Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Annotated Woodrow Wilson

Or,  Barack Obama’s Ideological Uncle.

The other day, reading through the comments on Daniel Greenfield’s November 7th FrontPage article, “The Leftist and Islamic War on the Family,” one reader quoted Woodrow Wilson:

“The purpose of the education system should be to make children as "unlike" their parents as possible,” Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President.

Intrigued, and unfamiliar with that statement by Wilson (I had read his speeches years ago), I asked the reader for the source of the quotation. The reader replied with ad hominems and did not supply a source. Mr. Greenfield, however, instead directed me to a number of sites showing that Wilson wrote variations of that sentiment, but not precisely the verbatim one as reported by the other reader. One of Mr.  Greenfield’s suggestions was the Teaching American History site which features Wilson’s 1913 essay, “What is Progress?” In that essay, the sentiment goes:

“It was for that reason that I used to say, when I had to do with the administration of an educational institution, that I should like to make the young gentlemen of the rising generation as unlike their fathers as possible.”

“What is Progress?” is regarded as one of Wilson’s most definitive works. However, I found it a rambling discourse, replete with homilies, metaphors, and non sequiturs, on why he was not so much a “progressive” as a bona fide socialist in search of a credible rationalization for being one that would not scare off his auditors. Like Obama, Wilson was no friend of the Constitution.

Nor has been the federal government. All states are dependent in varying degrees on federal largesse, from Delaware (the least) to Mississippi (the most). See the WalletHub charts here. Not so ironically, Republican Red States are among the most dependent – see the Cheat Sheet here for details – while Democratic Blue States are among the least. Regardless  of which party has the biggest appetite for the cocaine, this is not what the Founders had in mind when they devised the Constitution to separate federal and state powers. Republicans have always gone along with ensuring that the states become addicted to federal money to facilitate highway construction and other “public works.”

Hooking the states on the fiscal drug has been a Progressive dream from the very beginning. Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic Progressive with a capital P, who won the White House because the Republicans bickered over minor ideological matters, gave the U.S. the permanent federal income tax after flirtations with it in 1862 (the Civil War version lasted until 1872), 1894 and 1895. In 1896 The Supreme Court declared the tax unconstitutional because it was a direct tax not apportioned by population among the states in conformance with the Constitution.  Which, I suppose, meant that the tax wasn’t egalitarian enough. Individual and property rights must have gotten lost in the maze of judicial pretzel bendings.    

 Instead, Wilson urged that the President concentrate on his role as the embodiment of the nation’s popular will. In modern times, it was more important for the President to be leader of the whole nation than it was for him to be the chief officer of the Executive branch. (a permanent one) and the Federal Reserve banking system, and also nationalized the railroads during WWI and instituted other federal controls on the economy. He probably regretted not being able to extort state dependency on the federal government.

That chore out of the way, I would say that if Obama has been likened by the news media to Franklin D. Roosevelt as the latter’s ideological “grandfather,” then Woodrow Wilson ought to have been regarded as Obama’s ideological uncle. Yes, FDR laid the groundwork of the welfare state on which Obama built his church of “hope and change,” but Roosevelt in turn fashioned his own welfare state on Wilson’s own unprecedented Executive and legislative actions and on Congress’s “follow my leader” behavior. Theodore Roosevelt, even before Wilson, and before “Rough Rider” Roosevelt became President, originated and refined the authoritarian personality cult. An article on TR by The National Portrait Gallery noted:

Roosevelt's engaging personality enhanced his popularity. Aided by scores of photographers, cartoonists, and portrait artists, his features became symbols of national recognition; mail addressed only with drawings of teeth and spectacles arrived at the White House without delay….

Not since Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson before him, had a President exercised his Executive powers as an equal branch of government….If the Constitution did not specifically deny the President the exercise of power, Roosevelt felt at liberty to do so. "Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation? . . .Very well, then I so declare it!" By Executive order in March 1903, he established the first of fifty-one national bird sanctuaries. These and the national parks and monuments he created are a part of his great legacy.

The thing to keep in mind is that TR was a “bully pulpit” Republican before he was a “bully pulpit” Progressive. The transition from one side to another must have been painless. He was a natural autocrat and thrived on attention. Wilson, however, was not so “engaging” and was the least likely to develop a personality cult as a dish of cold fish.

In this column, I will simply highlight some of the salient positions taken by Wilson, and comment chiefly on “What is Progress?” (WIP) and on Ronald J. Pestritto’s excellent essay, “Woodrow Wilson: Godfather of Liberalism” (LIB).

In the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton was asked whether she was a “liberal”; she distanced herself from that term (which still seems toxic to much of the electorate) and described herself instead as a “progressive.” When pressed, she made clear that she meant by this term to connect herself to the original Progressives from the turn of the 20th century. Similarly, what is arguably the most prominent think tank on the Left today is called the Center for American Progress, which has an entire project dedicated to preserving and protecting the legacy of America’s original Progressive Movement. (LIB)

In fact, there are no fundamental differences between the Progressive Party platform of over a century ago and the means and ends of today’s Progressives. Progressivism then meant taking incremental steps towards full-blown socialism. Today’s Progressives avert their eyes from the equally toxic term “socialism” and hope nobody notices. Wilson confessed:

I am…forced to be a progressive, if for no other reason, because we have not kept up with our changes of conditions, either in the economic field or in the political field. We have not kept up as well as other nations have….

