Hating Woodrow Wilson
The new and confused attacks on progressivism.
Roosevelt and Wilson had plenty of differences, but in the long view of history their affinities loom large. For Roosevelt, presidential activism meant cracking down on the railroads, regulating food and drugs, breaking up trusts, protecting lands from exploitation, and arbitrating labor disputes. For Wilson, it involved regulating finance and the money supply, limiting the corporations' demands on their laborers, aiding farmers, preventing monopolistic practices, and making the new federal income tax a graduated one. Just three months ago, I wrote in Slate that over the last century, almost no one has questioned these achievements; clearly, I hadn't been watching enough Fox. Nonetheless, it's telling that these Progressive Era reforms have enjoyed such an enduring and uncontroversial place in our sense of what government should do. Their long-reigning acceptance shows better than anything else just how deeply reactionary Beck and company are.
Of course, even those who happily admit to wanting to repeal a century's worth of regulation have to reckon with a fundamental flaw in today's Wilson hatred: It's completely ahistorical. The right's habit is to view Wilson through the lens of today's politics—to blame his commitment to a Federal Reserve Bank, for example, for giving us Ben Bernanke's decisions, or to equate Wilson's "progressivism" with the left-wing views of today's self-described progressives. But the Federal Reserve and the meaning of the word progressive—and so much else about American life—have changed dramatically since Wilson's day. Which is why you have to look at political figures in the context of their times: What problems did they face? What alternative paths were available to them? What did they and their contemporaries think they were up to?
If you consider the political currents of the Progressive Era, the portrait of Wilson as either a radical or a precursor of fascism looks especially absurd. At the turn of the century, problems like the exploitation of labor, the blight of urban tenements, and the dangers of economic concentration cried out for reform. Social science was illuminating new solutions to intractable social problems, such as or creating parks and libraries or improving factory conditions to limit disease. Public opinion demanded a stronger role for government, which was the only institution possessing the resources to make a difference. Properly situated in this context, Wilson and other progressives emerge as not as proto-fascists or wild renegades but as tempered, moderate reformers. They implemented major changes, but those changes were in tune with the mainstream of public sentiment.
We might ask whom today's Wilson haters would have preferred to their bogeyman. Certainly not the socialists and anarchists , who were at the peak of their popularity. (Socialist Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election.) The anti-Eastern agrarianism of William Jennings Bryan might seem to have some appeal to the populist right, but they could never have stomached Bryan's zeal for the income tax, banking oversight, and redistribution of wealth. On the conservative side of the aisle, it's hard to imagine anyone today openly aligning themselves with the corrupt and business-friendly Old Guard of the Republican party who were the progressives' chief antagonists. Even Beck himself denounces Social Darwinism, which was precisely the philosophy that progressives, with their view of society as an organic whole and not a race among individuals, sought to dethrone. Indeed, in 1912 someone who wanted to remove the control of economic affairs from the hands of a powerful few so as to realize equality of opportunity would almost certainly have voted for Woodrow Wilson.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.