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Progressivism: Theory vs. Practice

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?

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Discussions - 14 Comments

The brevity of the remarks excluded discussion of Wilson's explicit replacement of natural rights with the new science of Darwin (The New Freedom). It is remarkable that Wilson would have raised such a theoretical issue in a campaign address .

Interesting that three of the comments refer to Leo Strauss and several others featured on this blogsite, including Pestritto, Jaffa, Marini, et al.

Let's see:

Woodrow Wilson

1. Promoted the disestablishment of the German monarchies which were then replaced by...Bela Kun et al.;

2. Assented to a stupid, malignant, and unsustainable post-war regime (reparations, enforced disarmament of a great power, boundaries drawn in such a way as to beg for irredentist claims, the war guilt clause) in order to attain agreement to his worthless collective security scheme.

3. Did not have the grace to resign when he was clearly incapacitated.

Did the historians offer an explanation as to why it would be instructive to stick the term 'conservative' on any of these acts?

John, a very good post mirroring some e-mailing I've done with a friend (we're both historians and conservatives). The political scientists do have a good understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of progressivism and the contradiction of founding ideals for the German model to remake the welfare state at home and idealistic crusades abroad. But, they often lack historical context about the rapid social change (urbanization, industrialization, and immigration) that prodded the progressives toward change and the events that actually occurred rather than making broad claims from one line in a speech. Contrarily, (mostly leftist) historians have been obtuse in praising the progressives except for saying that they weren't progressive enough. It's an interesting difference, and yet an important conversation to examine the progressives and influence on Obama's presidency and ideology.

Pretty unimpressive symposium, if you ask me...responses too short for anyone to say much, and the non-conservative responses were just so damn predicatable. Kudos, though, for actually inviting a key thinker responsible for the spread of the West Coast Straussian Interpretation of the Progressives (WCSIP) Thomas West (see the NLT sidebar for info on his essential Vindicating the Founders book).

The WCSIP is an important scholarly development in our understanding of the Progressives, modern liberalism, and America generally. And, while Tony is right about the WCSIP hitherto and so far having not said enough about what sorts of reforms really were needed to address the urbanizing, industrializing, and increasingly "party and courts dominated" problems of the era, the truth is they are right about Wilson and the other key leaders of the movement. These people had it in for the Const., for natural rights, for federalism, for the separation and enumeration of powers, and for Madisonian sanity about democracy. They were kin to Condorcet and they were taking the worst aspects of Hegel (more important to them than Darwin, actually) to heart.

And liberal scholars have by and large refused to grapple with this, even though the WCSIP has established the factual basis for this argument pretty thoroughly. They have likewise refused the invitation Richard Rorty extended to them back in the early 90s to re-embrace the radical strains of progressivist thinking found in the likes of Dewey and Croly. It's bad stuff, of course, but I will say this--it is open, honest, and rigorous stuff, especially when compared to the two-faced or self-deluding talk one gets today from most liberals vis-a-vis the Const. and other fundamentals of our regime. A Herbert Croly would just say straight up, "the Const. was good for its time, but now, while we will abide by it, we're going to pass a 'gateway amendment' to make amendment of it easier, and then we're going to get rid of large portions of it."

Of course, both Croly and Wilson ALSO held that the Const. ought to and would be de facto changed by judicial reinterpretation--they just didn't know this would become the main method, and that FDR's strategem of HUSHING the differences the progressives really had with the founders could be so taken to heart. Moser for one does not seem aware of how radically Wilson envisioned the reinterpretation of the Const. by good judges as its spelled out in Pestritto's book. No, he would not frontally violate the Constitution without judge-help or amendment, but that's simply saying he was not a revolutionary, not a person who would have found it impossible to swear to uphold the Const.

Mark my words: for as long as you see liberals, historians especially, talking about the ambiguities of Wilson, giving us trite details about why he wouldn't cut it as a progressive today, by focusing on his errors on race, civil liberties, and expansionist foreign policy, or, by bringing up his love of Burke, his insincere Jeffersonian rhetoric of 1912, his outwardly orthodox Presbyterianism, or other old-fashioned and uptight features about him (and he really is a a hard pill to take simply on the personality level--read aloud ten of his speeches in a row, and you will sympathize with Beck's hatred of him and wonder at the American electorate of the time), you will know that they are simply REFUSING to confront the issues the WCSIP forces them to. Ditto for the even greater ambiguities of TR.

And likewise, for as long as you see more radical types always showing us the shortcomings of the proggies from a leftist position (this is the Hofstader schtick) that of course always assumes that some sort of socialism is possible that never yet has been achievable, you will see how they remain stuck in the good old 1917-1989 times.

As it stands now, the WCSIP has its flaws, with the WCS Lincoln-worship and its corollary dismissal of liberalism's shortcomings standing at the heart of these, but it is undeniably a major scholarly advance and a major challenge to liberalism's self understanding.

And so far, the liberal response to it has been mere avoidance and subject-changing.

NLT readers are smart enough to understand that in that penultimate paragraph I'm accusing the WCSIP of not taking the shortcomings of capital-L classic Liberalism seriously enough, while saying it has delivered a major challenge to the small-l liberalism of our day, right?

I blame my error on FDR, anyhow.

Carl's post illustrates for me the problem with what he calls the WCSIP. That is, it assumes that we can understand the "real" Wilson--while seeing through the allegedly "insincere" elements such as his professed appreciation for Burke and Jefferson and his religiosity, purely by studying his academic works and campaign speeches. Meanwhile, what the man actually does as President of the United States is dismissed as "trite details."

