The Corner

Paging Brother Robinson

I’ve been watching the esteemed Charles Kesler on Peter Robinson’s show Uncommon Knowledge. It’s great stuff and highly reccomend it. But I have one small objection. In episode 2, Peter says that the New Deal comes “a couple decades after Wilson.”

This may sound like a petty objection to some people, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. The New Deal does not come “a couple decades after Wilson.” FDR enters office a scant 12 years after Wilson leaves. Moreover, the growing consensus (and the established consensus among libertarian-minded historians and economists) is that the New Deal begins, albeit embryonically, with Hoover, a mere eight years after Wilson.

The reason this is relevant, I think, is that the Left often casts the timeline in a similar light to Peter’s. They’ll often rebut conservative criticisms of the New Deal by saying something like, “Oh, those trogs don’t even understand that the New Deal was merely an extension of the Progressive American tradition going all the way back to the Wilson administration.”

In a sense they’re right. The New Deal was a natural extension of Wilson’s project. That’s not my interpretation; it was FDR’s campaign pledge. He promised he would revive Wilson’s war socialism to fight the Depression. Moreover, the Roosevelt administration was shot-through with Wilson retreads, starting with FDR himself. Throughout the 1920s — including during the boom years — Progressive intellectuals insisted that Wilson’s war socialism needed to be restored: “We planned in war!” was the intellectuals’ rallying cry.

Imagine how silly it would sound to say that Barack Obama is merely reviving an American tradition that stretches all the way back to Bill Clinton.

The point here is that we shouldn’t concede that the New Deal was the continuation of a venerable American tradition. Rather, it was the continuation of a radical and disturbing break with American tradition by the same cast of characters who delivered the domestic horrors of Wilson’s war socialism. When we talk as if the Wilson years are part of a distant and separate era from the FDR years, we only make that case more difficult.


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