UA's conservative students reject idea of progressiveness

Today marks the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president of the United States. This moment is especially relevant, coming less than two months after Barack Obama’s inauguration to a second term and one week before we at the Capstone will elect our own SGA president.

What do Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama and our SGA have in common?

Wilson, widely considered America’s first progressive president, is Obama’s early ideological predecessor. Their shared conviction in the superior decision-making capability of government experts led to the creation of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission under Wilson and spurred Obama to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That’s a thick alphabet soup of federal agencies, but all of them rely on experts to make decisions about things like interest rates and Medicare benefits while remaining immune from political accountability.

Unlike Obama, Wilson carried the state of Alabama with 70 percent of the vote. How did Wilson, a staunch advocate for big-government progressivism, do so well in a state Obama lost by 20 percent 100 years later?

Wilson, like many early progressives and many Alabama voters at that time, was a segregationist. Upon taking office, he resegregated the federal workforce. As a governor, he signed a law that established a board to regulate the reproduction rights of “defective” members of society.

Fourteen days after Wilson was sworn in, on March 18, 1913, The Crimson White reported on the Skull’s initiation ceremony.

“The ‘Skulls’ is the oldest interfraternity society at the University, having grown from the old chapter of T.N.E. that was once at the University,” the CW reported. “The initiation of the Skulls is somewhat public in its nature.”

The article described a parade including a “jauntily attired” Lister Hill, who was wearing a “part dress suit, part pajama effect that was most stunning.”

Hill went on to establish the SGA and is widely considered responsible for laying the foundation of the modern-campus Machine. Somehow, the public parade tradition was lost, but maybe in the future, Machine members will re-embrace their founding father and walk down University Boulevard in “part dress suit, part pajama” effects. It’s really a shame they took those festivities underground.

Hill eventually served as a Democrat in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. He was a champion of the New Deal and supported the Great Society, but opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court ruling desegregating schools.

Eventually, the progressive left divorced itself from the racism at its roots, and, through a long ideological realignment, somehow managed to establish itself as the protector of racial equality. However, the early progressives’ enthusiasm for government programs and expert decision-making hasn’t been lost among their contemporary heirs.

Obama decided expert evaluations and decisions were a more effective way to control health care costs than patient freedom and choice when he pushed the Affordable Care Act into law; the young Hill decided a small group of elite students would pick a better SGA president than a messy democratic brawl. Both decisions were manifestations of their progressive thinking.

Alabama students, on the whole, reject that progressivism, having supported Mitt Romney overwhelmingly in the fall in opposition to Obama’s entitlement state. Yet, we continue the tradition early, ugly, racist progressivism spawned on our campus, dutifully electing the Machine candidate each spring with rare exception.

(See also in OPINION "The Machine story never told")

One of the most conservative student bodies in the country thus far ironically maintains for itself a left-wing political structure developed in the progressive era, by a future progressive senator, immediately following the election of our first progressive president.

The premise of the Machine, that elite experts should control decision-making, is the same premise used to justify the elite bureaucrats who increasingly control environmental, education, energy, health, financial and consumer safety policy.

It’s the same way the Soviet Union operated and the Iron Curtain fell over 20 years ago.

Thankfully, at the federal level, we have Republicans to fight against elite bureaucratic overreach. With so many Republicans on our campus, maybe someday one of them will start a similar movement here.

Tray Smith is a senior majoring in political science and journalism. His column runs weekly.

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