Business is in a situation in America which it was never in before; it is in a situation to which we have not adjusted our laws. Our laws are still meant for business done by individuals; they have not been satisfactorily adjusted to business done by great combinations, and we have got to adjust them. I do not say we may or may not; I say we must; there is no choice. (WIP)


“The Declaration of Independence did not mention the questions of our day. It is of no
consequence to us unless we can translate its general terms into examples of the present day...” The U.S. Constitution: A Reader, page 641) (WIP)

Reality changes. Changed conditions require the abandonment of principles that may have been applicable to the conditions of another time, but not to our own. Or so Wilson said. The fact that advances in business organizations (corporations, trusts) do not in fact require the rewriting or diminution of individual rights. Modern businesses are treated by the government as individuals in terms of taxes and legal protections. Partnerships and combinations in the West are centuries old. For example, the Cavaliers settled Virginia and the Puritans settled Massachusetts under the aegis of corporations formed in England.  As water boiled at 211.9°F (99.97°C) in 1776 and still boils at that point in 2014, individuals owned their own lives and had certain rights and protections against the initiation of force from criminals and the government in 1776 just as they do now. Metaphysically, nothing’s “changed.” But government, especially the federal government, is the Creature with a Million Eyes. It “sees” things differently.

Once elected President, Wilson helped to usher in the first wave of Progressive reforms that would later take full flower under the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. While some assert that the expansion of the federal administrative state that originated in the Wilson Administration was due to the war mobilization effort, several key expansions came well before war mobilization was even on the horizon. Wilson, for instance, signed the national income tax into law in 1913 at the very outset of his Administration. In the same year, he pushed the Federal Reserve Act through Congress; early plans for this Act had envisioned a private board, but under Wilson’s leadership, the Federal Reserve was created as a government enterprise.

Furthermore, while Wilson had criticized Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 campaign for the latter’s adventurous approach to foreign policy, Wilson himself certainly did not shrink from American military intervention. He intervened in Vera Cruz in 1914 and ordered the American occupation of Haiti in 1915. (LIB)

If the liberals (progressives, socialists, leftists) had any sense of language or even of history, they’d today avoid the negative “branding” entailed in “progressives” and refer to themselves instead as “reformists.” It’s such an innocuous, toothless term. There’s no toxic connotation attached to the word. There are the “reformed” Baptists, “reformed” Jews, “reformed” Methodists, “reformed” Mormons, and so on. But no “reformed” Muslims (which is a contradiction in terms). What would the political “reformists” want to “reform”? Oh, the economy. The judicial system. Education. Legal social relationships (marriage, divorce, etc.). Business relationships. The military. Civil police powers. All in the name of “social justice.”

On second thought, however, calling themselves “reformists” might also backfire, suggesting by implication the term “transformists.” Barack Obama wished to “transform” the nation from a semi-free one into a monolithic socialist political entity.

Early plans for an Act creating a Federal Reserve Board as a “quango,” a quasi-autonomous entity with little of the power to micro-manage the economy that the Board now has, would have also been unconstitutional. The Founders didn’t intend the federal government to “manage” the economy in any capacity whatsoever. Just find ways to  collect revenue for its own upkeep.

Wilson cadged from Jefferson’s remark that  The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants”:
I believe, for one, that you cannot tear up ancient rootages and safely plant the tree of liberty in soil which is not native to it. I believe that the ancient traditions of a people are its ballast; you cannot make a tabula rasa upon which to write a political program. You cannot take a new sheet of paper and determine what your life shall be tomorrow. You must knit the new into the old. You cannot put a new patch on an old garment without ruining it; it must be not a patch, but something woven into the old fabric, of practically the same pattern, of the same texture and intention. If I did not believe that to be progressive was to preserve the essentials of our institutions, I for one could not be a progressive. (WIP)

However, it wasn’t liberty Wilson wished to preserve and protect. He didn’t say that directly, of course. After excessive rhetorical verbiage he advocated “weaving” progressive programs into the “old fabric” of legitimate constitutional law and into the American psyche in stealthy, incremental stages. “Liberty” would eventually metamorphose into “duty” and “good citizenship” and “social responsibility.”

Wilson resented the separation of powers between the Executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and wished to have that aspect of the Constitution revised or even discarded.

…Wilson argued that the separation-of-powers system was both inefficient and irresponsible. Separation of powers was inefficient because it prevented government from solving the problems of modern life in a coordinated way; instead, the various organs of government were busy attacking and struggling against one another. It was irresponsible because the system made it difficult for the government to implement new public policy, even when the new policy reflected a clear new direction in public opinion….

