The Befuddling Wilson
True, Wilson sometimes described himself as conservative. But Wilson’s understanding of conservatism bears little relation to modern conceptions. To him, it meant eschewing theory and taking experience–past, present, and most important, social–as one’s guide for responding to change. Essentially, it meant pragmatism. When, in 1910, his gubernatorial rival promised never to ignore “constitutional limitations” in serving the people’s needs, Wilson retorted that he would be “an unconstitutional Governor” who would do just that if circumstances demanded it. Three years later, he inaugurated his presidency by promising tariff reform, progressive taxation, expanded credit, and several other measures designed, as Cooper puts it, “to bring justice and protection to ordinary citizens” struggling with rapid economic change–and in 18 marathon months he pushed nearly all of them through Congress.
At the crest of anti-Wilson sentiment, a liberal magazine has published a defense of Wilson that is so thoroughly unconvincing it seems like a prank. How to explain that after years of claims that Bush assaulted the Constitution, liberals are now ready to praise Wilson’s willingness to shred it?
For Throntveit, the answer seems to be “pragmatism.” Discarding the constitution for pragmatic as opposed to ideological reasons is not only unobjectionable, but laudatory. This line of argument is a little eccentric, but its possible to see how it follows from the liberal love-affair with Sandra Day O’Connor. If a liberal jurist can shred the constitution for praiseworthy, non-ideological ends, why can’t the executive? Maybe we’re all doomed to love and hate Woodrow for the wrong reasons.