I’m happy to see that disenchantment with Woodrow Wilson – the most bizarre candidate for the pantheon of great American presidents – is reaching a wider audience on the American Right. But this nascent critique of Wilsonian progressivism seems to have missed one of his worst legacies. Namely, Wilson’s blatant disregard for civil liberties (from Wikipedia – emphasis mine):
On the home front in 1917, he began the United States’ first draft since the US civil war, raised billions in war funding through Liberty Bonds, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labor union growth, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took over control of the railroads, enacted the first federal drug prohibition, and suppressed anti-war movements.
To counter opposition to the war at home, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. He welcomed socialists who supported the war and pushed for deportation of foreign-born radicals. Citing the Espionage Act, the U.S. Post Office refused to carry any written materials that could be deemed critical of the U. S. war effort. Some sixty newspapers were deprived of their second-class mailing rights.
Wilson is usually associated with a stirring ideological defense of democratic self-determination. In practice, this amounted to little more than crude ethnic partitioning, but more importantly, Wilson’s respect for the forms of Republican governance was severely lacking.
Perhaps Wilson’s enthusiasm for curtailing civil liberties was entirely unrelated to his progressive politics. But it’s hard not to see the same impulses that animated Wilson’s domestic agenda – a desire for control, rank disregard for individual liberty, confidence that the messy business of civil society can be micromanaged from Washington – behind his horrific record on civil liberties.
So my question for newly-converted Wilson-phobes is simple: If you’re concerned about government overreach, why restrict your criticism his domestic legacy? Why do torture, indefinite detainment, and the PATRIOT ACT get a free pass? Compared to his draconian wartime crackdown, many aspects of Wilson’s progressive agenda look downright benign, or even admirable, in retrospect. Wilson’s blatant disregard for civil liberties, on the other hand, remains one of the most enduring – and bipartisan – legacies in contemporary American politics.