From time to time I complain about “movement conservatives” who speak of Theodore Roosevelt as if he were one of them. He was not. I explained this most recently in “The Usual Slop From David Brooks” and “Spreading the Wealth Around.” So when I found an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Theodore Roosevelt Was No Conservative: There’s a reason he left the GOP to lead the Progressive Party,” I wondered if someone on the Right had finally caught on to, you know, actual history.
Of course not. What was I thinking?
A history professor named Ronald Pestritto writes,
The fact that conservative politicians such as John McCain and writers like William Kristol and Karl Rove are attracted to our 26th president is strange because, if we want to understand where in the American political tradition the idea of unlimited, redistributive government came from, we need look no further than to Roosevelt and others who shared his outlook.
Progressives of both parties, including Roosevelt, were the original big-government liberals. They understood full well that the greatest obstacle to their schemes of social justice and equality of material condition was the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written and understood: as creating a national government of limited, enumerated powers that was dedicated to securing the individual natural rights of its citizens, especially liberty of contract and private property.
Excuse me while I pound my head against a wall and scream for a moment.
Like most Dead Historical White Guys, TR was a mixed bag who doesn’t fit neatly into 21st century political thought. His interventionist foreign policy ideas push him closer to current-day Republicans than Democrats, but his domestic policy ideas were decidedly progressive even by the standards of current-day Dems. Sticking labels like “conservative” or “liberal” on him doesn’t help us understand him. Trying to hammer square-deal TR into a “free market” dogma hole doesn’t work, either, although you can say the same thing for reality in general.
Behind the rhetoric about “redistributive government” and “liberty of contract and private property” are some assumptions that you will never, ever get a rightie to acknowledge honestly. These are —
“Redistributive government” means valuing people for the work they do to create wealth as much as for their capital investments.
“Liberty of contract” refers to the ability of the few to enrich themselves by exploiting the many.
“Private property,” in the mouth of a rightie, refers to the idea that the principal purpose of government is to become a protector of inherited wealth and privilege at the expense of upward mobility.
TR came from a financially comfortable family. He wasn’t wealthy by Vanderbilt standards, but I doubt he ever spent much time wondering how to pay the light bill. He had an almost romantic attraction to “rough” working men (read into that whatever you like, I suppose, although he appears to have been thoroughly heterosexual), hence the time he spent with cowboys and woodsmen. From this he seems to have picked up an appreciation of the dignity of working people and the genuine hardships people face when they lack money.
Professor Pestritto has no such appreciation. He is lost in some netherworld of constitutional originalism, where the Constitution is smothered under the weight of cockamamie theory and not allowed to be a living instrument for self-government in the 21st century. The real needs of the citizens of he United States can hang; if the Founders had meant us to leave the 18th century, they would have said so.
Here Professor Pestritto shows us what planet he lives on:
Many who respect individual liberty and the free market believe that the electoral tide has turned, and that an era of big government is inevitable. But recall that John McCain gained traction in the closing days of his campaign only when he attacked Mr. Obama’s desire to “spread the wealth” through higher tax rates on the upper-income earners. His attack clearly resonated among the public. But it came too late, and truth be told, his heart wasn’t really in it.
The attack clearly resonated among some part of the public, the same part either so stupid or so demented that it accepted Sarah Palin as a serious candidate for Veep. The “spread the wealth” gambit actually seems to have helped Obama more than McCain, if I correctly remember how the polls went.
Never mind. If the Right wants to live in Fantasy Land, who am I to argue? It might keep them out of the way for a while.