Central to progressive thought is the notion that society needs an intellectual elite, endowed with superior wisdom and judgment, to refashion and transform it by methodically implementing as many progressive policies as possible. The best way to facilitate such an arrangement, progressives believe, is to impose, on the society, leadership by a powerful, preferably charismatic, virtually deified strongman capable of implementing such policies quickly and without opposition. In short, progressives favor something resembling an imperial presidency.
Woodrow Wilson, who served as U.S. President from 1913-1921, was an enthusiastic advocate of such an arrangement, stating:
“The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress is overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution … but only because the President has the nation behind him and Congress has not.”
“Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand,” said Wilson on another occasion. Upon winning the presidency in 1912, Wilson set out to make the Democratic Party a progressive entity, an engine to transform America. Toward that end, he vowed to select “only progressives” for his administration.
President Wilson viewed the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution as “artificial” and “antiquated.” Belittling the “Fourth of July sentiments” of those who called for fidelity to the original mandates of the Constitution, Wilson was an advocate of what today is termed the “Living Constitution,” the view that the document’s meaning must be elastic enough to change with the mores and political leanings of the times. As Wilson put it, “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice,” meaning that they, like society itself, “must develop” over time. “[A]ll that progressives ask or desire,” said Wilson, “is permission – in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution’ is the scientific word – to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.” To guide society along this path, said Wilson, society needed a “true leader” who could stir the passions of the masses and use them like “tools.” “Men are as clay in the hand of the consummate leader,” he said.
Under President Wilson, progressives perfected the art of government propaganda. Wilson appointed the journalist and former muckraker George Creel to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the first modern ministry for propaganda in the Western world. Thus empowered, Creel methodically assembled an army of nearly 100,000 “Four Minute Men,” each trained by the CPI to deliver, at a moment’s notice, four-minute propaganda speeches at town meetings or any other public venues where they might be heard. In 1917–18 alone, these operatives delivered some 7.55 million speeches in 5,200 communities.
In addition, the CPI produced – with taxpayer dollars – millions of posters, buttons, and pamphlets bearing pro-Wilson, progressive messages. The CPI’s nearly 100 pamphlets were distributed to approximately 75 million people. “It was a fight for the minds of men, for the ‘conquest of their convictions,’ and the battle line ran through every home in every country,” Creel later recalled. Identifying fear as “an important element to be bred into the civilian population,” Creel said: “It is difficult to unite a people by talking only on the highest ethical plane. To fight for an ideal, perhaps, must be coupled with thoughts of self-preservation.” The public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays learned the science of what he termed “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” during his time on Creel’s committee.
To supplement the efforts of the CPI, hordes of pro-Wilson volunteers fanned out across the country to knock on doors and ask people to sign all manner of pledges and oaths by which they promised to be patriotic and to forswear various forms of “luxury.”
The Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of May 1918 made it illegal, under penalty of imprisonment, to utter any criticism of the government — even in the privacy of one’s own home. The progressives in the Wilson administration confrontationally questioned the patriotism of anyone whose beliefs did not seem to be “100 percent American” – i.e., anyone who was not passionately and unwaveringly pro-Wilson. The progressive attorney Clarence Darrow—famous for his defense of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925—was the embodiment of this mindset. Publicly supporting the CPI and the government’s censorship measures, Darrow said: “Any man who refuses to back the President in this [economic] crisis is worse than a traitor.”
Also during the Wilson administration, the Postmaster General was authorized to deny mailing privileges to any publication that did not meet with his approval politically; at least 75 periodicals were banned under this regulation. Journalists who printed anything critical of Wilson’s military policies faced the very serious threat of incarceration, or of having their supply of newsprint terminated by the War Industries Board.
Wilson’s Justice Department created – again, with large sums of taxpayer dollars – the American Protective League (APL), whose agents functioned as private investigators on behalf of the federal government. Their task was to monitor the activities of their neighbors, co-workers, and friends; to read their neighbors’ mail and listen in on their phone calls, all with the explicit approval of the government. As of 1918, the APL had branches in some 600 cities and a membership in excess of 250,000. The U.S. Assistant Attorney General boasted that America had never been more effectively policed.
All told, during the Wilson years, some 175,000 Americans were arrested for failing to adequately demonstrate their patriotism. All were punished in some way; many were jailed.
– Source: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg.
By Paul A. Rahe
April 11, 2013