Of all the eccentricities of today’s resurgent right, one of the strangest has to be the virulent, obsessive hatred of Woodrow Wilson. For a long time, conservatives have talked about turning back the clock to a period before America veered off course. Typically, though, they have wanted to repudiate the 1960s—politically, to repeal the Great Society; culturally, to beat back the sexual, civil, and women’s rights revolutions. Occasionally, as when policymakers debated a New Deal-style response to the 2008 recession, conservative polemicists have reached back further, blaming our woes on FDR and Keynesian economics.
But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson—intense, private, cerebral—galvanized much anti-government fury. If anything, the reformist president of the Progressive Era, once a great icon of democrats worldwide, has been flayed more often by the left—for his idealistic internationalism (given a bad name by George W. Bush), his wartime suppression of dissent (of which Bush, again, reminded liberals), and his racist predilections (a stain on his record now impossible to ignore). The right had largely ignored or forgotten him.
Until now. Thanks largely to Glenn Beck, who in turn seems to have been influenced by a tiny cluster of academics at conservative outposts like Hillsdale College, Wilson has emerged as the Tea Party’s No. 1 “President You Need to Hate,” as he’s described on the “Beck University” Web site, the talk-show host’s repository of baroque counter-histories. Lambasting Wilson has become, according to Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, “a secret handshake among Beck followers.” * The craggy-faced Virginian who became a leading political scientist and university president; the celebrated governor of New Jersey who, as president, led the nation to victory in World War I, is faulted for the income tax, the Federal Reserve, bureaucrats, socialists, eugenics, and even the rise of Nazism.
Not surprisingly, much of the brief against Wilson is not just bad as an interpretation of the facts but also demonstrably inaccurate. With the recent spike in Wilson-hating, correctors of the record are emerging from their carrels; Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, and others have picked apart Beck’s more outré Wilson-centered fantasies, while Dana Milbank has had fun shooting fish in Beck’s cracker-barrel history. In moments of candor, Beck himself all but owns up to his longstanding ignorance. On one program he seemed unsure whether Birth of a Nation was “the first big silent movie” or “the first silent movie,” and said he’d read that it was “based on Wilson’s writings”—something one of his guests, uneasily, said he hadn’t “verified.” (For the record, Griffith borrowed some language from Wilson’s History of the American People for the title cards, but the movie was based on a contemporary novel, The Clansman, and Wilson’s take on Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan was much more moderate than the film’s.) “Two years ago,” Beck confessed on another occasion—before he read conservative writers like Ronald J. Pestritto who are deeply hostile to Wilson’s progressivism—”I knew nothing about Woodrow Wilson.” If he now fashions himself wiser, it remains a hastily acquired expertise.
The debunking of crackpot history is necessary, and ridicule fully deserves its place. But it’s also important to recognize the nub of truth amid the distortion in the right’s Wilson-bashing. After all, Wilson, along with Theodore Roosevelt—who, perhaps because he was a Republican, draws considerably less vituperation from Beck and his ilk—unquestionably bolstered the powers of the presidency and the state in early 20th-century America. While nothing at all like the tyrants of the Tea Party’s fever-dreams, these presidents looked upon their predecessors (excepting a few, like Lincoln) as captive to an outmoded view of the presidency. Facing a rapidly industrializing economy, a swelling and diverse populace, and unstoppably powerful corporations, they sought to introduce public accountability and regulation to enhance individual freedom and opportunity.
The signal challenge of the age was the overwhelming power of the corporations. Unchecked by the government, their pursuit of profit created great wealth but consigned millions to misery and injustice. As cruel working conditions and widespread economic unfairness increasingly defied justification, Democrats and Republicans alike turned to reformist politicians—specifically Roosevelt and Wilson—who believed that political leadership meant tackling these problems. They wanted to maintain a dynamic capitalist economy while protecting laborers, farmers, consumers, and others who lacked recourse. Such reformers came to be called progressives.
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.