Today's New York Times features a roundtable called "Hating Woodrow Wilson," in which a number of scholars address the fascination certain conservatives such as Glenn Beck have with America's twenty-eighth president. Of course, there is the unsurprising divide among the discussants between liberals and conservatives, but what I find more interesting is how closely this corresponds to the fault line between historians and political theorists. Even more interesting is how the two sides talk past one another. The historians profess to be surprised at Beck's hatred of Wilson; after all, critics of Wilson have traditionally tended to come from the left. Wilson, they remind us, brought the country into a world war--isn't rising to "national greatness" what conservatism's supposed to be all about?--and once in that war he suppressed domestic dissent in a far more radical way than George W. Bush ever did. Why not focus instead on FDR or Lyndon Johnson, under whose administrations the federal government grew much larger than it did under Wilson?
The political theorists, on the other hand, pay almost no attention to what Wilson did as president, and focus rather on what he believed, as laid out in his various scholarly works. Once we see that Wilson was the first president openly to repudiate the principles of the Founders, and sought to replace the notion of limited government with an expansive administrative state, it becomes far easier to understand why conservatives dislike him.
I must say that, while my own opinion of Wilson is closer to that of the conservatives (no surprise here), both approaches strike me as incomplete. If we regard progressivism as merely a set of policies (banning, say, child labor or the sale of tainted meat) it probably does not appear particularly objectionable, but if such a platform is predicated on a philosophy that effectively rejects self-government on the part of ordinary citizens in favor of rule by unelected bureaucratic experts, then we should probably be worried. At the same time, however, is it not worth remembering that, whatever theories he espoused, as president he generally regarded himself as bound by the Constitution? The fact that arguments similar to his were employed in support of fascism (although I wouldn't go so far as Jonah Goldberg and claim that fascism was predominantly a phenomenon of the left) is worth noting, but should we not also consider that, when he had the opportunity to do so, Wilson did relatively little to act on them?