Are Progressives Smarter than Fifth Graders?

And, the answer is not even close.

In a commentary published on Sunday, July 3, 2011, progressive leader of the Growth & Justice and former Star Tribune writer, Dane Smith, laid out how the principles of American government work.  In his commentary, ‘The Founding Federalists,’ Smith carefully explained the Federalist demand for powerful governing bodies, wagged his finger at the stupid Tea Party movement for being ignorant, and generally told us how we have is because of a strong, centralized federal government.  He really should go on a lecture series entitled, “Everything I Learned About Government, I Forgot After Fifth Grade,” because he’s just so dead wrong about so many things.  I decided to see just how wrong he was by looking up the Fifth Grade Social Studies standards for Minnesota.  Just as I suspected, poor Dane Smith probably had a bad case of amnesia, because his blinding belief in omnipotent government has led him to some faulty conclusions.

Let’s begin with his introductory statements:

“And as we celebrate our origins amid coast-to-coast budget crises — national and state, both — it may be useful to remember that back in 1788 it was rabid antitax libertarians who almost prevented us from uniting and forming this “more perfect union.”

The more farsighted American founders wanted the strong, effective and united national government we ended up with, and the broad new taxing powers that made it possible.”

From the Minnesota proposed social studies standards: Describe separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.


Sorry Dane, but you apparently flunked this standard.  The Federalist Papers are a collection of arguments for passing the FEDERAL Constitution giving enumerated powers to the FEDERAL government.  In passage after passage of these essays, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay argue this document, while giving more power to a central, national authority, would be seriously limited in scope and most powers would stay with the states.  Madison argued in Federalist No. 51 that:

“In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

This is the chief author of the U.S. Constitutional and foremost Federalist.  His case is not for a “strong, effective, and united national government.”  His argument is that divided and split powers would be the best protection of the people against the usurpation of their liberty.  Smith’s cockamamie argument that Federalists were big government liberals is just plain wrong.  His assertion that Madison and Hamilton wanted unfettered national power isn’t just incredible, it flies in the face of the very words and processes contained in the document itself.

Article I, section 8 details the powers of Congress, and that entity that was split into two houses and a tiny part of its power given to the president in the form of a veto over legislation.  That is how limited the framers wanted to make the federal government.  They understood that one house with unfettered power could easily become a tyranny having looked back in history at Oliver Cromwell’s autocracy.  Furthermore, if you read Article I, section 9, you’ll find a laundry list of things Congress CANNOT do that is just as long as the list of their powers.

To argue the Federalists were big government boosters is not only disingenuous, but wrong.  Dane Smith gets a big red check next to this answer.

On the other side of the equation, Smith states that Antifederalists were anarchist wingnuts who ran around demanding no government whatsoever and likens them to the Tea Party movement.  He argues:

“Come to think of it, anti-Federalist may actually be a more accurate historical label than “Tea Party” for the insurgents who are on the rampage once again, defaming our good governments, proposing to shrink them beyond recognition and promoting a self-centered individualist “liberty” as the only important principle, with scant regard for the complementary values of equality, justice and community.”

Let’s see what Fifth grade social studies standard applies in this case. Explain and demonstrate how voting, civil discourse about controversial issues, and civic action improve and sustain a democratic society, support the common good, and protect the rights of individuals.


This standard is a kind of “plays well with other” objective.  Smith doesn’t make an argument based on real Tea Party movement participants.  He doesn’t attempt to understand their arguments.  Smith simply smears them with a far left narrative he read in some New York Times or Star Tribune front page Op/Ed.  This doesn’t make an argument so much as insult and mischaracterize a group of people.

First of all, the Anti-federalists weren’t anti-government any more than the Tea Party is.  Like Smith, I have a copy of Pauline Maier’s book, ‘Ratification; The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.’  Unlike Smith, I read the whole thing.  (Books are so decorative).  What struck me as I read this excellent book is the entire exercise was incredibly illuminating.  The Antifederalists made a number of extremely important points that led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights which in effect changed the original document in a number of ways.  While the debate between the two sides was heated and much name-calling ensued, they did discuss it with genuine concerns.  From Maier’s book:

“There was, in fact, good reason to question whether it made sense to group together in a single category people so different as Elbridge Gerry, who thought the Constitution should be ratified once a few problems were fixed, and the Boston newspaper writer “Agrippa,” who argued for a total rejection of the Constitution and proposed strengthening the Confederation in ways that would not give Congress an exclusive right to levy duties on imports, much less let it raise direct taxes.” (page 157)

Smith’s mischaracterization is indicative of his inability to distinguish different arguments.  His sophomoric ‘us versus them’ collectivist argument completely misses the most important points the book and the historical events actually offer.  There is a continuum of thought and important issues are involved.

The Tea Party movement and the Federalists and Anti-federalists have and had legitimate concerns over the size, scope, and authority of the central authority.  The Federalists believed they had painstakingly created a governmental process that would stymy tyranny and the Anti-federalists feared it wasn’t enough.  None of these groups, including the Tea Party, are anarchists bent on destroying government.  Instead, they offer cautionary examples that argue against giving too much power and status to the federal segment of our political process.

But Smith hasn’t finished with his non-history lesson.  He finishes with this bizarre conclusion.  “But over time, America prospered beyond any founder’s dreams because it had a government that was strong enough to survive and become, in Washington’s words, “a respectable nation” in the world.”

From the 5th grade social studies standards: Explain how law limits both the powers of government and the governed, protects individual rights and promotes the general welfare.


Governments don’t create prosperity.  Nor do governments invent things.  Our economic advancement is not due to governmental social experiments but because of the individual rights to their economic and intellectual property.  Voluntary associations and cooperation among individual minds created the richest society to ever grace this earth.  While good governments can provide protection from enemies, protection of property, infrastructure to enable commerce, and steady, reliable laws that we can depend on, governments don’t create wealth.  We are a great nation because we promised our children we would give them liberty and stability to make more of themselves.  We are a great nation because of our promise that regardless of your origin you will be given the same protection of the laws and chances to succeed.  We are a great nation because of LIMITED governments not because we erected a nanny state to wipe our collective noses.   It is this lesson that Smith most definitely missed in his fifth grade classroom.

Smith non-history lesson is wholly and completely debunked.  Go back to school.

Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com