Forgetting Wilson (Reply to Jonah Goldberg)
posted at 6:08 pm on May 15, 2010 by CK MacLeod
Much as I might enjoy debating the comparative progressivism of President Warren “Racial Amalgamation There Cannot Be” Harding; much as, armed by biography, I’m ready to stand up for Professor President Thomas Woodrow Wilson against the dextrosphere’s leading anti-intellectual intellectuals, I’m happy to accept Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion that we look instead to larger and more pressing issues:
The reason why it is both important and necessary for conservatives to tackle the progressive era is that that’s where the assumptions of 20th century liberalism begin… If Wilson isn’t the best poster boy for Progressivism, tactically or substantively, I’m open to alternative nominations. But the notion that conservatives are wasting energy in assaulting the progressive era strikes me as exactly wrong. We’ve wasted time in not attacking until all too recently.
In the process of quite correctly characterizing my prior defense of Wilson as not “all that powerful” (I was seeking balance, not apotheosis), Mr. Goldberg also gives his own view on relevant context (emphasis in the original):
A big chunk of [MacLeod’s] critique boils down to an argument I’ve heard many times: Wilson (or this or that progressive) merely reflected the prevailing ideas at the time. Well, that’s sort of my argument, you know? That these were the prevailing ideas at the time: Collectivism, eugenics, militarism (both as a mobilizing metaphor as well as the real thing), nationalism, statolatry, technocracy and – in America – a desire to “Europeanize,” often on Bismarckian lines, political institutions and arrangements. And while these ideas were popular in all sorts of places, their champions were the Progressives.
As volunteer conservative left deviationist progressive apologist, I have previously composed my own lists of to me less obviously bad progressivisms, seeking to highlight those Progressive Era reforms that I judge as integrated with American life, but, even if we stick with Goldberg’s version, we’re still left with perhaps the largest question: Why were the Progressives able not just to champion these things, but in championing them gain control of American politics, and set the country and the world on a course they’ve been on ever since?
Some might want to attribute the Progressives’ vast political success to the diabolical genius of charismatics, conspirators, and tricksters, but much more persuasive explanations are readily available. They often start with statistics on American life from the middle of the 19th Century to the first decades of the 20th (Wilson’s lifespan, one point for posterization) regarding employment, urbanization, production, immigration, communication, transportation, fertility, income, and on and on. For example: Population: More than quadrupled, 50% of the increase through immigration. Proportion receiving wages and living in urban settings: From small minority to vast majority. Communication: speed of horse to speed of light.
It was in relation to such changes that Goldberg’s favorite scholar, Ronald Pestritto, was questioned by his colleague Jean M. Yarbrough, in the conclusion of her review of Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism and Woodrow Wilson: The Essential Political Writings:
[O]ne wishes that Pestritto had extended his analysis to the presidential years to see how Wilson’s academic theories fared when confronted with political reality. Although [Roots…] touches briefly on the 1912 election and beyond in a concluding chapter, this question goes largely unexplored. Finally, one wishes that Pestritto had given his political imagination a bit more scope and had tried to envision what solutions to the novel problems of industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration, as well as the old problems of racial injustice and growing economic inequality, the founders might have devised.
Yes, indeed, one surely might so finally wish – for these are exactly the problems that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, numerous lesser politicians, sundry intellectuals publishing relatively late in the Populist-Progressive Era, and, more important, millions upon millions of Americans not only set themselves to solving intellectually, but were confronting everywhere, everyday, without a century to ponder possible over-dependence on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and regardless of how much they might have preferred to live in a Jeffersonian agrarian republic, a Bellamyite super-commune, or, equally unreachable, the largely pre-industrial America of Wilson’s early childhood.
Once we accept that, for better or worse, the Progressives were responding to Something Real, then it’s clear that the task for conservatives isn’t to find good reasons to “condemn” Wilson or anyone else, but to develop alternative, additional, or ameliorative responses, if any, to that manifold Something Real – still with us, 100 years more real and manifold, and greater in extent by circumferences of the planet, at least, in multiple dimensions. If, like a commenter at HotAir, you’re happy to dismiss the Federal Reserve System, Anti-Trust legislation, and the Federal Trade Commission as “junk, junk, junk,” then just how do you propose to distribute capital equitably and productively in a complex modern economy, and to preserve competitive and entrepreneurial opportunities for small and medium business? Before you answer: Remember to achieve the same thing in relation to the globalization of raw economic and political power that Americans of the Progressive Era accomplished on the national level. The same burden must be lifted or off-loaded for every other aspect of Progressivism and post-Progressivism that you, radical-constitutional anti-statist anti-prog to your toes, must be ready to dispose of instantly, as so much junk, junk, junk.
