s inevitable corrosion of universal standards in favor of radical individualism necessarily undermined the Founding generation’s salutary grasp of human nature and its limits. Liberalism, thus hypostatized, had a built-in logic to it that, if it became successful over time, would destroy itself. Liberalism failed because it succeeded in becoming fully itself.  

A third view of the Founding, as articulated by Bruce Frohnen and me in our book Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul, is that the governing beliefs and moral commitments of the Founders were not yet divided into competing systems of conservatism and liberalism as they were later understood. Instead, there were complex tensions and multiple configurations embedded in a deep moral consensus. John Locke, like almost all thinkers in the Reformed tradition in England and America, assumed the trinity of natural rights (life, liberty, and property), with a special emphasis on property as a moral extension of one’s self. Before Locke and the American Founders employed these terms, extensive defense of them had been part of the political thought the Huguenots, among other strains in Reformed Christianity.

At the same time, American thinkers stressed (to varying degrees, to be sure) both the natural order of things and the developed tradition of law and liberties that provided particular expression to that natural order. Among the natural things in which our Founders tended to believe were the natural existence of the family, the natural moral order (often called natural law), and human nature as fallen and in need of social, cultural, religious, and legal support. These same people who stressed these natural and therefore universal goods had no difficulty admiring the development of a regime of liberty (rather than license) that concentrated on the great contract, as Burke put it, between the living, the dead, and the unborn. In this way, the Founders were innovating (creating a new order of the ages) while drawing deeply, if selectively, from the great contract of civilization—“a partnership in, among other things, ‘all science,’ ‘all arts’—a ‘partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.’”

Both Pestritto’s account and the one that Frohnen and I offer stress a social contract as the rightful action of a self-governing (free) people with an aim of securing, in a chaotic time, the moral good. They did not write the Constitution in a pure society, but rather produced a constitution that expressed the collective will of several very different societies, requiring judicious compromises. My view and Pestritto’s, I suspect, agree that the imperfections of the societies that produced these compromises inevitably must address the aspirations of a good society, and the hope of the regime requires fidelity to the underlying moral principles of that Founding.

Alien to the Founding, to both liberalism and conservatism or any other “ism” of that era, was a leftist (progressive) contract that cedes power to a national government bent on social engineering and denies anything natural or morally universal. Competing views of the Founding seek to trace an evolution of liberal thought to show a kind of genetic connection between Founding liberalism and progressivism. Pestritto, to his great credit, has established that this is untrue—progressivism is not a species of liberalism. Today we confront not the decadent success of the Founding principles but an alien assault on them.

Ted V. McAllister was the Edward L. Gaylord Chair and professor of public policy at Pepperdine School of Public Policy.