Civilizations ultimately rise or fall in the realm of ideas and it’s ideas that separate humans from all other life on earth. All of us order our lives around the ideas that we embrace – even though we might do it quite unconsciously. And Woodrow Wilson was manifestly a man of ideas. And he did nothing unconsciously.
Woodrow Wilson quite consciously revolted against the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence, specifically, the Declaration’s embodiment of natural law and inalienable rights. As a devotee of Hegel, Wilson rejected the American notion that government is the expression of individual consent and embraced the Germanic – or ‘organic’ – view of the State’s primacy into which the individual is absorbed. For Wilson, ‘limited’ government must be superseded by an expanded and efficient state power.
Like the ‘progressive’ movement generally, Wilson viewed the rejection of limited government as evolutionary and a step on the way of progress – although ‘progress’ seems to have escaped adequate definition.
As a Progressive, Wilson believed that the organic state should be efficient in a way that limited government based on separation of powers could never be. This caused Wilson the political scientist early in his career to advocate the adoption of a parliamentary system in which the separation between the executive and legislative branches would be abolished in favor of congressional primacy. For Wilson, the idea was to free the political branches from the mundane daily details of governing. These tasks should be done by a permanent civil service.
But Wilson came to see his parliamentary scheme as ultimately impractical and later advocated for a strengthened presidential power that would function in tandem with a judiciary that would insure that government was fully responsive to the spirit of the age. As Ron Pestritto observed, this change in outlook was one of means and little else. The supra-president would still devolve everyday government to a professional administrative elite.
And ‘administration’ in Wilson’s view would be above politics and not subject to its influence. This elite band would administer the day-to-day mechanics of governing according to scientific principles as part of a single, efficient system led by the president. Pestritto is correct when he describes Wilson’s system as elite government dressed up in democratic trappings.
This elite, efficient government into which individuals are absorbed and which moves forward toward a world-historical destiny is the essence of fascism. And Wilson, in common with the elites of the Progressive era, openly admired fascism. Unlike the elites, however, Wilson the president would have the power and the circumstances in which to implement his fascistic vision.
As we shall see, Wilson called it ‘War Socialism’.