Attorney General William Barr warned that a “strain of progressivism” that has emerged over the last few decades is moving America away from the liberal democracy envisioned by our Founding Fathers, adding that the remedy for this is by protecting religious freedom, free press, and the decentralization of government power.
Barr expressed his concerns over the recent push of progressivism that subscribes to the philosophy that demands the use of “coercive power of the state to remake man and society.” He said this movement has become increasingly militant and totalitarian in style as they go about changing society.
These progressives, he said, seek power through the democratic process to advance their policy agendas, which he describes as having become more “aggressively collectivist, socialist, and explicitly revolutionary.” He said the goal of this progressive program is to use public money to provide benefits to the public in order to build a constituency of supporters who would eventually become dependents.
“The tacit goal of this project is to convert all of us into 25 year-olds living in the government’s basement, focusing our energies on obtaining a larger allowance rather than getting a job and moving out,” he said during his speech at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention on Wednesday.
Barr added this movement provides one explanation as to why America’s contemporary political discourse has become “less like a disagreement within a family, and more like a blood feud between two different clans.”
“I think one significant reason our politics has become so intense and so ill-tempered is that some in the so-called ‘progressive’ movement has broken away from the fold of liberal democracy to pursue a society more in line with the thinking of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau than that of our nation’s Founders,” he said. The radical writings of Rousseau, a political philosopher, influenced the French revolution and modern socialism.
Despite his concerns, the attorney general said he was an optimist and had hope that problems resulting from the recent progressive movement could be corrected. He suggested a three-prong prescription that could prevent the “slide toward despotism,” namely by revivifying morality through religion, ensuring that government power is never centralized, and by allowing the free press to do its job to serve as a check on “despotic tendenc[ies] of democracy.”
Barr said although the Founding Fathers had envisioned that religion and government should be in separate spheres, they were strong believers that religion was “indispensable to sustaining our free system of government,” while quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, a political scientist, and historian who chronicled America’s democratic republic in the 1800s. Tocqueville believed religion was “democracy’s most powerful antidote to any tendency toward a tyrannical majority hijacking the system for despotic ends.”
Religion allows people to limit the role of government by “cultivating internal moral values in the people” that would guard against “individual rapacity without resort to the state’s coercive power,” Barr said.
“Experience teaches that to be strong enough to control willful human beings, moral values must be based on authority independent of man’s will,” the attorney general said. “In other words, they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being. Men are far likelier to obey rules that come from God than to abide by the abstract outcome of an ad hoc utilitarian calculus.”
“It is safe to give the people power to rule, but only if they believe there are moral limits on their power,” he added.
But Barr noted that the influence of religion has declined over the past several decades, and some of it has been caused by the court’s misinterpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the U.S. Constitution.
“While most everyone agrees that we must have separation of Church and State, this does not require that we drive religion from the public square and affirmatively use government power to promote a culture of disbelief,” he said.
Barr previously spoke about the importance of religion during a speech last year at the University of Notre Dame’s law school. He drew attention to the comprehensive effort to drive away religion and traditional moral systems in society and to push secularism in its place.
Decentralization of Government Power
Along with religion, the decentralization of government power plays an important role in providing a crucial check on moving toward a totalitarian government, Barr said.
He said the destruction of federalism has become another source of “extreme discontent” in contemporary society.
“We have come to believe that we should have one national solution for every problem in society,” he said. “You have a problem? Let us fix it in Washington, DC. One size fits all.”
He said he believes the framers envisioned that a majority of decision making about people’s affairs would be done at a state and local level, while the federal government was supposed to be a government with limited powers.
“The Framers would have seen a one-size-fits-all government for hundreds of millions of diverse citizens as being utterly unworkable and a straight road to tyranny,” he said. “That is because they recognized that not every community is exactly the same.”
He added that a decentralized system and more diversity would enable people who do not like a certain system to move to another one.
“It is easier to run away from a local tyranny than a national one. If people do not like the rule in a state, they can vote with their feet and move,” he said.
The free press was another vital institution that would assist in keep despotic tendencies at bay, Barr said. But he raised concerns about the state of the press in modern America, which has become “remarkably monolithic in viewpoint,” where journalists see themselves less as “objective reporters of the facts, and more as agents of change.”
“These developments have given the press an unprecedented ability to mobilize a broad segment of the public on a national scale and direct that opinion in a particular direction,” he said, adding that it has become easier for the press to mobilize a majority and allow that mobilized majority to become “more powerful and overweening with the press as its ally.”
“This is not a positive cycle, and I think it is fair to say that it puts the press’ role as a breakwater for the tyranny of the majority in jeopardy,” he added.
He said one way to restore the press to its role is to allow for a greater diversity of voices in the media that provides people with “diverse, divergent perspectives on the news of the day.”
Barr ended his remarks on an optimistic note, saying that “our nation’s greatest days lie ahead, but only if we can alter our course and pay heed to the lessons of the past.”