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March 9, 2006

George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson

It's pretty common to compare (or contrast) Bush II and Wilson, because the Bush neoconservatives are seen as Wilsonian internationalists, at least in their rhetoric. We could note more similarities. Viz.,

  • Wilson ran on a platform of staying out of World War I, but he took the US into a conflict that killed about 8 million people, including 126,000 Americans. He justified our entry on the allied side as a way to make the world safe for democracy, to end all wars, and to punish Germany for attacking American civilians at sea. George W. ran on a platform of resistance to "nation-building," but he invaded and attempted to remake a foreign country, saying that he wanted to punish terrorists, expand democracy abroad, and reduce the chances of future wars in the region. In both cases, critics of the war said that the real motivations were economic.
  • Each man represented the party then based in the South and West, with a tradition of distrusting eastern elites and the federal government. Both ran on platforms of decentralization and localism. Yet both dramatically expanded the power of the federal government: Wilson through the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and child labor laws; Bush through No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act.
  • Both presidents spoke in favor of personal freedom, but each was responsible for undermining civil liberties. Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Acts (respectively, of 1917 and 1918) were the worst legislative assaults on free speech since 1800. Wilson's government also deported immigrants who held radical views and jailed Eugene V. Debs--who had run against Wilson in 1912 and won six percent of the vote--for speaking against the war. I must say that Bush's assaults on civil liberties, although egregious, do not compete with Wilson's Red Scare.
  • Both consistently disparaged Congress and, once in the White House, attempted to expand presidential power. (As a political scientist, Wilson had argued strenuously against checks and balances.) Both employed "heavies" to enforce presidential and federal power (A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover; John Ashcroft and John Yoo).
  • Clearly, there are differences. Wilson was a brilliant academic, one of the founders of the modern research university. Bush was a mediocre student. Wilson was a true racist, but I don't think that's a fair criticism of GWB. Wilson was a multilateralist in principle (although he took America into the Great War as an "associate" power, not part of the Western Alliance); Bush is a unilateralist.

    Still, the similarities are interesting and raise important questions about why we produce such leaders. The comparison that supposedly serious people make between Bush and Hitler is not only profoundly offensive; it's also obfuscating. I see no evidence that our political culture or system favors the likes of Adolph Hitler. But we do generate zealots in the cause of democracy whose moral certainty leads them to expand their own power at home and abroad.

    March 9, 2006 10:11 AM | category: none


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