DiBACCO: Obama forerunner’s nostrums failed 100 years ago

Herbert Croly touted liberal futilities early in 20th century

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President Obama’s comment that 2014 would be a “year of action” in that executive orders absent congressional approval would hold sway revives the radical vision of the United States held by an obscure journalist exactly a century ago.

Herbert Croly (1869-1930) is not a household name in federal governmental circles today, nor was he so in 1914 when he published a book titled “Progressive Democracy.” Nor was he so in 1909 when he published his first book, “The Promise of American Life,” which sold a scant 7,500 copies.

However, subsequent radical historians found Croly’s books in the small-print margins of American history in the early 20th century and mushroomed them into Second Coming typeset in their discussion of the era.

Why? Because Croly’s view illustrated, like Mr. Obama’s today, a radical Heavenly City — a disregard for the Constitution, especially through presidential executive orders that circumvented congressional authority, cemented by the belief that reversing income inequality was at the crux of the nation’s failure as a democracy. A supposedly disinterested elite of bureaucrats would direct all this transformation originating in the Oval Office.

Radical historians over the years made an intellectual mountain out of molehill that was Croly. A slightly built man with thinning hair, high forehead, and a face dominated by rimless glasses and a large nose, Croly was a whisperer — a social wallflower when it came to meeting people.

Serious to the point of being grave in personality, he was not a self-made man. His 11-year on-and-off stint at Harvard resulted in no earned degree, and he was finally rescued by his father’s placing him in his own business, as editor at Architectural Record magazine. (Not surprisingly, Harvard awarded him an honorary degree after he became a book author.)

The only problem was that Croly had no talents as either an editor or writer. His book “Progressive Democracy,” by any reasonable standard, is tedious to read — no, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. A reviewer in the American Political Science Review put it best when he wrote that Croly “sets forth ideals, but when it comes to the matter of finding ways and means of realizing them, the discussion barely escapes sinking into verbalism and futility.”

To be sure, Croly had some communication with presidents of his day — Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt — but Croly’s extreme views ultimately didn’t pass the smell tests of these occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, leading him to eventually write vicious attacks.

His venue was his own self-established magazine, The New Republic: “Any man of President Wilson’s intellectual equipment,” he wrote, “who seriously asserts that the fundamental wrongs of a modern society can be easily and quickly righted as a consequence of a few laws … casts suspicion either upon his own sincerity or upon his grasp of the realities of modern social and industrial life.”

Fortunately, The New Republic’s stature as “Crolier than thou” resulted in Croly’s ultimate and richly deserved obscurity, but the fact that his ideas are now front-and-center of the Obama administration is worrisome.

Mr. Obama’s use of executive orders — most recently, to secure higher overtime pay for some workers — and outright Oval Office modification of existing laws is Crolyism 101. So, too, the compulsory aspect of Obamacare reflects Croly’s argument that “social cohesion cannot be made effective without some measure of social compulsion.”

Mr. Obama’s argument that “climate change is a fact” (no matter that the scientific community is divided on the matter) is reflective of Croly’s certainty that government knows best: “The need of imposing more exacting standards of behavior upon the citizens of an industrial democratic state applies to the citizen as citizen no less than the citizen as worker. … The being of better men and women will involve, as it always has involved, the subordination, to a very considerable extent, of individual interests and desires to the requirements of social welfare.”

One final point: Croly thought that congressional laws were inherently vague because they couldn’t cover all exigencies of implementation. His remedy: numerous regulations though the executive branch.

Sound familiar?

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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