In November 2008, President-elect Obama’s chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel signaled the new administration’s progressive sensibility when he said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” For an ideology impatient with the rules of political change and democratic persuasion, the urgency of alleged crises creates powerful opportunities for politicians to suspend those rules and bypass the process of deliberation in which citizens exercise their autonomy and sovereignty.
Emanuel’s progressive intent becomes clearer if we see its relationship to progressive psychologist William James’ famous metaphor, “the moral equivalent of war.” There are serious social-political battles to fight, the implication goes, and it’s the moral duty of everyone to fight for the right side. In the case of progressives, the right side is the “arc of history” progressively bending toward greater “social justice” and equality, but impeded by the superstitious, the greedy, the unenlightened, and the evil.
Delve deeper into James’ metaphor and you see its sinister dimensions. Heraclitus said, “War is the father and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.” War is the original creative destruction, in which fortune can turn in mere minutes. As such war often demands that the machinery of consensual government be compromised. The demands of war––the need for rapid mobilization, provision of matériel, and decisions and actions whose success relies on decisiveness and speed–– has led even constitutional states to provide for an office or executive that can be temporarily allowed expanded power.