In the Winter 2012/13 CRB, R.J. Pestritto reviewed Jean Yarbrough’s Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. We are fortunate that Prof. Yarbrough, the Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College, and Dr. Pestritto, dean of Hillsdale College’s Graduate School of Statesmanship, have agreed to expand on the questions of how Roosevelt understood his own politics, and what his thoughts and actions mean a century after the conclusion of his political career.
Better still, Dr. Scott Yenor, chair of the political science department at Boise State University, and Robert Patterson, former editor-in-chief of The Family in America, will join their discussion.
The dialogue will commence with Pestritto, Yenor, and Patterson assessing Yarbrough’s concluding thoughts on T.R. in an essay published in The Public Interest (Summer 2002), followed by Yarbrough’s response to those assessments. According to the summary in question, T.R. “accepted far too uncritically the reigning beliefs of his day—that the Declaration and the Constitution had outlived their usefulness; that through evolution, human beings might overcome their selfish natures; that majority tyranny was no longer a threat to our political institutions; that elected officials might be freed from constitutional restraints; and that panels of disinterested experts could be trusted to rule in the public interest.”
Pestritto: Thanks for the opportunity to expand upon some points on T.R., which I made in my recent CRB review of Jean Yarbrough’s fine book. The passage from Jean’s essay strikes me as consistent both with T.R.’s major political speeches and with his more philosophic and historical writings. If we break it down, there are several key parts that bear further examination.
T.R.—and the Progressives generally—relied upon an evolutionary account of human nature to justify loosening the constitutional protections against what the American Founders believed were the permanent dangers of faction. The Progressive Era was certainly not the first time in American political history that a progressive argument about human nature had been made. In Federalist 6, Alexander Hamilton finds himself rebutting the progressive notion of human nature that had been put forward by those who believed human beings, as a result of the Enlightenment, were no longer in need of a strong national government to referee factious disputes. Hamilton characterized this view as “utopian,” and pointed to the permanent factiousness in human nature that could be found in historical examples both ancient and contemporary. This is why the evolutionary thinking of the 19th century was so influential on the likes of T.R. (as Jean’s book does a nice job of showing in its treatment of his historical essays)—it helped to provide a foundation for contending that the focus of the founders’ political science on the problem of majority tyranny had been rendered outdated by historical progress. In his 1912 speech on “The Right of the People to Rule,” T.R. expressed his frustration that constitutional restraints on the unfettered rule of the majority continued to hamper progressive policy aims: “I have scant patience with this talk of tyranny of the majority.”
As to freeing elected officials from constitutional restraint, T.R. was certainly impatient with constitutional limits on his own authority. He posited a view of constitutionalism directly at odds with the enumerated powers structure of the American Constitution (the idea, in other words, that the government has only those powers granted to it through the Constitution’s enumeration of its powers), posing instead a plenary conception of federal power (that is, that the government may do whatever it wishes, so long as there is nothing specific in the Constitution that prohibits it). This plenary view—rejected explicitly by Hamilton in Federalist 84 as a throwback to the days of monarchy—was the central part of T.R.’s “Stewardship Theory” of executive government, expounded in his Autobiography.
This view that the president, as both the embodiment of the people’s will and the steward of their needs, ought to exercise plenary power is interesting in light of the final part of the Public Interest statement—the trust in enlightened administrators. T.R.—as his New Nationalism program indicates—advocated vigorous and centralized government by administrative experts. He seems not to have perceived that expert administration could be at odds with the plenary power of a popular leader. Woodrow Wilson, in his “Study of Administration,” seems to have understood this difficulty much more clearly than T.R., who seems to have believed that a popular president could keep the bureaucracy in line. This belief may have had something to do with the fact that T.R. fully expected himself—and his friends—to be the leaders of the people.
Of works regarding Progressives let fools contest
Whether Pestritto’s or Yarbrough’s is best.
I am no Alexander Pope. My admiration for the scholarship and the conclusions of the accounts provided by Professors Pestritto and Yarbrough knows no bounds. Neither book is surpassed in my estimation in showing the ways in which Progressive thinkers and statesmen depart from the order of the founders. Pestritto’s work on Wilson and Yarbrough’s work on Theodore Roosevelt lays bare those presidents’ rejection of natural rights theory in the direction of social rights, their shared rejection of the separation of powers and representative government in favor of an administrative state run by experts, their shared rejection of limited government in favor of a constantly adaptive, unlimited administrative state.
