This speech was about as compact yet comprehensive an example of the contemporary progressive vision as we’re likely to get from a politician. It had all the usual elements. Its point of origin was a familiar distorted historical narrative of the founding — half of Jefferson and none of Madison — setting us off on a utopian “journey” in the course of which the founding vision is transformed into its opposite in response to changing circumstances, with life becoming choice, liberty becoming security, and the pursuit of happiness transmuted into a collective effort to guarantee that everyone has choice and security. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence are praised mostly for their flexibility in the face of their own anachronism, as their early embodiment in a political order (that is, the Constitution) proves inadequate to a changing world and must be gradually but thoroughly replaced by an open-ended commitment to meeting social objectives through state action. …

The first thing to say about this vision is that it is a serious set of ideas and in some important respects an appealing one. It seeks to put American politics on a modern idealistic foundation rather than the modern skeptical foundation on which our constitutional order has put it, and it understands the liberal society as a set of utopian objectives grounded in a set of rational ideals. That’s certainly one way to understand the liberal society, and it is a way with deep roots in American thought. I’ve always thought that describing the progressive worldview as some kind of German implant undersells it and distorts it. It is surely that in part, but it is also the working out of a strain of American liberalism that has been with us from the beginning. The progressives claim to a connection to Jefferson is not unfounded. But it is incomplete and ill-informed. …

For conservatives to do better, it would be helpful to understand the left’s failings, and this speech is not a bad place to start. Look at the vision it lays out. It denies the relevance of our constitutional system, the value of civil society, the social achievement that is our culture of individual initiative and economic dynamism, the dignity of every life whether wanted by others or not, and the unsustainability of the liberal welfare state.