The 11:36 comment is a remarkably bad faith reading of the 7:07 comment. The point of the phrase "trite details" in the latter was not to dismiss Wilson's acts as President, it was to dismiss modern progressive attempts to disavow him. Likewise, there is no assumption that campaign speeches are the secret to understanding Wilson. Mr Scott understands that campaign material is often misleading; that's why he can describe elements of the 1912 campaign as "insincere". What campaign material can be used for is to see a politician as he tries to project himself at his most likable, which in Wilson's case turns out to still not be very likable at all.

That's such an obvious point that I am puzzled why Mr Moser feels the need to describe Wilson's statements on Jefferson as "allegedly 'insincere'". If Wilson made statements on the campaign trail professing affection for one of America's Founders that conflict with both his academic writings and his actions in office, can there be any question where his sincere beliefs lie?

Thanks, bgates. You hit the nail on the head, but allow me to elaborate.

I don't think Wilson's actions as President ought to be the main metric of what his progressivism was. They rather are the metric of what a serious progressive with political smarts about what is possible in the short-term, working with the Democratic Party, would attempt given the circumstances of 1912-1918. (The DP bigwigs only backed him, after all, because they felt he could be trusted to make the necessary sorts of short-term and politic calculations that are the 101 of How to Govern, Win Elections, and Build Your Base in a Liberal Democracy. Wilson was odd, was a radical thinker, did piss off his fellow Dems with various arrogances and missteps, did screw up politically towards the end, but he at least knew that 101.)

And of course, the more supple and less institutional of his more radical reform ideas, that of establishing the "rhetorical presidency," he practiced openly.

We thus CAN know the "real" Wilson with respect to his core ideology; that is, we CAN know what Wilsonian Progressivism was. Pestritto's book, which reviews his writings over a period of over thirty years, proves this. Yes, it is harder to establish to what extent his progressivism was representative of that held by other progressives, and much harder to say to what extent we should count it as the "roots of modern liberalism," to use Pestritto's phrase. But Pestritto's accomplishment is real, and other scholars are attempting to dodge its implications.

Carl: Pestritto shows us that Wilson was not satisfied with the Founders' view of liberty and liberalism, limited as it was by the restraints of God and nature. Isnt this the real accomplishment of the book: that it's Wilsonian Progressivism, not the "shortcomings" of the Founders' or Lincoln's liberalism, that is responsible for a new, modern view of liberty in America?

Brad, to respond fully would get into a lot. Suffice it to say that I agree that we would be far better off now had we listened less to folks like Wilson back in the day, and if we had had thinkers like Pestritto and West and other WCSs to have kept us focused on what is wise and salutary in Lincoln, the Founding, and in adhering to originalist judicial interpretation. It ought to go without saying, though, that one does not find the full store of political wisdom contained in or even implied by the writings of Lincoln and the Founders. And we cannot deny that the Progressives, flawed as their thinking was, were responding to real difficulties that had developed within the traditional American system, and that virtually no statesmen stepped forward to provide effective yet Lincolnian liberal models of responding to these difficulties. Eric Sands' excellent book explains some of that particular lack.

But the bigger point is this--If we get to the point where our repetition of WCS talking points makes it sound like pre-Progressive America was a kind of Eden and Wilson a kind of Hegelian Serpent, then we know we've gone wrong. And IMO, that leads us back to at least acknowledging, about the liberalism of Lincoln and the Founders, the limitations upon the goodness of it, the tragic human choices and tendencies never escaped by it, and yes, even the mistakes (Locke's self-ownership being #1) made by it.

Carl, as i understand the WCS "talking points", pre-Progressive America was a kind of Eden. But Americans then (and their statesmen) understood you couldnt have Eden without serpents. Progressives like Wilson couldnt accept the tragic nature of politics. Their social science was further removed from this natural awareness by teaching them America could become an Eden without serpents. Not familiar with the Sands book.

Carl, as i understand the WCS "talking points", pre-Progressive America was a kind of Eden. But Americans then (and their statesmen) understood you couldnt have Eden without serpents. Progressives like Wilson couldnt accept the tragic nature of politics. Their social science was further removed from this natural awareness by teaching them America could become an Eden without serpents. Not familiar with the Sands book.

This is an excellent exchange. Thank you, gentlemen. In essential agreement with Carl, but I take John's point (about taking actual history more seriously than some political philosophy types are wont to do) seriously. It is not an unfair criticism--though I don't know enough to say that it applies to Pestritto's work in this instance or to any of the other WCS he cites. I think it is a charge they all ought to be mindful of in conducting their research and I do take the general point that political philosophy divorced from history is almost as "off" as history divorced from political philosophy is . . . even as I give the slight edge to the student of political philosophy. The big point, however, is that there is no need for the two to get divorced. They ought to reconcile--even if it is a grudging match.

But Julie, the reason, or a reason, we should give the edge to the student of pol. philosophy is because he/she is mindful that modern history is in large part the world created by modern science which, as you know, because of its dissatisfaction with and attempt to improve upon nature, has done its best to obscure its inherent restraints, and the natural human awareness of those restraints. Carl seems to agree with Woodrow (and Calhoun) that the Declaration doesnt tell us enough of the truth about man's nature. But it seems to me that every attempt to redefine or make up for the document's "shortcomings", as is currently being done by my president, always end up distorting or pushing it (and govt) far beyond its political relevance. Why can't we keep the political religion of the nation political? Why is it necessary to feel insulted by the fact that the Declaration doesnt tell us everything there is to know about being human?

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