If John Podesta is not a household name today, he is on his way. And why? The thousands of emails dumped by WikiLeaks in the past week came from his account. They are troublesome to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for two reasons: One, they show an intense in-fighting among her closest aides, sometimes even about her fitness for office. Two, they reveal John Podesta as a powerful political figure who has risen to be the most powerful Democrat operative in the nation. That conclusion is obvious from the fact that he is Clinton’s chief of staff, after working for the Clintons and President Obama for more than two decades in very high-level positions.
John Podesta is no ordinary chief of staff. He is, in fact, the most ideologically left person with similar power in living memory. This fact is not widely known, even though searches of the internet reveal many pieces about him and the dozens of positions he has held in Democrat administrations. Notwithstanding these references, he has basically flown under the radar in the broader national media.
Evidence of Podesta’s ideological stance has been largely neglected because most pieces written about him have missed the significance of his work as CEO of the Center for American Progress (CAP). Podesta founded this innocuously named radical think-tank in 2003 following eight years in Bill Clinton’s administration—including his last four as Bill’s chief of staff. His importance in Democrat political circles is confirmed by his present position and the likelihood that he will be Hillary’s presidential chief of staff, should she be elected.
Podesta’s radical vision for America became evident in his work as CEO at CAP in 2008 when he edited and/or published several large tomes which embodied his vision for radicalizing American culture. The first was “The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country.” Podesta endorsed the same far-left views in his introduction to radical activist Mark J. Green’s “Change for America: A Blueprint for the 44th President” (2009). This book is a collection of 60 articles/essays, more than 600 pages, about how a leftist program can be put into law. Podesta also published an acceptance speech for the president which outlines his radical views, views that can be captured in the phrase, “Government can solve all of our problems.” Not known to Podesta when he wrote this speech, Barack Obama would become that president and proceeded to mirror and adopt many of the items on Podesta’s agenda. Podesta would also serve as counselor to Obama and chaired his transition team.
Since Podesta has served the Clintons at the highest levels of Democrat power, it will be instructive to sketch out his role as their principal guru. What has he said? What does he believe?
First, Podesta states that he became conscious of progressivism at home as a young man. The progressive tradition was a political reaction to some excesses of the emerging Industrial Age in the 1890s. Thus, the age was colored by dozens of impulses aimed at reforming education, municipal government corruption, labor conditions (long hours and unsafe factories), unsanitary food production, industrial monopolies, and many more. Examples of early 20th century progressive leaders include Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and Herbert Croly, to name a few. Podesta assumes in his writing that he is a lineal descendent of this age and its philosophy. There are, however, profound differences between early progressives and Podesta’s present-day radical progressives, evident in comparing several of their basic assumptions.
The early progressives, down to the beginning of WWII, lived in an America that was still governed by traditional assumptions. For example, most early progressives continued to embrace the Constitution, believing that some laws (child labor) under the Constitution needed to be changed. Only few radicals openly rejected the supremacy of the Constitution as drafted, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes being a famous example. Significantly, the culture in general continued to embrace the proposition that in matters moral there were absolutes. The Ten Commandments were without question still the yardstick for right and wrong and Christianity was still woven deeply into the fabric of American culture.
These principles were on the way out by the time John Podesta was born in 1949 and gone by the time he graduated from law school in 1976. They were replaced by a thoroughly secular view of life, one which came to dominate Podesta’s new progressives by the 1970s. Unlike earlier times, law schools now teach that the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. And, at the moral level everyone is encouraged to do what is right in his or her own eyes. Thus, a full-blown moral relativism now prevails. Moreover, Christianity is but a shadow of its earlier self in the culture.
Podesta vigorously defends his devotion to the religion of his youth—Roman Catholicism—but its moral teachings do not seem to flow over into his political life. Interestingly, Podesta says that his progressive friends do not understand his devotion to the religion of his youth.
The 2016 presidential election is upon us. What will it bring us? Four more years of Clinton-style government built on few, if any, traditional moral standards? Fueled and managed by their principal and radical operative, John Podesta?
Think about that during the days ahead.
— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest books are Thinking Cal Coolidge and The Soul of Grove City College: A Personal View.