The implosion of Obamacare indicts not just the law itself, but the whole edifice of progressivism—a philosophy rooted in the belief that government, supposedly administered by “the best and the brightest,” can run things better than individuals. That idea is now, again, being proven incorrect.


The hubris in the progressive assumption was on display at the end of President Obama’s now infamous press conference of November 14. Without the aid of a TelePrompTer, the President who dared to overhaul one-sixth of the U.S. economy made this candid admission: “What we’re also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy.”

It was the Cinderella-at-midnight moment of the Obama presidency—the moment when the gold chariot turned into a pumpkin, the stallions into junkyard dogs, and the liveried carriagemen into mice. The follow-up question—one I hope will be answered in the affirmative—is whether the magic will wear off not just for the President but for progressivism.

Those on the left of the political spectrum started reviving the term progressivism in earnest about a decade ago, after they had thoroughly discredited the word “liberal.” (Liberal, incidentally, is a perfectly legitimate term rooted in the word liberty. In its original use—its present use on the other side of the Atlantic—it meant a dedication to free markets, exactly the opposite of what it now means here.)

Once it became associated with big government, high taxes, wasteful spending and crippling debt, “liberal” became a liability with voters. So the left adopted an old label—“progressives”—and set about to position themselves as political leaders who would throw off the antiquated ideas of the past and move the country forward. In the meantime, they did an excellent job of redefining conservatives as people who were stuck in the past, backward–looking, and too judgmental about new ideas and lifestyles.

In many quarters, progressives have successfully vilified ideas that were emblematic of the American success story: individual responsibility, free markets, capitalism, traditional families, Judeo/Christian values, morality, American exceptionalism, and the basic concepts of natural law and unalienable rights. They have labored to sever the moorings to the past so that Americans might be “freed” to progress into the future.

Hollywood, the media, big corporations, mainstream churches, traditional organizations, the political establishment in both parties, universities, and much of the public have conceded that progressivism is an irresistible force.

But progressivism—the term and what it stands for—is hardly new. Its pinnacle before Barack Obama was attained by Woodrow Wilson, who was President from 1913 to 1921.

Like Obama, Wilson thought there were few bounds to what government could achieve. Capitalism, with its industrial and financial institutions, had “monstrously changed” the social world of the early 20th century, he said. In such circumstances, Wilson asked, “Must not government lay aside all timid scruple and boldly make itself an agency for social reform as well as for political control?”

Several decades later and following our (still much misunderstood) financial crisis of 2008, many people were also led to believe that by expanding its reach and power, big government could help the little guy by forcing big corporate fat cats, Wall Street bankers, and the financially advantaged to pay not only their “fair share,” but a little extra for those who weren’t doing so well. Progressivism offered the promise of justice, equality, and fairness.

The problem is that the opposite is true. Progressivism turns out to be disastrous for Americans from all walks of life…except those who work for big government, big corporations, big Wall Street banks, and big lobbying firms. Family structures collapse, education achievement stagnates, middle-class incomes flatline, government debt explodes, and America’s economic and military strength decline.

All this happens for myriad reasons. Big government becomes a trough for the well-connected only, while dependence on government assistance dissolves the fissures of civil society. But progressivism fails especially because, as we have seen with Obama, “the best and the brightest” set up to govern us are theorists removed from reality who don’t know that “insurance is complicated to buy” before they set out to overhaul it for a country of 310 million.

As the very talented essayist Jonah Goldberg put it last week, “in every tale of hubris, the transgressor is eventually slapped across the face with the semi-frozen flounder of reality.”

Obamacare appears to be that semi-frozen flounder, and the slap may be waking up even the deniers of the obvious. Many fervent believers of progressivism are starting to ask cogent questions about the assumptions they’ve embraced for years.

To be free—to truly progress—we must head in the opposite direction. Heritage offers commonsense solutions for health reform, and we welcome the debate about how to save America from Obamacare.