As an avowed Wilson hater myself, I've been trying to avoid the Beck and/or Goldberg versions of Wilson hating, because I've assumed they are just excuses for whatever policy or partisan preferences they have. For example, one of Wilson's legacies was an aggressive anti-communism investigated by a national police force. I assume (and, again, I don't know for sure, since I haven't read his book) that Jonah Goldberg is an anti-communist who supported that legacy.
But I do think it's correct that there's a anti-democratic strain in Wilson's thinking, and I think it's more or less fairly described in this George Will column. Wilsonian progressive politics are complicated (not least by his flip-flop from strong support of Congress to strong support of the presidency that just happened to coincide with, oh, his candidacy for the presidency). I think it's fair to say, however, that the two most important strains are support of "scientific" administration of government, along with hostility to particular (or "special") interests. Combine those, and it really isn't nuts to see the seeds of a presidential dictatorship supported by expert administrators. The movie you're going to want to watch if you are interested in taking this attitude to the extreme is Gabriel Over the White House; I don't think it's much of a stretch to call it proto-fascist, and I'm fine with calling it Wilsonian.
At more restrained levels, yes, Wilsonian progressive ideas are certainly still with us. It is seriously wrong, however, to identify them with liberals, or for that matter with conservatives, today. Wilson's idea of democracy was, well, let's call it Wilsonian progressive democracy. And while some of his public policy positions he took would map better onto 21st century liberalism, others sort better with 21st century conservative thought, and still others -- such as, again, his aggressive racism -- are presumably rejected by both.
All of which leads up to this George Will column, which accuses Barack Obama of favoring Wilsonian democracy to the Madisonian variety (and don't forget to check out Jonathan Chait's take-down). The evidence? To Katie Couric, Obama said:
I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn't have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that's not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.Well, on the one hand, Will is correct that he did say "unfortunately."
On the other hand...
1. This is in the context of Couric pressing Obama on the Ben Nelson deal and other "backroom" deals. Obama was, in fact, reluctant to defend those deals...but the criticisms of those deals -- on the basis that they were done out of sight and that they benefited particular groups at the expense of the national interest -- are very much Wilsonian criticisms. In other words, everyone is buying into Wilsonian progressive assumptions here, but the leaders of the Wilsonian progressive posse are those who singled out backroom deals for criticism. Which would be, I believe, the Rush Limbaughs and, well, the Glenn Becks of this world.
2. It may, indeed, be true that Obama in some sense really would like a world in which experts in the bureaucracy develop policy and then presidents implement it, perhaps after a quick ratification by Congress. But Obama hasn't come close to behaving that way. Instead, he started out by cutting deals with special interests, and then took a more-or-less hands off approach to Congress. Indeed, far from being overly Wilsonian, Obama has taken considerable heat for failing to present Congress with an expert-designed final product; there are no Ira Magaziners in this iteration of the battle over health care reform, but a lot of Henry Waxmans and Max Baucuses.
3. And in fact the entire charge of Chicago-style politics runs directly counter to the charge that Obama is a Wilsonian progressive. Wilson hated political parties (except when they agreed with him, but he still didn't like them much). He hated urban machine politics. Nor is community organizing a Wilsonian kind of thing to dedicate yourself too; there's no real place in Wilsonian progressive democracy for popular participation.
In his heart of hearts, I think George Will knows that -- I think Will is a real conservative, and a real Madisonian (two different things that can, but don't have to, go together).
But Glenn Beck? Doesn't like special interests, worried about Chicago-style politics...I don't have the patience to read his book(s), but I think there's a pretty good chance that Glenn Beck is a serious Wilsonian progressive.