Wilson and Roosevelt began as historians of one sort, but their historical scholarship was informed by a Hegelian account of right and the State. Their race against one another in 1912 may make them seem like rivals, yet their differences were small potatoes. No one can seriously confront these works on Wilson and T.R. and still maintain the idea that the Progressive movement represents piecemeal reform or common sense adaptation to changing circumstances. They transformed what “common sense” was and hence transformed the republic.
The accomplishments of Pestritto and Yabrough force us to confront fundamental issues. Together in 1912, Wilson and T.R. received 70% of the popular vote (and adding Eugene V. Debs, Progressive candidates received roughly three quarters of the popular vote). Assuming that the American people knew, more or less, that these candidates were struggling with and against America’s founding principles, what accounts for the attractiveness of Wilson, T.R. and Debs collectively?
We students of the history of political thought have especial reasons to be concerned with this question, versed as we are in Leo Strauss’s “Three Waves of Modernity” thesis. Strauss argues that earlier modern political thought (from which the American Founders drew some inspiration) contains unstable principles of right that naturally, if not inevitably, give rise to historicist and indeed, in the American context, Progressive political thought (from which proceed Wilson and Roosevelt). Allow me to simplify quite grossly. The principles of the “first wave” thinkers such as John Locke, from which the American Founders, in part, drew inspiration, flattered the capacities for scientific discovery and hence scientific control over the human world. The American Founders were sober practitioners of the scientific project, but their sobriety gives way once the restraining influence of ancient and Christian moral teaching gives way.
On this reading, the Progressives are worthy, more sophisticated heirs to the American Founding tradition. They are followers of the deeper, unstated principles of the founding, principles of change and scientific control underlying the epiphenomenal principles of natural rights on which the founders thought that they were basing our polity.
This transformation of thought happened in time and space. Certain changes (e.g., the rise of the modern corporation, the changing nature of industrial labor) won a hearing for the Progressive thinkers, yet the hearing was easier to gain given the instability of the earlier form of liberalism at the heart of our republic.
There may be good answers to these questions. Yet Strauss’s argument and the reality of Progressivism’s displacement of the American Founding principles force three interrelated questions for our scholars of Progressive political thought. Do you think Strauss’s Three Waves of Modernity accurately describes the tendencies of modern political thought? If so, how can the American Founders serve as a source of constitutionalism against the Progressive onslaught? Why were the American people so easily convinced (or seduced) by Progressive principles?
Patterson: For a certain subgroup of conservative political theorists, chipping Theodore Roosevelt off Mount Rushmore is a full-time preoccupation—even obsession. One such scholar is Jean Yarbrough, who exhibits the same overconfidence shared by many of these conservatives who presume their understanding of fidelity to the Declaration and the Constitution exceeds that of all others.
From that high perch, she fails to grasp how the “founding principles” provided insufficient help to T.R.’s imperative and preeminent concern: nation-building. The challenges facing the 26th president were not necessarily more complex than those of the founders but were different: reducing the oppression of Jim Crow; quelling the radical ideologies emerging in response to industrialization; and dealing with a new economic force, the national corporation. Moreover, T.R. was reluctant to equate Americanism with allegiance to political or philosophical ideals. He focused more on social and biological realities. As Allan Carlson notes, by placing the child-rich family at the centerpiece of American identity, the devoted father of six children inspired a movement that predates today’s political conservatism: social conservatism.
Yarbrough understates all these achievements. Because T.R. was a progressive—and because progressivism was the prominent political force of his generation—she claims that he drank uncritically from that well. Like all presidents, Roosevelt was a creature of his time, but he was far more a pro-active challenger than a passive captive of the reigning beliefs that she identifies. Indefatigable and perhaps the most intellectually engaged of American presidents, the Rough Rider was his own man: he carried water for no rote ideology.
