Michael Lind has a very smart piece up at Salon.com about Glenn Beck’s polemical reinvention of American history, in which Woodrow Wilson is cast as anti-conservative public enemy #1.
Following Lind, a historian could spend many entertaining hours debunking Glenn Beck. But why bother? Beck is not telling a (wrong) story about the past. He’s telling a story about the present. That’s the story that needs to be understood and assessed.
On first thought, it seems crazy that contemporary Tea Party conservatives would fulminate against Woodrow Wilson of all people. You hate big-spending social welfare programs? Blame Lyndon Johnson or (if you want to go bipartisan) Richard Nixon. You hate government regulation and judges who don’t protect private property? Blame Franklin Roosevelt.
And in fact, Johnson, Roosevelt and (sometimes) Nixon have until recently headed the conservative roll of villains.
But Wilson? That’s just weird. What sins against conservatism did President Wilson commit?
Yes, the Sixteenth (income tax) Amendment was ratified under Woodrow Wilson. But the thing was set in motion long before Wilson entered national politics. If you feel very strongly that the income tax is wrong, you should direct your complaint to William Howard Taft: He was the president who proposed the amendment to Congress. And when the revenues from the tax arrived after 1913, President Wilson and the 63rd Congress used them – not to fund social programs – but to replace tariff revenues. That’s a good thing from a free-market point of view, right?
Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law. Until the day before yesterday, that was also a good thing from a conservative point of view. (See Friedman, Milton, collected works of.)
Wilson was less hostile to big business than either Taft or Theodore Roosevelt. His racial views were deplorable, but they were a big improvement over, say, Andrew Jackson’s, of whom most conservatives still think at least moderately well. Certainly you can acquit Wilson of any hint of social radicalism: he hated communism and was even a late convert to women’s suffrage.
For sure there’s a lot to criticize in Woodrow Wilson’s management of the First World War. Wilson failed to prepare adequately for war. His chosen commander, John Pershing, refused to learn from the tragic experience of the British and other allies and thus got a lot of brave soldiers stupidly killed. And Wilson’s bungling of the peace was epic and notorious. Yet none of this is exactly the stuff of urgent current concern. Or is it?
Let me advance a theory as to what’s really going on … Upcoming.