The Corner

Hating Woody

The NYT has a Room for Debate discussion on conservatives hating Woodrow Wilson. It’s a bit  undisciplined. A few of the folks use it as an excuse to beat up on Glenn Beck, even trying to make him into a mouthpiece for Leo Strauss (no, really). Others get bogged down in the question of motives, as if motives were relevant to the substance of the debate, particularly when all of the “defenders” are unwilling or unable to offer much, if any,  substance in Wilson’s defense. Indeed, Thomas G. West  is the only contributor who actually offers any historical substance to the question of Why Wilson?

Anyway, a few responses:

George H. Nash (praise be upon him) is surely right that Obama’s actions help fuel the anti-Wilson argument. But there are some chicken-and-egg problems with that. Beck got on the anti-Wilson train largely because of my book. And I started Liberal Fascism long before  I — or pretty much anyone — had ever heard of Barack Obama.

John Milton Cooper makes an interesting point about conservatism’s changing view of business, but his actual  critique of the anti-Wilson camp strikes me as a game-ending concession. He writes:

The main problem with this current denunciation is that it does not spread the blame far or early enough. Theodore Roosevelt should come in for the same scorn, and Beck has occasionally tarred him with the same brush as Wilson. T.R. loved big government as much or more than Wilson did, and the main issue when the two men ran against each other for president was who was the stronger and more sincere advocate of big, strong, interventionist government.

So, John Milton Cooper — a great and revered historian — says that the chief problem with the right’s indictment of Woodrow Wilson is not that it is wrong on the merits, but that it’s too selective? In other words, the substance of the attack is fine, it’s just not inclusive enough. I’ll take that any day.

Still, my response is twofold. First it’s really not true that Teddy has gotten away unscathed. T.R. has come in for considerable criticism from the anti-Wilson chorus (as even Cooper concedes re Beck).  So even this charge of partisanship is far weaker than Cooper suggests.

Second, perhaps some of us actually see some important differences between Wilson and TR. For starters, as Cooper notes, TR became more progressive when he ran against Wilson in 1912. That’s relevant because TR’s views had changed since he left the White House, thanks in large part to Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, which he read on a post-presidential safari (“I do not know when I have read a book which profited me as much,” he said of Croly’s progressive manifesto). So while Cooper is right to a limited extent, what he leaves out is that TR wasn’t nearly the progressive Wilson was as president. It is entirely possible that had TR won in 1912 (and all else was held constant) the same conservatives would be beating up on TR more than Wilson. Though even that I doubt, for the simple reason that Wilson’s progressivism was a real ideology. TR’s progressivism was far more instinctual.

I truly laughed out loud at Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s opening salvo. She writes:

Conservatives wish to turn the word “progressive” into an insult, in much the same way that the word “liberal” became a smear during the 1988 presidential campaign. Liberals are bad at labeling things, not least themselves, their political opponents, and their policies; conservatives are good at it.


The rest isn’t much more persuasive.

After doing his Beck-the-Straussian bit, Lind writes:

Each faction on the right has had its own view of the past, with its own canon of heroes and its own list of villains. While many conservatives claim to be “constitutionalists,” some states’ rights theorists argue that not only the Civil War but also the Founders’ Constitution of 1787 led to a tyrannical consolidation of power in the federal government. For decades highbrow cultural conservatives have accused the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau of wrecking Western civilization with his cult of the primitive.For most conservatives, however, the fall of America from the paradise of small government to the hell of statism came with the New Deal and the Great Society. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, one would think, would be more natural targets of the right than Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps someone should tell Glenn Beck.

This condescension is typical of Lind. You see, he’s here to tell everyone what conservatives are supposed to believe, and conservatives are supposed to start with the New Deal or the Great Society, not Wilson. There are any number of problems with this, but the chief one is surely that he’s simply ducking the argument. In particularly he’s ducking the charge that the New Deal has its roots in the Wilson administration in much the same way the Great Society had its roots in the New Deal. This is not some Straussian argument, or even a particularly conservative one. FDR — a Wilson retread — would find it utterly uncontroversial as would most of the original New Dealers. So would William Leuchtenberg, the dean of FDR historians.

And then there’s Mark Atwood Lawrence. He writes:

Wilson is a much easier mark. His major accomplishments in domestic policy – tariff reform, the Federal Reserve Act, and the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission – inspire few warm feelings in the 21st century, even if they were welcomed as major innovations at the time. More important, Wilson’s dramatic expansion of federal authority during the World War I leaves even modern-day liberals mostly uninterested in mounting a defense. Beck, Goldberg and company thus risk little resistance when they blast Wilson for infringing free speech, escalating police surveillance of U.S. citizens, and regimenting numerous other aspects of American life.

The problem with the conservative view of Wilson is not that it is entirely wrong but that it is grossly incomplete. It makes almost no effort to view Wilson within the context of an era when most Americans eagerly welcomed the growth of government power.

And it ignores the obvious point that Wilson shares as many traits in common with the latter-day right as with liberals. After all, Wilson’s initiatives during the World War I resemble little in American history so much as the 2001 Patriot Act championed by the Bush administration. And Wilson’s notoriously moralizing, self-righteous personality would fit right in among the conservative punditry so eager to condemn him.

I can’t speak for Beck too authoritatively here since I’ve hardly followed his every statement on Wilson, but Lawrence gets me just plain wrong. One of the central points of my entire argument about the progressive era (and fascism) is that these ideas were popular. They were in the water, on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for Lawrence’s bit about the Patriot Act, that really is hilarious. Who is lacking in historical context now? Whatever the flaws or excesses of the Patriot Act may have been, to compare it to what happened under Wilson is not only absurd, it reveals Lawrence’s political blinders. Indeed, the civil rights abuses under FDR, starting with the internment of the Japanese, but also including the harassment of political enemies, were far worse than anything that happened under Bush. And, they were a natural, if diluted, continuation of what happened under FDR’s old boss, Woodrow Wilson. But discussing that would be too inconvenient.

But even if Lawrence’s analysis was right (a big concession), it would still just boil down to a tiresome charge of hypocrisy. In other words, the conservative complaint about Wilson is correct, it’s just that we conservatives shouldn’t be offering it. In effect: “You can’t complain about Woodrow Wilson because he’s like George W. Bush!” 

I score that as Anti-Wilsonites 5 defenders 0 (or forfeit).


Update: Ah, the perils of pre-coffee blogging. First, this complaint, from a reader:

You wrote:


“Others get bogged down in the question of motives, as if motives were relevant to the substance of the debate, particularly when all of the ‘defenders’ are unwilling or unable to offer any substance in Wilson’s defense.”

Uh, the substance of the debate is about why conservatives condemn Wilson.  That’s why the subhead is “Why Wilson and not, say, one of the Roosevelts?”  Motives are therefore pretty central., because a motive is, by definition, an explanation of *why* somebody does something.  The debate isn’t about Wilson’s merits, which is why nobody really tries to defend him.

Fair point! What I was trying to get at, is that this sort of discussion works from the assumption that conservative motives are something other than the actual substantive arguments. It works from the assumption that there’s a lot of bad faith on the part of those (us) making our case. I apologize for the lack of clarity.

Then, there’s my response to Jill Lepore. It seems some more exposition was required. What I found hilarious was the claim that liberals don’t label things. This from the crowd that has shouted “tea bagger” at everything that moves. Moreover, she seems oblivious to the fact that the terms “liberal” and “progressive” are not conservative labels! They are the labels liberals and progressives chose for themselves!


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