As the scope of our inquiry thus widens to encompass the present day, it naturally circumscribes the further past as well, but Goldberg demurs: Responding to his friend US News writer Scott Galupo, Goldberg rejected the idea in a manner that resembles his rejection of that un-powerful mitigation defense of mine discussed above:
If you want to claim everything stemming from the Western Enlightenment tradition as “progressive” you’re free to do so. But analytically, where does that get you? By this logic we’re all progressives—and by all, I mean conservatives, libertarians, Bolsheviks, liberals, anarchists, and Maoists—because we’re not Medievalists.
Maybe it gets us this far: The Progressives were not an aberration. They represent continuity, under radically transformed circumstances, in the same direction as the Founders’ historic statement to the ages, which has been succinctly translated into modern vernacular by historian Gordon Wood:
The illimitable progress of mankind promised by the Enlightenment could at last be made coincident with the history of a single nation. For the Americans at least, and for others if they followed, the endless cycle of history could finally be broken.
It was much the same promise that Tommy W. Wilson, 24 years old, could embrace in 1881, when he associated himself with a “younger generation of Southern men… full of the progressive spirit.” It’s the same promise all Americans still have available to them more than a century later – among other things: to progress beyond Progressivism, and to expose today’s nominal progressives as the regressive, reactionary anachronisms they too often are.
For the space of an extended epoch, men and women of the progressive spirit re-defined America because Americans increasingly voted for them to do so. Compared to the socialists, communists, anarchists, and, later, the fascists, all representing varieties of panic in the face of industrialism and its discontents, the Progressives qualify as relatively and meaningfully conservative. Whatever they perceived, thought, and did wrong, they conserved enough of the American possibility for us still to be arguing about it today – in their day no certain prospect.
No one sane has a way forward that won’t still leave us in their shadow for the foreseeable/imaginable future. Their mere negation may have seemed a tenable political position at the dawn of the Age or Episode of Obama, but is less so under approaching responsibility, in perilous times. I differ with Robert Laird/Instapunk on particulars, but I like how he frames the needed discussion in his own post on Wilson – away from “him” or “them,” toward “us” (original emphasis):
The potential destruction of America and its constitution is not a predestined outcome of a plot hatched by Woodrow Wilson and his racist, anti-semitic Princeton football cronies. It’s a possible outcome of our inattentiveness, our indifference, our poor decision making, our short-sighted thinking and convenient memories. It’s nice to know where dangerous and contemporarily destructive ideas originated. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibilities. Which are located in the here and now, with absolutely no room for evasion or delusion.
In other words: Forget Wilson. He doesn’t really matter.
Of much more concern: The deep improbability that the bromides of yesteryear – sung over a chorus of “NO!” – can do more than motivate a fickle segment of the electorate for a short while, or to any great purpose. This assessment seems to haunt the hated, hunted pundits and office-holders who decline the path of least immediate resistance to the Tea Party and its hosts. Meanwhile, the hard right’s anger with the “traitors,” with the progressives, and with the Wilsonian Progressives – not the disagreement, the annihilating anger – derives first from their self-imposed isolation from the American project, but also from fearful uncertainty, no clear idea what the dog will do with the rambling wreck if he catches it; and from fearful certainty, of the compromises and betrayals to come, forced on imaginary purisms by consensual mass democracy.
Conservatives will, by definition, look to the past for inspiration and instruction. The 18th Century British politician and essayist Edmund Burke, a man whom Jonah Goldberg likes to call the founding father of modern conservatism, had much sage advice, but his idioms will strike many Americans as obscure. Fortunately, the United States produced at least one major interpreter of Burke’s conservatism for un-conservative times (my emphasis):
Questions of government are moral questions, and … questions of morals cannot always be squared with rules of logic, but run through as many ranges of variety as the circumstances of life itself. … The politics of the English-speaking peoples has never been speculative; it has always been profoundly practical and utilitarian. Speculative politics treats man and situations as they are supposed to be; practical politics treats them (upon no general plan, but in detail) as they are found to be at the moment of actual contact.
As for that Burkean – his name, what else he had to say – I think we just agreed to forget him, though I’m willing to re-consider.
cross-posted at Zombie Contentions