Presidents have many obligations and one of them is to be teachers of history. So may I offer three cheers for President Obama’s decision to give a speech today in Osawatomie, Kan., where Theodore Roosevelt gave his great and important New Nationalism speech in 1910.
Channeling TR is an excellent idea because the Republican Roosevelt (who created the breakaway Progressive Party in 1912 to give political life to the principles of the New Nationalism) was in many ways the prime mover of many of the achievements of American liberalism and progressivism. The principles of Osawatomie still command our attention.
(To read the entirety of TR’s speech, click here . The Occupy Wall Streeters will especially enjoy this text. Those who want to know more about the upshot of the TR speech should check out Sidney Milkis’s excellent 2009 book, “Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party and the Transformation of American Democracy,” published by the University Press of Kansas.)
The Progressives of TR’s era were engaged with many of the same issues that confront us now, notably the power of finance and the dangers of concentrated economic power. In that 1912 campaign, TR and Democrat Woodrow Wilson were to battle over exactly how restrain the excesses of economic concentration. Despite their disagreements, both were asking the right questions.
Here is how Roosevelt stated the problem when he spoke in Osawatomie:
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. . . .
Roosevelt was uncompromising in insisting that those who wanted to protect private property needed to understand that those who held property had obligations to serve the public interest. “The true friend of property, the true conservative,” he declared, “is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.”
TR, it’s fair to say, would be appalled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the way for corporations to spend vast sums in the political arena. In 1910, he declared:
There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.
We must have complete and effective publicity of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public. It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.
TR also made the case for social responsibility and the progressive income tax, an argument many in politics these days are afraid to make directly. Roosevelt had no such fear:
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective — a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
My hunch is that Obama will be more conservative today than TR was back in 1910.
There is one thing that Obama certainly does have in common with Teddy Roosevelt: Both found themselves hit from the right and the left. Obama has managed to look too close to Wall Street for the taste of progressives but too critical of business and finance for the taste of our day’s financiers. Roosevelt faced exactly the same criticism: He spoke at a time when there was a real Socialist Party in the United States — Socialist Eugene V. Debs got 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912 — and the Socialists saw TR as covertly defending the interests of capital. The most conservative among the capitalists, of course, thought TR was a socialist.
In The New Nationalism speech, Roosevelt was relaxed about this. “Here in Kansas,” he said, “there is one paper which habitually denounces me as the tool of Wall Street, and at the same time frantically repudiates the statement that I am a Socialist on the ground that that is an unwarranted slander of the Socialists.” No doubt Obama chuckled when he read that.