America’s current political dilemma the dominant progressive belief that government is a force for unlimited good — has many roots, but special honor goes to Theodore Roosevelt, the first American president to heartily espouse progressive doctrine. Riding the cultural trends of the day, TR allied himself with America’s emerging intellectual class, endorsed progressive collectivism and greatly weakened the cultural alliance that had long protected America’s constitutional republic. That this makes TR a hero to our Vice President is to be expected. Far more curious is the adulation that this man inspires on the right.
My thoughts on this matter were triggered by an excellent critique of TR by Matthew Spalding in the February 23 National Review. Assaying recent Roosevelt worship from Al Gore to Bill Kristol, Spalding suggests that the Left has a better claim to TR’s legacy. —And with good reason. Before his tenure, Americans were still resisting the pull toward centralization dominant in Europe at the time. America’s unique cultural alliance of Jeffersonian individualists and egalitarians held the forces advocating a more powerful central state in check.
In TR’s time, all this was changing. America’s emerging intellectual class had seized upon progressive politics as their ticket to power and saw egalitarian arguments as legitimizing this effort. TR became their champion and launched the modern American bureaucratic state. Progressivism became the American variant of socialism. Its success fractured the anti-statist alliance. Roosevelt, as many politicians since, used the Bully Pulpit to claim the egalitarian high ground for statist programs.
TR was a big government president. He advocated massive public works programs, government management of competition ("trust busting"), and locking up vast expanses of America as "public" land to protect it from capitalist "exploitation". TR hired Gifford Pinchot, a leading progressive theorist, to manage the newly established national forest system. Even private property, TR argued, should be "subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."
TR’s statement — "it is barbarism to ravage the woods and fields, rooting out the mayflower and breaking branches of dogwood as ornaments for automobiles filled with jovial but ignorant picnickers from the cities" – foreshadowed the modern environmental establishment’s view of nature as a park to be reserved for the enlightened few. His assertion that "wild beasts and birds are by right not the property only of people alive today, but the property of unborn generations" fits well with the modern sustainable development movement.
TR’s legacy is one of unbounded optimism about the virtues of an ever expanding state – at home and abroad. And, while TR established only a fraction of the vast array of welfare and regulatory agencies that now dominate America, he left behind a greatly weakened constitutional republic, one in which the cultural alliance resisting the growth of the state had been greatly diminished.
TR can be forgiven to some degree for his statist tendencies – after all, in his day, the progressive experiment was still untested. It is far more difficult to forgive the contemporary adherence of conservatives to his progressive vision. There is much to learn from the TR legacy – the need to work with moral and intellectual forces to bring about change and the value of moralistic leadership and rhetoric, among much else. Unfortunately, these are not the lessons that most conservatives seem to have drawn.