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An Interview with Bradley C. S. Watson, author of “Progressivism”

Bradley C. S. Watson, Philip M. McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought at Saint Vincent College

Bradley C. S. Watson is the author and editor of numerous books, including Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence and Progressive Challenges to the American Constitution: A New Republic. We were delighted to talk to him a short while ago about his recently published book, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea.

Progressivism has received major reviews in The Claremont Review of Books, Law and Liberty, and Public Discourse. What prompted you to tackle this project?

I’d thought about this book for years. It was evident to me that no one had written a comprehensive history of how American history was told through the twentieth century by progressive historians. The fact is, most American historians—the bigwigs as well as the lesser lights—were (and are) fellow travelers of the progressive movement. They were hardly dispassionate scholars. They were, in one way or another, promoting the very thing they purported to chronicle. 

How is this book relevant today?

Progressivism wasn’t, and isn’t, simply a social or political movement. It’s a whole moral philosophy. Progressives claim that everything evolves and grows over time. This includes old documents like our Constitution, and even human nature itself. In short, they don’t believe in a fixed political or moral order. They see everything as an empty vessel into which they may pour their fashionable contemporary concoctions. But written constitutionalism, and the permanent characteristics and dignity of human beings, become meaningless if this is the case. Or at least they’re given their meaning by progressive thinkers, and this meaning is always changing to keep up with the times and ever-shifting progressive values. In short, progressivism touches on almost everything in human life, public and private.

What did you learn while writing it?

I learned a lot about the progressive reconfiguration of Christianity. Whether Protestant or Catholic, leading progressive thinkers and theologians sought to bring Christianity down from the clouds, and use it to justify various forms of statism. Nowadays, we tend to associate fervent Christianity with the political Right, but it was not always so. As the decades passed, progressive Christianity became more about progressivism and less about Christianity. And nowadays progressivism is openly hostile to traditional religion, which is one of the ironies of the social gospel and other religious strains of the progressive movement. But I think secularism was baked into the cake of progressivism from the get-go, though the early Christian progressives didn’t see it.

And there’s another thing. Long before I started writing this book, I was aware of the echo chambers that academic disciplines, and modern American universities, had become. But it was fascinating to document this with respect to a single discipline—history—and to see just how comprehensively the historians missed what was in many ways the biggest story in American history over the past century or so, i.e., the progressive reconfiguration of American constitutionalism, American Christianity, and American cultural norms.

What is your writing schedule like?

Writing always takes me a ridiculous amount of time. It’s really a horrible process for me. I sweat every line and massage every paragraph. I envy people who can write quickly and do it well. But the fact is, it’s often the case that those who write quickly, including academics, do not write well or carefully. So there’s a tradeoff. I’ve always relished the line—attributed to several authors—that “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I teach at a liberal arts college, so I don’t have an army of graduate students or research assistants to do my writing for me! In the acknowledgments section of the book, I quote approvingly the mid twentieth-century progressive historian William Appleman Williams who, even back then, felt it necessary to embrace the “somewhat archaic notion that a man writes his own books.” I don’t have any choice in the matter, but this is the way I would want it in any event. I researched and wrote most of the book while on sabbatical at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, which proved to be an ideal environment to get the heaving lifting done. But then there was the tweaking, the linking of chapters and concepts, the difficult choices of what materials to eliminate to prevent bloat, the thinking through of the best way to introduce and conclude what I had discovered, the rewriting, the copy editing, the contemplation and re-contemplation of how every line would sound and flow together.

But dealing with my publisher has been surprisingly joyful! Notre Dame Press is the best I have dealt with. You’ve assembled an extraordinary editorial team, which is releasing some of the best and most important titles in politics and political theory, amongst other fields. So this book has been a labor of love, and hate, over years of my life, with the first year being by far the most intense, requiring hours of research and writing on pretty much a daily basis. But I don’t hesitate to take days (or a week here and there) off, just to clear my head. And drink Scotch.

What advice would you give to a young scholar who wants to start a book?

Realize that if you’re anything like me—and most writers probably are—it’s not going to be “fun.” You won’t enjoy writing—but you will love having written!

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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