Leave Woodrow Wilson alone!

If you consider the political currents of the Progressive Era, the portrait of Wilson as either a radical or a precursor of fascism looks especially absurd. At the turn of the century, problems like the exploitation of labor, the blight of urban tenements, and the dangers of economic concentration cried out for reform. Social science was illuminating new solutions to intractable social problems, such as or creating parks and libraries or improving factory conditions to limit disease. Public opinion demanded a stronger role for government, which was the only institution possessing the resources to make a difference. Properly situated in this context, Wilson and other progressives emerge as 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.

We might ask whom today’s Wilson haters would have preferred to their bogeyman. Certainly not the socialists and anarchists , who were at the peak of their popularity. (Socialist Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election.) The anti-Eastern agrarianism of William Jennings Bryan might seem to have some appeal to the populist right, but they could never have stomached Bryan’s zeal for the income tax, banking oversight, and redistribution of wealth. On the conservative side of the aisle, it’s hard to imagine anyone today openly aligning themselves with the corrupt and business-friendly Old Guard of the Republican party who were the progressives’ chief antagonists. Even Beck himself denounces Social Darwinism, which was precisely the philosophy that progressives, with their view of society as an organic whole and not a race among individuals, sought to dethrone. Indeed, in 1912 someone who wanted to remove the control of economic affairs from the hands of a powerful few so as to realize equality of opportunity would almost certainly have voted for Woodrow Wilson.