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Opinion

You want a more 'progressive' America? Careful what you wish for.

Voters should remember what happened under Woodrow Wilson.

By Jonah Goldberg / February 5, 2008

Jonah Goldberg

Courtesy of Jonah Goldberg

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Washington

I'm thinking of an American president who demonized ethnic groups as enemies of the state, censored the press, imprisoned dissidents, bullied political opponents, spewed propaganda, often expressed contempt for the Constitution, approved warrantless searches and eavesdropping, and pursued his policies with a blind, religious certainty.

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Oh, and I'm not thinking of George W. Bush, but another "W" – actually "WW": Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat who served from 1913 to 1921.

President Wilson is mostly remembered today as the first modern liberal president, the first (and only) POTUS with a PhD, and the only political scientist to occupy the Oval Office. He was the champion of "self determination" and the author of the idealistic but doomed "Fourteen Points" – his vision of peace for Europe and his hope for a League of Nations. But the nature of his presidency has largely been forgotten.

That's a shame, because Wilson's two terms in office provide the clearest historical window into the soul of progressivism. Wilson's racism, his ideological rigidity, and his antipathy toward the Constitution were all products of the progressive worldview. And since "progressivism" is suddenly in vogue – today's leading Democrats proudly wear the label – it's worth actually reviewing what progressivism was and what actually happened under the last full-throated progressive president.

The record should give sober pause to anyone who's mesmerized by the progressive promise.

Wilson, like the bulk of progressive intellectuals in fin-de-siècle America, was deeply influenced by three strands of thought: philosophical Pragmatism, Hegelianism, and Darwinism. This heady intellectual cocktail produced a drunken arrogance and the conviction that the old rules no longer applied.

The classical liberalism of the Founders – free markets, individualism, property rights, etc. – had been eclipsed by a new "experimental" age. Horace Kallen, a protégé of Pragmatism exponent William James, denounced fixed philosophical dogmas as mere rationalizations of the status quo. Sounding much like today's critical theorists, Mr. Kallen lamented that "Men have invented philosophy precisely because they find change, chance, and process too much for them, and desire infallible security and certainty."

The old conception of absolute truths and immutable laws had been replaced by a "Darwinian" vision of organic change.

Hence Wilson argued that the old "Newtonian" vision – fixed rules enshrined in the Constitution and laws – had to give way to the "Darwinian" view of "living constitutions" and the like.

"Government," Wilson wrote approvingly in his magnum opus, "The State," "does now whatever experience permits or the times demand." "No doubt," he wrote elsewhere, taking dead aim at the Declaration of Independence, "a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle."

In his 1890 essay, "Leaders of Men," Wilson explained that a "true leader" uses the masses like "tools." He must inflame their passions with little heed for the facts. "Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader."

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