Thursday, March 11, 2010

Progressives and Health Care Reform

Conservatives seem a bit obsessed with Woodrow Wilson hatred these days, I guess following Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck.  As Will over at League of Ordinary Gentleman points out, many of those conservatives tend to be quite selective in their Wilson hatred -- Patriot Act loving conservatives don't seem to be too worried about Wilson's terrible record on civil liberties (although I think that as awful as Wilson may have been on civil liberties, his even more awful racism was probably his real nadir). 

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.


  1. I've always been a Wilson fan, abstracted away from the racism. Of course, with the whole Progressive movement, that's kinda hard to do. Voter registration was a great way to keep the Irish (or whomever) from voting, for example.

    For all my love of Madison, I'm closer to a Hamiltonian in a lot of ways.

    However, I think that a lot of the attacks on Wilson are actually trying to cloak their own arguments for policy in populist terms. There are two great sources for legitimacy in American politics: the Constitution and the people. The whole "cram it down their throats" meme is really hilarious when you consider the Bush presidency.

  2. You would think, as a conservative, Will might have remembered Churchill:

    "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried"

    I forgot. Conservatives never forget Churchill, however much they misremember him. What would Will have said if it was a Republican president who uttered Obama's words?

    Will strained to give the most uncharitable plausible interpretation.

  3. Obama understands and embraces how democracy works in practice. From his 100th day press conference:

    This metaphor has been used before, but this -- the ship of state is an ocean liner; it's not a speed boat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue of how to bring about the changes that the American people need is to -- is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say that was when we started getting serious about clean energy, that's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable, that's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.


    Humbled by the -- humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want -- (laughter) -- or -- (chuckles) -- or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line. And so, you know, what you do is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say and coax folks in the right direction.

  4. It's certainly legit to call Wilson (and that whole social-evolutionist tendency in early progressivism) authoritarian. But fascist? Not if ordinary language matters anymore. Surely to a non-academic generalist reasonable well-read in history, fascism connotes pitched oratory, military fetishism, racial atavism (Wilson was a stone racist but he wasn't into the white mythology), glorification of the struggle, the appeal to tradition, anti-rationalism. Especially the latter, which Wilson wasn't into at all.

    Just because a style of government is elitist and paternalist (even racist) doesn't mean it is fascist. Fortunately America, a nation of immigrants and transients, has been less given to the pure strains of fascism than other countries. But the phenomena here that do resemble Continental fascism (e.g., the KKK) are invariably more populist than elitist.

  5. kth,

    Ah, but I didn't quite say that Wilson was fascist -- I said that taken to the extreme, as it was in Gabriel Over the White House, it was proto-fascist, and that I'd still call that Wilsonian.


    Very nice. Good call.

    Back to kth's know, it's true that Wilson sorts more with scientific management than with anti-rationalism, but he definitely had that communing with the spirit of the people, which he was uniquely able to hear and understand, thing down cold. And of course a lot of the sciencey stuff of the time was, well, not very scientific. Including, of course, the racism. Granted, it's not really fair to load all of that onto the one guy, but he's the one who wanted to be president. Look, I'll admit that this is personal...I don't think that Wilson was a fascist, but it's not hard for me to imagine him becoming a fascist dictator under the right circumstances.

  6. I think you nailed this. It was an unfortunate "unfortunately," but as you say his behavior is 100% true-blue Madisonian interest-politics. ThT was clearly an almost tongue-in-cheek "unfortunately," as in, "Yes, Catie I suppose it would be nice if I could circumvent members' of Congress ability to pursue their interests in the course of passing laws, but [snark]unfortunately[/snark] we have this little thing called 'representative republicanism' written into how the first branch of government is constituted, so I sort of have to work around that..."

    What is amazing is that Will picks such a fragmentary verbal nothing to build an entire column's worth of false indictment out of, completely regardless of even a cursory review of the record.

  7. "What would Will have said if it were a Republican President who uttered Obama's words?"

    I think we can answer this pretty well, as it was a Republican President who said "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just as long as I'm the dictator." I believe this is even less consistent with Madison than what Obama said. I don't recall that George Will was among those concerned about that declaration.

  8. I don't think Beck really knows why he hates Wilson. All he knows is Wilson is described as "progressive" and "democrat".

  9. Everything Obama learned about diplomacy he learned in kindergarten and it is us, the Americans who are paying for him not learing good lessons in the childhood. Hope his putting America on the path of "set a good example and others will follow" philosphy works!

  10. You might be taking Beck too seriously and giving him too much credit. Too much of his thinking is scatter shot black helicopter stuff from the traditional John Birch right. Wilson was man of his age - progressive for his time: he let Jim Crow laws flourish, but had nothing but contempt for the Klan.
    Beck would approve of the creation of the League of Nations? Beck has to much go it alone uber nationalist in his blood.

    Wilson went into Mexico, but he stopped the military from proceeding further - he was no neocon.

    Wilson used authority and force:has there been a major political front in any western culture that hasn't. Jonah Goldberg, among others, have suddenly taken up the bizarre notion that the qualifier for fascism is the use of force in and of itself. If Beck is picking up on that meme it is because of the Right's current efforts to paint themselves as sweet innocent by-standers of history. In their oxymoronic reasoning it is really the 'liberal fascist/communists' that are to blame for every wrong turn of modern history. They're like the kid with jelly all over his hands and face saying he ain't even been near that jelly sandwich.

    A very honest look at Wilson for better and worse here. Including some corrections to Goldberg's revisionism of Wilson

    On Obama's presidency. What he has tried to do and seems to be slowly changing course - is not legislate from the White House. There is a logic to that approach that agrees with his record of community organizing where you want your agenda to last and change from the ground up is the best way to accomplish that or at least at the city or state level. DADT is a good example. Obama issues an executive order repealing it. The nest guy changes it back. Let Congress change it and it stays changed and it also has the stamp of a more populist appeal. Politicians are loath to change popular polices - especially Democrats. Though as Obama has seen the federal government is another ball game when it comes to big public policy decisions - factor in lobbyist and billions in special K money and as president you're boxing with ghosts. He seems to be coming around to the facts of Beltway life - permanent campaign mode, running between the landmines of lobbyists, unrelenting attacks from the far right and realizing that federal legislators, given a choice between doing the right thing and doing what will get them reelected will almost always chose the later.


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