21 December 2010

Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Tradition

Joshua David Hawley's Theodore Roosevelt: Prophet of Righteousness tends to confirm my view that the 1912 presidential election marked a turning point in American history that set the Republican party's course to the present day. Here's how Hawley explains it.

Since the close of the Civil War, the Republicans had been the party most consistently associated with federal reform. Their postbellum commitments to a strong national government, territorial expansion, and economic development were the foundation of the electoral alliance that made Roosevelt's regulatory reforms possible. These doctrines were Roosevelt's orthodoxy, they were the ideas he would rearrange and refashion to create his progressivism. But Roosevelt's intellectual development outpaced his party's and eventually diverged from it entirely. He never succeeded in convincing the party leadership that the traditional Republican support for industrialism and economic growth required in the twentieth century a regulatory partnership between business and government. He failed to convert the party elite to his claim that social cohesion and national unity were impossible without a social welfare state...one calibrated to cultivate the warrior virtues, dissolve class loyalties, produce industrial efficiency, empower collective action, and reawaken the public's moral sense. But neither the Republican leadership nor the workaday voter warmed to that vision. It was too statist, too coercive, too intrusive and expensive to capture the imagination of many Republicans. With Roosevelt's exit in 1912, the party drifted slowly toward the other leading interpretation of its historic commitment to industrial growth: economic liberalism. Republicans embraced an agenda of diminishing interference in the affairs of business. They coupled it with a firm belief in the market and the natural order of the private sector. It would take a catastrophic depression to bring American voters to endorse a social welfare state. Republicans were never more than reluctant converts. (239-40)

Hawley suggests that Republicans' rejection of Roosevelt's ideas was motivated in part by resentment of his past domination and fear of renewed domination by a man still relatively young by the political standards of his time. The pejorative terms Hawley uses to describe Roosevelt's vision above could just as easily have been used to describe many critics' opinion of Roosevelt himself. He came on too strong, seemed too much of an egotist, was too ready to question the motives of people who disagreed with him. Rejecting the message came automatically with rejecting the messenger. Hawley himself finds little of substance in the Republican critique of Roosevelt. For him, the 1912 election may as well have been a two-man race between two avowed progressives, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Including the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, and the leading independent candidate, Eugene V. Debs, in Hawley's account might have broadened the context for Roosevelt's repudiation by the public and the Republicans alike. As it is, he goes too far in claiming that the electorate rejected Roosevelt and his "Bull Moose" Progressive Party. He argues that the result showed that the public preferred Wilson's style of progressivism over Roosevelt's, but he also acknowledges that Wilson received fewer popular votes than the Democratic nominee of four years earlier, who lost to Taft in a landslide. In that context, it may be more plausible to argue that die-hard Republican loyalty to Taft, not a general preference for Wilson, cost Roosevelt a victory that could have changed the course of American history.

Hawley clearly prefers Wilsonian progressivism. The big difference between Wilson and Roosevelt, he argues, is that Roosevelt's vision of progress took consolidation and centralization as givens and sought sufficient regulatory powers for government, concentrated in the executive branch, to check corporate power on behalf of the people, while Wilson wanted to use law to break up trusts and monopolies in order to level the playing field for new players. Despite his reputation as a "trust buster," Roosevelt considered mega-corporations inevitable, and considered it government's place to ensure through regulation that they operated for the public good. He thought Wilson's policy was backward and counterproductive, but Hawley sides with Wilson and his adviser, Louis D. Brandeis, who convinced the Democrat that consolidation didn't automatically result in greater efficiency, as Roosevelt presumably believed. Brandeis and Wilson believed that the opposite was true, that monopoly led to waste, while competition motivated competitors to maximize efficiency, thus best serving the public. That issue aside, Wilson, a political scientist before he entered politics, feared that Roosevelt's focus on executive-branch bureaucracy would lead to abuses beyond the reach of the other branches of government.

Hawley himself is troubled by Roosevelt's apparently consistent preference for bigness. He characterizes his subject as a "Christian Darwinist," a person who practiced conventional piety (Roosevelt once referred to Thomas Paine as a "filthy little atheist") but accepted the premises of evolutionary theory and applied them to sociology, anthropology, and so on. He believed in racial evolution, identified with civilization, moral development and military power, with a little imperialism thrown in for good measure. Most troubling for Hawley, he appeared to believe that government must evolve in response to evolving economic conditions, acquiring more regulatory power to check the power of trusts and monopolies. That troubles Hawley because the author believes in natural rights that place permanent limits on state power -- or else he believes that the Founders thought that way. According to such a view, any increase in state power, however motivated, is a threat to the individual liberty governments ideally exist to defend. Roosevelt felt that he was defending individual liberty against corporate power by increasing government's ability to check corporations, but Hawley seems to believe that Roosevelt, if he got his way, could not help but hinder individual liberty, regardless of his good intentions. Wilson and Brandeis had the better solution to corporate consolidation, in his view. Throughout the book, Hawley expresses suspicion of political plans that seem to depend too much on personal virtue rather than legal rules for success. His Roosevelt is reminiscent of John McCain, an avowed admirer of the Rough Rider. Both men, allegedly, trusted more in the rule of "righteous" men than in a constraining rule of law, and deeply resented any challenges to their own sense of integrity.

Roosevelt grew more militant and less politically correct later in life, agitating impatiently for American intervention in World War I while advocating eugenics programs to prevent "race suicide." Hawley restrains himself from rhetorical overdrive, but I can imagine some people putting the book down thinking that Roosevelt had become a kind of proto-fascist. Hawley himself seems to think that Roosevelt remained too committed to American ideals of freedom to ever go that way, but also sees Rooseveltian progressivism, and even the Wilsonian version to an extent, as a menace to individual liberty on some level.

Hawley wasn't out to do a hatchet job on Roosevelt, however. He thinks 21st century Americans "could stand to hear his sermons again" because Roosevelt "knew two things worth remembering that contemporary Americans have forgotten." First, he writes, Roosevelt "knew that liberty is a fundamentally social undertaking," something more, that is, than individual freedom of choice. Wilsonian progressives and modern Republicans have gone too far toward a "vaguely antisocial" ideal of liberty in Hawley's view. Second, Hawley's Roosevelt saw politics as "a profoundly moral enterprise," albeit in a secular sense of the word. He believed that politics included molding society in order to create the type of citizen fit for a constitutional democratic republic. Tension between the public good and individual liberty may be inevitable in that case, but Hawley concludes that "Our politics would benefit if we recovered the link between civil character and liberty." Left and right alike, he suggests, have lost track of the link by focusing on different, perhaps mutually exclusive priorities. Hawley's book is finally a critical but fair introduction to Roosevelt's thought, but if Roosevelt himself has anything to offer the 21st century, we can only find it by putting Hawley aside to confront Roosevelt in his own words. My resolution for the year to come is to do just that, to determine whether Theodore Roosevelt can point us toward an independent, patriotic politics for our own time.

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