The Corner

Get Woody

As anyone who’s read my book knows, I am a member in good standing of the Woodrow Wilson Haters Club. The exciting news is that almost everyone wants to be a member these days. Glenn Beck — partly influenced by my book — has been on a jihad against Wilson for a while now. At CPAC, he pretty much opened with “I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me.” (If you want to read a pretty unpersuasive rejoinder to Beck’s Wilson hatred, see Thomas Frank’s latest weird column.)

This is a fascinating (to me) turn of events, because it’s been a long time in coming. If you go back and look through the archives of National Review, there really isn’t all that much anti-Wilson sentiment outside the topic of Versailles. This, I think, can be partly explained by the prism of  Cold War anti-Communism (we can discuss that more later if you want!). Ditto if you search through WFB’s columns for stuff about Wilson. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was no fan of Wilson’s and the Rothbardian libertarians had him, and the progressive era, pegged better than most.

But it was really the work of what I would call the Claremont crowd that pushed the anti-Wilson noodle across the carpet. Modern conservatism is largely a reaction to the Soviet threat abroad and the New Deal at home. But the Claremonsters (as my wife endearingly calls them) understood that starting with the New Deal amounted to a critic reviewing a play he only attended after intermission. It all goes back to the Progressive Era. They have done the bulk of the intellectual heavy lifting on this score. I don’t want to list them all (in part because I don’t have a great sense of where they all rank viz a viz each other), but some of the better known (and among my favorites) include Charles Kesler, R. J. Pestritto, Steve Hayward, Peter Schramm, Ken Masugi, and others. They can be found, among other places, at the Claremont Institute (and in the pages of the Claremont Review of Books), Hillsdale, and the Ashbrook Center. For years they did the serious intellectual spadework on the Progressive Era and it is finally paying off. (Perhaps the best, or at least my favorite, introduction to their project can be found in The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science).

Anyway, I’ve been spotting Wilson hatred all over the place for the last year or so. But I found today’s George Will column particularly edifying. He writes, in part:

Of course, there now is a commission of experts to recommend cures for this. It should be called the Philip Dru Memorial Commission.

In a scintillating book coming in June (“The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris”), Peter Beinart dissects the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson. Edward House, Wilson’s closest adviser, wrote an awful but indicative novel, “Philip Dru: Administrator.” With the nation in crisis, Dru seizes power, declares himself “Administrator of the Republic” and replaces Congress with a commission of five experts who decree reforms that selfish interests had prevented.

Wilson, once a professor of political science, said that the Princeton he led as its president was dedicated to unbiased expertise, and he thought government could be “reduced to science.” Progressives are forever longing to replace the governance of people by the administration of things. Because they are entirely public-spirited, progressives volunteer to be the administrators, and to be as disinterested as the dickens.

How gripped was Wilson by what Beinart calls “the hubris of reason”? Beinart writes:

“He even recommended to his wife that they draft a constitution for their marriage. Let’s write down the basic rules, he suggested; ‘then we can make bylaws at our leisure as they become necessary.’ It was an early warning sign, a hint that perhaps the earnest young rationalizer did not understand that there were spheres where abstract principles didn’t get you very far, where reason could never be king.”

Professor Obama, who will seek reelection on the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s 1912 election, understands, which makes him melancholy. Speaking to Katie Couric on Feb. 7, Obama said:

“I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn’t have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that’s not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.”

Note his aesthetic criterion of elegance, by which he probably means sublime complexity….

Not only is it delightful to see George Will getting in on the act, but it turns out that my friend Peter Beinart has signed up to be a Wilson basher as well. This is a little surprising because Peter and I have argued about Wilson before, and he’s always come to Wilson’s defense. So it’s interesting to learn that he takes a new turn in his forthcoming book (I haven’t seen it yet). Indeed, When Peter was still the editor of The New Republic he put Wilson on the cover for the 90th anniversary issue  — and had him looming over FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, JFK, and Harry Truman:

I should have seen some of this coming when my book came out. I had expected my Wilson chapter to attract some very pointed and defensive attacks from his defenders and from liberals generally. But most reviewers simply ignored or conceded the bulk of my anti-Wilsonism. If memory serves, Matt Yglesias tried to disown Wilson, going so far as to whine that you can’t even call Wilson a liberal (tell that to TNR). Meanwhile, even as this was going on, the Left was proving itself much more eager to fully embrace the Progressive Era. During the Democratic primaries, both Obama and Hillary Clinton explicitly, boldly, and proudly associated themselves with Wilson-era Progressivism.

This is all very exciting because it suggests that after a very, very, long postponement a real argument about the Progressive Revolution might actually commence.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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