By now you’ve heard that the Santa Barbara, California city council outlawed the distribution of disposable plastic drinking straws. For a moment, it appeared the city would actually send minimum-wage workers to jail for handing out the newly reviled objects. While that sensational detail captured Americans’ imaginations, another crucial admission might have been overlooked. During council’s discussion of the ordinance, councilman Jason Dominguez said, “Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. We have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.”
Dominguez later disavowed the plain meaning of his words, but we should applaud him for making a perfect statement of modern progressivism’s core idea.
Progressivism is the rejection of Americanism, of the American idea. Progressives reject the American founders’ core idea—that all people are born free and equal and capable of self-government. Instead, the progressives believe they have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives—that government by experts is better than government “by the people, for the people.” Why? As Dominguez let slip, “unfortunately” common sense is simply not common enough for the Founders’ design to work.
Notice what Dominguez’s clear statement of progressivism does to the the Founders’ idea of “we the people.” In the modern progressive view, the “we” (meaning the ruling elite, to which group Dominguez assumes he belongs) regulate “the people.” There are now two classes: the rulers and the ruled.
America’s Founders put their faith in the people’s common sense. America has been called the “common sense nation,” and Tom Paine’s book Common Sense did much to ignite the American Revolution. Paine’s essential contribution was convincing a sufficient number of Americans that America did not need a royal sovereign, that we could rule ourselves.
According to the founders, the people are sovereign. In their time, that idea was bolder than bold. In that era it was actually a contradiction in terms. A sovereign was a king or queen; it was the role of the people to be ruled and the role of the sovereign to rule.
The purpose of the Founders’ design was to enable us, the American people, to rule ourselves. The government was to be, quite simply, the agent of the sovereign people. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: “It is the plain dictate of common sense, and the whole [American] political system is founded on the idea, that the departments of government are the agents of the nation . . .”
The Founders’ focus was liberty. Consequently, their design provided a limited role for government. Here is Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address:
Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…
Progressivism, by contrast, is all about restoring the old order of rulers and ruled. Thanks to the modern progressives, federal, state, and local governments in America are now populated with people who believe they “have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” They may claim to be “liberal” or they may call themselves “progressive.” Whatever label they choose, their target is an America in which more and then still more is either forbidden or compelled.
You have to give them credit; they have made remarkable “progress.” When they are able to regulate plastic straws out of existence, they really have come a long way, haven’t they?
Perhaps President Trump’s “common sense conservatism” gets it just right. If we are going to restore America, we must return common sense to its rightful place in American life.