Commentary Magazine


Don’t Tell Me Why I Hate Woodrow Wilson

Professor David Greenberg writes in Slate today that the conservative dislike of Woodrow Wilson is “confused,” “bad as an interpretation of the facts,” and “demonstrably inaccurate.” He implies elsewhere that it is a “crackpot history” that requires not only debunking but also ridicule. But beyond the blustery rhetoric, Greenberg only proves that he misunderstands conservatives’ beef with the 28th president.

Full disclosure: in 2009, I graduated from Hillsdale College – which Greenberg blames for influencing Glenn Beck and, therefore, fueling the Tea Party’s hatred of Woodrow Wilson. More particularly, I was a student of Ronald J. Pestritto, whom Greenberg cites as particularly influential in demonizing Wilson. Having sat in Dr. Pestritto’s classroom and painstakingly highlighted my way through his book on Wilson, I understand his critique quite well. (I am also gruesomely familiar with Dr. Pestritto’s rigorous grading standards, and I can say with some certainty that the quality of Greenberg’s argument here would have earned him academic casualties.) I will not presume to speak for Dr. Pestritto — he has made his own case comprehensively — but after learning from him, I can at least explain why I dislike Woodrow Wilson as a president. It’s for very different reasons than those Greenberg presumes to attribute to me.

Back to the Slate piece. The first several paragraphs can be skimmed, as the author bizarrely points out commonalities between Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush and faults Glenn Beck for once not knowing something before he learned it. In the fifth paragraph, Greenberg makes a minor concession to the “nub of truth amid the distortion of the right’s Wilson-bashing.” He acknowledges that Woodrow Wilson expanded the power of the presidency, a Tea Party complaint.

But in actuality, that is only a secondary reason why conservatives dislike Wilsonian liberalism. In a nutshell, Wilson introduced the idea of a “living” Constitution, opening up infinite opportunities for revisionists to throw off the delicate balances within government so thoughtfully established in the original text. Wilson’s scholarly background taught him to embrace big government as the solution to the problems of the citizenry. He saw himself as a philosopher-king, much like the one we have today. And inherent in that perception was a condescending elitism. He became the patriarch of American paternalism, justifying his behavior with appeals to “history” as he perceived it.

The Tea Party movement argues that because of their academic snobbery, those who follow in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson have lost touch with liberty-loving Americans. As evidence of this, I defer to Greenberg, who writes:

For Wilson, [presidential activism] involved regulating finance and the money supply, limiting the corporations’ demands on their laborers, aiding farmers, preventing monopolistic practices, and making the new federal income tax a graduated one. Just three months ago, I wrote in Slate that over the last century, almost no one has questioned these achievements; clearly, I hadn’t been watching enough Fox.

It is little surprise, then, that Greenberg defends Wilson in the ex-president’s own language. “Of course, even those who happily admit to wanting to repeal a century’s worth of regulation have to reckon with a fundamental flaw in today’s Wilson hatred: It’s completely ahistorical,” he writes. He goes on to paint Woodrow Wilson as the man of his times, a leader fearlessly responding to the pulse of his era, a president whose choices are only fathomable when history is properly considered. The problem with this argument is that the existence of “history” as a moving, authoritative force is questionable at best, and Woodrow Wilson made history as much as he responded to it. And it is a bit presumptuous of Greenberg, in any case, to claim a superior understanding of history’s motives and pathways.

But in the interest of dialogue, let’s grant Greenberg the generous assumption that Wilson really was the man of his time and that all his actions were justifiable as such. Toward the end of his article, he asserts:

Properly situated in this context, Wilson and other progressives emerge not as proto-fascists or wild renegades but as tempered, moderate reformers. They implemented major changes, but those changes were in tune with the mainstream of public sentiment.

In today’s electoral climate, this is precisely the last argument the author should be making – especially if the role of the president is to follow public opinion. But instead, today’s liberals take another cue from Wilson, who believed that a political leader must remain one step ahead of public opinion, pulling it along and shaping it without ever straying too far.

But Americans sense when they’re being dragged along by the ear. This, too, makes them resentful of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential example.