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.
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The old conception of absolute truths and immutable laws had been replaced by a "Darwinian" vision of organic change.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."
Wilson once told a black delegation, that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." But his racism wasn't just a product of his Southern roots; it was often of a piece with the reigning progressive obsession with eugenics, the pseudoscience that strove to perfect society through better breeding.
Again, Wilson was merely one voice in the progressive chorus of the age. "[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many," declared the progressive social activist Jane Addams.
"New forms of association must be created," explained Walter Rauschenbusch, a leading progressive theologian of the Social Gospel movement, in 1896. "Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life." Elsewhere, Rauschenbusch put it more simply: "Individualism means tyranny."
Not surprisingly, such intellectual kindling was easy to ignite when World War I broke out. The philosopher John Dewey, New Republic founder Herbert Croly, and countless other progressive intellectuals welcomed what Mr. Dewey dubbed "the social possibilities of war." The war provided an opportunity to force Americans to, as journalist Frederick Lewis Allen put it, "lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step." Or as another progressive put it, "Laissez faire is dead. Long live social control."
Mr. Creel declared that it was his mission to inflame the American public into "one white-hot mass" under the banner of "100 percent Americanism." Fear was a vital tool, he argued, "an important element to be bred in the civilian population."
The CPI printed millions of posters, buttons, pamphlets, that did just that. A typical poster for Liberty Bonds cautioned, "I am Public Opinion. All men fear me!... [I]f you have the money to buy and do not buy, I will make this No Man's Land for you!" One of Creel's greatest ideas – an instance of "viral marketing" before its time – was the creation of an army of about 75,000 "Four Minute Men." Each was equipped and trained by the CPI to deliver a four-minute speech at town meetings, in restaurants, in theaters – anyplace they could get an audience – to spread the word that the "very future of democracy" was at stake. In 1917-18 alone, some 7,555,190 speeches were delivered in 5,200 communities. These speeches celebrated Wilson as a larger-than-life leader and the Germans as less-than-human Huns.
Meanwhile, the CPI released a string of propaganda films with such titles as "The Kaiser," "The Beast of Berlin," and "The Prussian Cur." Remember when French fries became "freedom fries" in the run-up to the Iraq war? Thanks in part to the CPI, sauerkraut become "victory cabbage."
Under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, Wilson's administration shut down newspapers and magazines at an astounding pace. Indeed, any criticism of the government, even in your own home, could earn you a prison sentence. One man was brought to trial for explaining in his own home why he didn't want to buy Liberty Bonds.
The Wilson administration sanctioned what could be called an American fascisti, the American Protective League. The APL – a quarter million strong at its height, with offices in 600 cities – carried government-issued badges while beating up dissidents and protesters and conducting warrantless searches and interrogations. Even after the war, Wilson refused to release the last of America's political prisoners, leaving it to subsequent Republican administrations to free the anti-war Socialist Eugene V. Debs and others.
Now, obviously, none of the current crop of self-described progressives are eager to replay this dark chapter. But we make a mistake when we assume that we can cherry pick only the good parts of our past to re-create.
Today's progressives still share many of the core assumptions of the progressives of yore. It may be gauche to talk about patriotism too much in liberal circles, but what is Barack Obama's obsession with unity other than patriotism by another name? Indeed, he champions unity for its own sake, as a good in and of itself. But unity can be quite amoral. Mobs and gangs are dangerous because of their unblinking unity.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, often insists that we must move "beyond" ideology, labels, partisanship, etc. The sentiment is a direct echo of the Pragmatists who felt that dogma needed to be jettisoned to give social planners a free hand. Of course, then as now, the "beyond ideology" refrain is itself an ideological position favoring whatever state intervention social planners prefer.
In Senator Clinton's case, the most vital intervention is intruding on the family. Mrs. Clinton proudly follows the "child saver" tradition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Jane Addams. In 1996, she proclaimed "as adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn't really any such thing as someone else's child." In her book, "It Takes A Village," she insists that children are born in crisis, requiring progressive government intervention from infancy on. She seems to subscribe to Wilson's view, when president of Princeton, that the chief job of an educator is to make children as unlike their parents as possible.
In a Democratic debate, Clinton famously rejected the word "liberal" in favor of "progressive." Shouldn't we at least ask what that means? If Mike Huckabee proclaimed that he prefers the label "confederate" over "conservative," pundits would rightly denounce his association with such a tainted legacy. But when it comes to progressivism, there's no such obligation to account for your ideological heritage. It seems progressivism is never wrong.