Based on his objection to the separation of powers and his general objection to the Founders’ understanding of government, Wilson put forth a series of institutional proposals designed in one way or another to overcome the fixed notion of politics that is at the heart of limited government….

Wilson’s institutional substitute for the Founders’ separation of powers is best understood as the separation of politics and administration…. Wilson’s separation of politics and administration also brings us to a fundamental paradox in his thought. His vision of government seems to be one in which the unified will of the public has a much more direct role to play in politics than the Founders had envisioned. Yet politics, while increasingly democratized in Wilson’s thought, also becomes much less authoritative. The emphasis in government shifts to administration. (LIB) [Italics mine]

One of the express purposes of the separation of powers was to create “gridlock” and “inefficiency” between Congress and the Executive branch, and also between the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate was designed to check the populist or progressive legislation emanating in the House. This separation today has largely been obviated. Wilson wanted no “irresponsible” obstructions to his Progressive legislation, once it was enacted. Then it would be a mere task of its administration.

Pestritto raises an interesting point concerning Wilson’s vaunted wish to allow “the people” a stronger voice in politics:

Wilson’s separation of politics and administration also brings us to a fundamental paradox in his thought. His vision of government seems to be one in which the unified will of the public has a much more direct role to play in politics than the Founders had envisioned. [The Founders loathed democracy or mob rule.] Yet politics, while increasingly democratized in Wilson’s thought, also becomes much less authoritative. The emphasis in government shifts to administration. (Square brackets mine.)

The implications of this shift are profound: Consent of the governed comes in the realm of traditional politics. The disparagement of politics in favor of administration moves the focal point in government away from popular consent and into the hands of unelected “experts.” Such a shift marks the origin of American government today, where more policy is made by bureaucracies than by elected representatives.

The key to Wilson’s separation of politics and administration was to keep the former out of the latter’s way. Administration is properly the province of scientific experts in the bureaucracy. The competence of these experts in the specific technological means required to achieve those ends on which we are all agreed gives them the authority to administer or regulate progress unhindered by those within the realm of politics. Persons or institutions within politics can claim no such expertise. (LIB)

The average voter or politician could not be an “expert” in administration. Therefore, whatever he might have to say about statist policies or Constitutional law or statist legislation was de facto irrelevant. Only the Platonic “experts” in the bureaucracies would know what they were doing. Please don’t laugh. Wilson and all the government experts there ever were after him took that as a truism not to be questioned. You, the average American citizen, would perform the productive work. The “expert” administrators would dispose of or distribute it according to their lights. They, the “elite,” the guardians of Plato’s caves, would manage everything for the “public or common good.”

And here is Wilson’s prophetic vision of the Executive branch of government:

The presidency became for Wilson a principal means by which the limits placed on government by the separation of powers could be transcended. His new institutional vision for the presidency required the President to look beyond his constitutionally defined powers and duties.

Instead, Wilson urged that the President concentrate on his role as the embodiment of the nation’s popular will. In modern times, it was more important for the President to be leader of the whole nation than it was for him to be the chief officer of the Executive branch. (LIB)

Wilson more or less advocated the role of the President become one of an unopposed autocrat.

Wilson contrasted the President’s duties as “legal executive” to his “political powers,” advocating an emphasis on the latter as a means of using popular opinion to transcend the rigid separation-of-powers structure of the old “Newtonian” constitutional framework.  As opposed to remaining confined to the constitutionally defined powers and duties of his own branch, the President’s role as popular leader means that he must, as the embodiment of the national will, move Congress and the other parts of government to act in a coordinated way.

Wilson emphasized the person of the President, not his office. It is the man himself and his personality that come to embody the national will. “Governments are what the politicians make them,” Wilson wrote, “and it is easier to write of the President than of the presidency.  This is why a President’s expertise in public affairs is not as important as his having a forceful personality and other qualities of popular leadership.

What America needs, Wilson wrote, is “a man who will be and who will seem to the country in some sort an embodiment of the character and purpose it wishes its government to have—a man who understands his own day and the needs of the country.” As an embodiment of the public will, the President can transcend the government and coordinate its activities. This is why it is wrong to limit the President with the traditional checks of the Constitution. The President is “the unifying force in our complex system” and must not be relegated to managing only one branch of it.  (LIB)

Hitler claimed to be the embodiment of the people’s wishes. So did Mussolini, and Mao, and the Perons of Argentina. They all transcended the limited governments of their countries and got their parliaments or congresses to “coordinate” their activities, or bypassed them completely or dissolved them. They all established personality cults. They all served as “unifying forces” and weren’t satisfied with managing a paltry single branch. Their “wills” had to triumph.

And we all know what it led to. Just think of it. Here was Woodrow Wilson, an otherwise colorless,  bespectacled man who wore three-piece suits, a harmless ex-college professor and university president, championing a “superman” of unlimited power, and, whether or not  he knew it, unleashed the carnage of another world war and the suffocation of freedom and civilization.

If Obama is FDR's ideological “grandson,” Wilson was his ideological uncle who enunciated Obama’s abuses of power about three generations before Obama was even born. And Obama’s regulation garb is golf togs.

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