The materialist influence of 19th-century thinkers still chills 21st-century thinking. It is true in biology, economics, culture, and government. In much of the popularization and misuse of the claims of natural science and in much of modern German philosophy, tendencies toward atheism and gnosticism (searching for hidden meanings) are found. So are economic determinism and a serene resolve to change human nature. It was considered foolish by many 19th- and early 20th-century intellectuals to believe in God or self-evident truths, but “advanced” to aspire to the perfectibility of man.
Progress, you would have thought as an intellectual in that period, must proceed on “scientific” principles. Max Weber’s “fact/value” distinction meant that facts alone could be submitted to scientific inquiry, while issues of right and wrong (“values”) could be examined only from outside their own assumptions. In the new political science that developed in the Progressive Era, study of what constitutes wise opinion was dropped. Replacing it, as Martin Diamond has explained, was the study of opinion formation. The new political scientist was to abandon the supposedly played out mines of political theory. As Diamond says, the role of the political scientist thereafter was to “discredit the pretended grounds of the behavior and reveal its true sub-rational or a-rational ‘determinants.’” Here, then, is partly where we get our present day intellectual prejudice against crediting what politicians say they are doing and our constant suspicion that the real truth must be something else.
A central progressive theme was historicism, crediting history almost exclusively with the development of culture. It arose in Germany as an element of the “science of the state” (Statswissenschaft) and the “general theory of the state” (Allgemeine Staatslehere). And it fit well with the new science of politics, Politische Wissenschaft. With the new method, known states were compared historically, with perfection of the state as the goal.
For Germans, the state was something larger than government, though less than all society. It had a personality and “a being which is infinitely superior to the individual, which exists to realize an ideal beyond and above that of individual happiness.” German political scientists thought the history of the state was, in a Darwinian sense, evolutionary and un-directional. As Dennis Mahoney writes of historicism, “[T]here is neither better nor worse about it, but only more advanced and less advanced, newer and older.”
In the latter half of the 19th century, these ideas entered the United States in the heads of young Americans who, lacking domestic graduate schools in public law, embarked on studies in Germany. There they found that the new political science not only had the blessing of the government, but also was a participant in that government and helping to guide it. The students were impressed by such implicit power. The state commanded the universities and the universities taught the grandeur of the state. Prussian administrative skill seemed especially admirable. When Prussia united Germany and then won a war with France, the superiority of German efficiency seemed clear to the young visitors.
In time the concept of eugenics gained force in the Second Reich — decades before the Nazis employed it. When, in 1904, the German Empire exterminated almost the whole race of native Hereros in German Southwest Africa, it was publicly justified in terms of Darwinism. There were few protests.
A generation earlier, the first American convert to Teutonic ideas of political science and the founder of its U.S. version was John W. Burgess. Dazzled by what he found in Germany, Burgess, back home, proclaimed the ultimate end of the state to be “the perfection of humanity; the civilization of the world; the perfect development of human reason, and its attainment to universal command over individualism; the apotheosis of man.” True, Burgess did not hold that the interests of the state and the government were identical, and he did try to carve out a sphere in life for human liberty, but these distinctions soon were lost to his successors. Moreover, he espoused racism, along the lines of German biologist and Darwin enthusiast Ernst Haeckel, an historical reality that has become an embarrassment for Columbia University in our time.
Columbia hired Burgess in 1876 and permitted him to open a graduate department in 1880. That department and a subsequent new political science department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also under German-trained instructors, helped shape the America field of political science over the next generation. From Columbia came the new journal Political Science Quarterly in 1886, and under Columbia’s influence in 1903-1904, the American Political Science Association was founded. Its appeal was such that membership rose from 214 in 1904 to 1,462 in 1915.
From political science at Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, came a number of historicist scholars, including Woodrow Wilson. We can chart the Progressive Era from the 1880s because of the work of Wilson. His Congressional Government, in 1885, written at Princeton without ever visiting the halls of Congress, opened the subject of the Constitution and Founding to fundamental criticism. Wilson reduced the Constitution to a size that would fit under the microscope of the new science of politics.
Wilson wondered why criticism of the Constitution had ended almost with its adoption and had been replaced with what he called “an undiscriminating and almost blind worship of its principles.” He faulted the nation’s early leaders for devotion to a Constitution tied to supposedly permanent laws of human nature. According to Wilson, “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living structure and must obey the laws of life.” Indeed, “all that progressives ask or desire is permission…to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” In Wilson’s view, the Constitution should not restrict government, but rather provide a process for endless government expansion, ultimately carried out by civil service experts.
Wilson’s idea of constitutional government was the opposite of the interpretation provided by The Federalist Papers, which emphasized both limited and balanced government. For example, separation of powers, as Charles Kesler notes,
“was not a “display” of merry-go-round laws of nature but a qualification and refinement of republicanism. To effect this, the powers had to be mixed in order to be kept separate, the mechanism of the mixing being the same as the guardian of the separation — namely, the famous system of ambition counteracting ambition, so that “the interest of the man” may be connected with “the constitutional rights of the place.”
In contrast to the harmonious philosophy of the Framers, Wilson’s views are detached from principles and are relativistic.
“The object of constitutional government is to bring the active, planning will of each part of the government into accord with the prevailing popular thought and need … Whatever institutions, whatever practices serve these ends, are necessary to such a system; those which do not, or which serve it [sic] imperfectly, should be dispensed with or bettered. [Emphasis added.]”
Wilson’s deprecation of the Constitution, condescending, as he does, to term the Founding document well-meaning but outdated “political witchcraft,” led him to one tenuous conclusion after another. For the historicist, leadership consisted of communing with the Hegelian “spirit of the age” and guessing where history was leading the people before (and just before, preferably) the people figured out where they were going anyway.
Here is what Wilson says about the “political leader of the nation,” once elected:
“[H]is is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him … If he rightly interprets the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible.”
Wilson probably would have been appalled at a totalitarian reading of this and similar passages. Despite his paean to the “irresistible leader” and his boast that “we have ceased to fear a Caesar,” however, history since Wilson’s time provides us with more than enough models of Caesarism to sustain our fears, including Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and Kim Jong-Un.
In America today, Darwinism’s triumph in something called “political science” continues to batter at the philosophical foundations of republican government.