Tag: woodrow wilson

Blame It On the Constitution

The New York Times treats us today to an op-ed by Prof. Sanford Levinson entitled “Our Imbecilic Constitution,” with the remedy recommended for such imbecility taking us well beyond reforming the document’s amendment provisions. The problem, you see, is that our government has become “dysfunctional” owing to “gridlock.” Like all good Progressives, Levinson is a government man: he sees problems for which no less than the federal government is the ready solution, but that’s unlikely under the strictures our “imbecilic” Constitution imposes on it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, he starts with a complaint about federalism: in the Senate, small states have power equal to that of large ones, which in turn implicates the Electoral College. The remedy for the problems Levinson believes can be traced to those checks on power is to unleash popular will through a more direct democracy. Thus he lauds Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Progressives who “seriously questioned the adequacy of the Constitution.”

Theodore Roosevelt would have allowed Congress to override Supreme Court decisions invalidating federal laws, while Woodrow Wilson basically supported a parliamentary system and, as president, tried to act more as a prime minister than as an agent of Congress. The next few years saw the enactment of amendments establishing the legitimacy of the federal income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition and women’s right to vote.

Never mind the merits of those accomplishments, Levinson next offers various state constitutions as models for what might be, starting with New York’s, its fifth such document. One hopes the Knickbockers get it right before too many more years pass, because if dysfunction be the touchstone of failure, the Empire State has come close to it.

Then again, Levinson offers this idea for fixing congressional gridlock:

We could permit each newly elected president to appoint 50 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate, all to serve four-year terms until the next presidential election. Presidents would be judged on actual programs, instead of hollow rhetoric.

“Programs:” We need to get things done. Isn’t that what government is for?

To be sure, there are problems today that cry out for solutions, yet most are not inherent in the human condition but rather are the result of government “programs.” After all, it’s entitlements, individual and corporate, that have given us our massive deficits and debt, to take only the largest and most conspicuous examples. That is the one thing that Levinson does not seem to appreciate.

As compared to the rest of the world, our Constitution has stood the test of time fairly well. The problems we now have did not arise from abiding by its limitations but just the opposite. The Progressives ignored those limits. It’s that behavior, on which the New Deal and the Great Society doubled down, that has brought us to this impasse, with the country immersed today in the politics of a zero-sum game. We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to return to the one we have.

Whitewashing Progressivism

Damon Root points out that the Center for American Progress has a particularly one-sided view of “The Progressive Tradition in American Politics.” [.pdf]  To add to what Root is saying, my view is that American politics is essentially tribal warfare and an important factor in tribal warfare is the cohesion of the tribes.  One way to accomplish this is by romanticizing history to create a powerful identity with which the tribesmen want to associate themselves.  A political movement needs heroes, villains, narrative.  But CAP’s account of the Progressive movement’s history is remarkably one-sided.

When I ticked over to CAP’s “Progressive Tradition” document [.pdf], I looked to see whether they included Wilson’s 1916 reasoning that it was “in order to keep the white race or part of it strong to meet the yellow race – Japan, for instance, in alliance with Russia, dominating China – [that made it] wise to do nothing” with respect to the war in Europe.  They did not.  In fact, the authors select the passive voice for describing Wilson’s slapdash diplomacy that sucked America into the war: “In his second term, he became preoccupied with international affairs due to the U.S. entry into World War I.”  This phrasing makes it sound like “the U.S. entry” was an act of God, not an act of Wilson.  Moreover, if someone without any prior knowledge read the document they would be painfully unaware that the reason Wilson “became preoccupied with international affairs” was because he got us into a war.

George Creel

George Creel

What about the Committee on Public Information, a government propaganda machine that made George Bush look like Glenn Greenwald?  The CPI worked in concert with (no kidding) the “Boy Spies of America” to root out insufficiently pro-war thinking.  CPI’s perhaps most metaphysical pronouncement was that U.S. entrance to the Great War was, in fact, “a Crusade not merely to re-win the tomb of Christ, but to bring back to earth the rule of right, the peace, goodwill to men and gentleness he taught.”  What about Roosevelt’s puffed-up belligerence, again foreshadowing Bush, in stating that “He who is not with us, absolutely and without reserve of any kind, is against us, and should be treated as an alien enemy”?  What about the Palmer Raids, named for ur-Progressive and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, wherein the U.S. Government ransacked union halls and homes, snatched up prisoners and held them without access to counsel or courts, and engaged in mass, summary, and unilateral deportations?  Not a word.

