Sunday, March 3, 2013

Woodrow Wilson and the Oligarchs

To mark the occasion of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913, exactly a hundred years ago, this post will touch on his life and times. And some attention will be given to what might have been.

During the campaign for the 1912 presidential election, Woodrow Wilson contended with three rivals: incumbent William Howard Taft, a Republican, Eugene Debs, a socialist, and Theodore Roosevelt, one-time president and member of the Bull Moose Party. One of the key issues driving the election was how to respond to the extreme concentration of wealth into the hands of a few oligarchs. The American people had witnessed, during the Panic of 1907, a stock market drop of 50%, a wave of bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in unemployment and understood that the reckless behavior of the oligarchs was largely to blame. J.P. Morgan was at the heart of the disaster, but he is remembered for having later stepped in to alleviate the crisis. 

As novelist Owen Johnson described the months leading up to the panic, “A period of swollen prosperity had just ended in which Titans had striven in a frenzy for the opportunity had spilled before them.” And “The public, which understands nothing of the secret wars and hidden alliances of finance, had begun tremulously to be aware of the threatening approach of a ... catastrophe.”

Both Wilson and Roosevelt described themselves as “progressives.”  As progressives, they opposed the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, but did not favor the radical solution (nationalization of industry) offered by the socialists. 

Wilson's plan to combat the concentration of wealth was to institute the Federal Reserve, with the idea that the Reserve could act to limit the concentration of wealth by influencing interest rates and the money supply, and imposing capital reserve requirements. The move to establish the Federal Reserve was known then as the Aldrich Plan, and had been written with the secret cooperation of Morgan Bank and other Wall Street oligarchs. Having the benefit of hindsight, we know how well this idea has worked. 

Roosevelt advocated for a federal commission to regulate monopolies by closely monitoring their accounting practices, forbidding excessive profit-taking and imposing rules for hours, wages, and working conditions. He believed that “the enslavement of the people by the great corporations . . . can only be held in check through the expansion of governmental power.”  

Some historians believe – and I am inclined to believe – that Wilson’s presidency did not serve the country well. 

Wilson sponsored the Espionage and Sedition Acts, prohibiting interference with the draft and outlawing criticism of the government, the armed forces, or the war effort. Violators were imprisoned or fined. Some 1,500 people were arrested for violating these laws, including Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party. The Post Office was empowered to censor the mail, and over 400 periodicals were deprived of mailing privileges for greater or lesser periods of time (source).
After a series of labor strikes, race riots, and anarchist attacks, Wilson supported the deportation of left-wing activists, raids on political groups, and the arrest of thousands. Wilson’s “legacy of repression lasted for decades”; his administration’s violation of civil liberties would provide a precedent for McCarthyism in the 1950s (source). 

In reviewing Theodore Roosevelt’s writings, it is tempting to imagine how American history would have turned out if, instead of Wilson, had he won the election. If one looks at the popular vote, Roosevelt had been competitive.  The final tally was Wilson, 6,296,284 votes (435 Electoral Votes); Roosevelt, 4,122,721 (88 Electoral Votes); and Taft, 3,486,242 (8 Electoral Votes) (source). If he had prevailed, the two-party duopoly we have in the United States might not have solidified to the extent that it has. A different approach would have been taken to rein in the excesses of Wall Street. He had been an advocate of universal health care. 

Why did Roosevelt lose? There are likely several reasons. For example, the Bull Moose Party lacked the organization of the democratic and republican parties. The republican vote was divided between Roosevelt (a former republican) and the incumbent Taft. I will suggest that another factor in Roosevelt’s defeat was his outspoken support for women’s suffrage. 

After the election, Wilson bowed to political pressure and began supporting the suffrage movement. But in 1912, he was known as the man who said that the prospect of universal suffrage is “at the foundation of every evil in this country” and confessed to experiencing a “chilled, scandalized feeling” whenever he saw a woman speak in public, and saw the place of women as “supplement [to] a man’s life (source).”

Obviously given his views on the subject, Roosevelt had little political support from anti-suffragists. Despite his legendary machismo, in campaign literature he was presented as effeminate, dressed in women’s clothing, obsequious before the demands of detested blue-stockings. These depictions suggest a sexist mentality at play. It is sobering to think that the reactionary beliefs of sexist men might have had a role in the outcome of the election, and a grim testament to the fact that we get the government we deserve. 

Please visit here for a related post on suffragists.