Tea Party, Glenn Beck Wrong on Woodrow Wilson's Progressivism

The broader mistake of the Beck-Goldberg denunciation of progressivism is that it sees the movement as innately left-wing.

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By Scott Galupo, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Which American president said the following: “If America is not to have free enterprise, then she can have no freedom of any sort whatever”? The same one who said this: “Any man who can survive by his brains, any man who can put the others out of business by making the thing cheaper to the consumer at the same time that he is increasing its intrinsic value and quality, I take off my hat to, and I say: ‘You are the man who can build up the United States, and I wish there were more of you.’”

And this: “I know, and every man in his heart knows, that the only way to enrich America is to make it possible for any man who has the brains to get into the game ... Are you not eager for the time when the genius and initiative of all the people shall be called into the service of business?” And the same one of whom Herbert Hoover said this, referring to the regulation of food sales during World War I: “He yielded with great reluctance to the partial and temporary abandonment of our principles of life during the war, because of the multitude of tasks with which the citizen or the states could not cope. But he often expressed to me the hope that our methods of doing so were such that they could be quickly reversed and free enterprise restored.”

That last no doubt gives away the answer—Woodrow Wilson. Surprise. I’ve cribbed these quotes from (again, and for the last time, I promise) Nixon Agonistes by Garry Wills (who, in turn, was cribbing from Richard Hofstadter). And I bring them up by way of sticking my beak into a discussion begun by Michael Lind, and later David Frum, about the tattered reputation of Wilson among Tea Party conservatives.

The Tea Partyers’ obsession with Wilson and the evils of “progressivism” is inspired, of course, by the nightly ravings of Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg’s more sober minded (title notwithstanding) book, Liberal Fascism.

Giving up a base on balls, Lind tries to de-couple Wilson from modern Clintonian neoliberalism, saying progressives wanted “a state-directed economy.” Some Progressives may have, but Wilson—despite being, at his core, a technocrat—did not.

Wills notes the subtle difference between Wilson’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s attitude toward monopolies and trusts. “The Wilsonian Progressives opposed trusts on laissez-faire grounds, because they closed the market to individual competitors”—whereas TR’s “New Nationalism” sought to “use government power for regulating big companies, not for breaking them up.”

From the perspective of today’s conservatives, Roosevelt, not Wilson, is the greater enemy here.

The broader mistake of the Beck-Goldberg denunciation of progressivism, I think, is that it sees the movement as innately left-wing, in contradistinction to the innately right-wing (in the American conservative sense of the term) elements of classical Lockean liberalism.

The reality is that progressivism—which is indeed guilty of much of the baggage that Goldberg lays at its doorstep—is on the same family tree as classical liberalism. Both share roots in the secular Western Enlightenment. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was inspired in part by Adam Smith’s notion of an Invisible Hand. The virtues we associate with capitalism were, in 19th-century terms, the progressive properties of spontaneous harmony found in biology and economics alike.

This led to ugly developments like Malthusian population theory and “social Darwinism.” But the point is, back then, there was nothing un-progressive about being a Manchester liberal.

The 1929 market crash and Great Depression, of course, shattered the economic and social consensus of liberalism—embodied in the philosopher John Stuart Mill, all the way to today’s libertarians—with progressives subsequently coming to favor the kind of central planning and modish German theories of history decried by all sensible people today. But it wasn’t always thus. As Wills writes, “History has now made laissez-faire economic theory a phenomenon of the Right, Lockean insistence on individual civil liberties the possession of the Left.”

I understand Glenn Beck likes to think of himself as more libertarian than anything else, so I hate to break the bad news: That means he, too, is a “progressive.”

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