As to the Red Scare more generally, the best the authors can do is to shrug that as Wilson’s “general intolerance of dissent during World I became exacerbated by fear of the 1917 Russian Revolution, he played a central role in promoting the Red Scare of 1917-20.  The Red Scare made domestic activism a target of both police suppression and nativist sentiment, producing an atmosphere hardly conducive to the cause of progressive reform.”  Is that supposed to be a denunciation?

In contrast to all this obfuscation and equivocation, poor Warren Harding comes in for a soaking for having produced “a sharp increase in racial violence and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, new restrictions on immigration, rises in protective tariffs, increases in economic concentration, and tax cuts for the rich.”

Imagine if a conservative group came out with a history of American conservative thought that expressly linked modern American conservatism to the political thought of, say, John C. Calhoun, with only mealy-mouthed “to be sure” language like that used by CAP with respect to Progressivism.  Lefties would be outraged, and rightly so.  Will CAP clear the air on the Progressive movement’s history of racism, imperialism, executive supremacism and contempt for civil liberties?  I bet I know the answer.

Cutting Government Spending in a Recession

One of the topics Chris Edwards will be discussing with Glenn Beck this evening (5:00 EST, Fox) is the “Not-So-Great Depression” of 1920-21.

Cato Senior Fellow Jim Powell notes that President Warren G. Harding inherited from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson “a post–World War I depression that was almost as severe, from peak to trough, as the Great Contraction from 1929 to 1933 that FDR would later inherit.”

However, instead of calling for bigger government to right the economy, as President Obama did upon inheriting George Bush’s mess, Harding pushed for spending and tax cuts.

The result?

With Harding’s tax and spending cuts and relatively non-interventionist economic policy, GNP rebounded to $74.1 billion in 1922. The number of unemployed fell to 2.8 million— a reported 6.7 percent of the labor force— in 1922. So, just a year and a half after Harding became president, the Roaring Twenties were underway. The unemployment rate continued to decline, reaching an extraordinary low of 1.8 percent in 1926. Since then, the unemployment rate has been lower only once in wartime (1944), and never in peacetime.

The following chart shows federal spending from 1920 to 1940:

Peace? The Promise of Peace? Eh, Close Enough

Worse choices have been made than Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There was Woodrow Wilson in 1919, an award that rates as one of history’s more grotesque international jokes. Wilson promised to keep us out of war and promptly got us into it, meanwhile laying the ideological and geopolitical foundations for 90 years of war-nationalism, war-liberalism, and war-socialism. To say nothing of saddling us with the terrible idea of world government. Among those who weren’t Nazis or communists, Wilson may have done more than any other individual to promote human suffering in the last hundred years.

So yes, there have been worse choices. (Next to Wilson, I’d have to give Al Gore and Yasser Arafat both honorable mentions. We could go on, of course.) But still, Barack Obama? Seriously? I doubt the committee has any idea how badly their choice will be mocked in the United States.

Over here, the prize will be a disappointment to the anti-war left, the anti-war right, and, of course, the pro-war right. The only contingent I can see taking pride in it over here is the establishment left, which hasn’t had much time lately for substantive work on peace, but which is always happy to make speeches and receive awards. Sometimes, the American image abroad is just that important.

Rather than piling on in what is sure to be a bipartisan laugh-fest, let’s think about what Barack Obama actually could have done for world peace. And weep.

Like Wilson, Obama ran a campaign promising peace and the international rule of law. Politically, peace is a winning message, and the advocates of peace would do well to remember this. Decade after decade, American voters are willing to give peace a chance.

Obama promised to withdraw from Iraq and to close the illegal Guantanamo Bay prison camp. He promised to end the Bush-era detention and rendition policies that have tarnished America’s reputation abroad and weakened trust among nations.

Americans embraced those promises, which are fully consistent with the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize, recall, is awarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Ending wars, treating prisoners of war humanely, and ensuring international criminal suspects’ due process of law are exactly the sorts of things that the peace prize was designed for. They’re just what you’d expect a laureate to do.

But once in office, Obama didn’t deliver. The promises disappeared, replaced by vigorous defenses of virtually every presidential power that the Bush administration invented for itself, including not only those that subvert domestic civil liberties, but also those that threaten the international rule of law.

And the withdrawal from Iraq? Delayed and partial. The latest word — received just as the peace prize was announced — is that it’s “complicated.” Sort of like a bad Facebook relationship.

Our other war, in Afghanistan, continues to escalate, even as its strategic goals seem further and further removed. As Cato author Glenn Greenwald notes, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan continue to kill and maim the innocent, with very little to show in the way of stabilizing the country or defeating international terrorism. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is both possible and desirable, as my colleagues Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter argue. Yet our latest Nobel laureate doesn’t see peace as an option here either.

How sad. Not to sound bitter or anything, but when does the Cato Institute get a peace prize?