T.R. may have been enamored with Darwin in his youth, but he forcefully rejected Social Darwinism as an adult. As Carlson also observes, Roosevelt regularly mounted the bully pulpit to denounce the “scientific” racists and their contention that natural selection and conflict would perfect the human race. Instead, T.R. posited cooperation and altruism—rooted in maternal love and affection—at the centerpiece of human progress, which he believed occurred in spite of natural selection. Nor did he entertain illusions of man overcoming his selfish nature, witness T.R.’s harsh critique of his privileged peers for failing to procreate in sufficient numbers.
With other progressives, T.R. agreed that changes in American life since the late 18th century warranted social-insurance legislation like Social Security—and constitutional amendments like the 16th. But Roosevelt never considered the Constitution a relic nor did he suggest that elected officials could ignore its constraints. He harbored no more reservations with the Constitution than modern-day conservatives who offer their pet amendments to deal with problems the founders could not foresee.
Roosevelt did, however, object to an abstract rendering of the founding documents, including a notion of “unalienable rights” that blatantly favored the “malefactors of great wealth”—and slavery at an earlier time—while ignoring the plight of the “average American” or those Abraham Lincoln called the “plain people.” Moreover, he presciently warned of the grave danger of a Supreme Court thwarting the will of “We the People” by striking down commonsense legislation and inventing “rights” not found in the text of the Constitution. Yarbrough can surely disagree, but she has no right to suggest that T.R. or his policies marred the founding charter or weakened our constitutional system.
Finally, T.R.’s dismissal of majority tyranny as “no longer a threat” was no uncritical acceptance of the Zeitgeist but an astute recognition that the crisis of his day actually arose from the tyranny of elites—a lesson conservatives seeking their way in the 21st century would do well to heed.
Yarbrough: As even these brief responses make clear, the political thought of Theodore Roosevelt raises questions that range from the highly practical to the profoundly theoretical. Let’s begin with the practical and work up.
Scott Yenor’s observation that well over 70% of the American electorate voted for either Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (assuming that all of those who backed the two candidates did so because they endorsed the progressive program) implicitly raises the question: if the political thought of the founders was so good, why didn’t more Americans rally behind it? Bob Patterson offers one answer: the founding principles were “inadequate” to the central problem that America’s leaders faced in 1912. Patterson thus joins the legions of progressive historians who argue that the great danger in Roosevelt’s day (and continuing in our own) came from the tyranny of the minority, “the malefactors of great wealth.” Using their corporate power to advance their selfish interests, the wealthy seriously harmed the American family, which, Patterson argues, is the backbone of “American identity.”
One advantage of responding only to a quotation from my essay in the old Public Interest is that Patterson is under no obligation to consider the arguments in my book. I do not deny that the rise of the modern corporation posed unique problems for the American republic. What I do contend is that the political thought of the more nationalistic framers Roosevelt claimed to admire offered ways to combat this danger, without attempting, as T.R. did, to move the country toward a more European-style social democracy. After all, it was Publius who observed that the principal task of modern legislation was the regulation of competing economic interests. But there is a big difference between holding these corporations to lawful account and basically having the government impose a top-down control of them, as Roosevelt proposed. So, too, is there a big difference between promoting equality of opportunity and empowering the government to determine how much wealth is “enough.”
In my book, I treat Roosevelt’s concerns about the family sympathetically, and cite the work of Allan Carlson, though I do not believe that this makes Roosevelt a “social conservative.” Nor do I think (as Patterson does) that T.R. intended to place the family at the center of national “identity.” For Roosevelt national identity was bound up with policies that would assimilate the vast influx of European immigrants into the American way of life. That he was “reluctant to equate Americanism with allegiance to political and philosophical ideals” is true, but this, I think, is a defect of Roosevelt’s political thought, and certainly puts him at odds with his hero, Abraham Lincoln. What’s more, to suggest, as Patterson does, that maternal love and affection might lay the foundation for altruism and cooperation strikes me as both sentimental and quite misguided. When Roosevelt called for a new era of cooperation between government and big business, he had in mind making America more like Germany than promoting a distinctive national identity.
So, to return to Yenor’s question, why did the nation lurch toward the Progressives in 1912? For one thing, since the end of the Civil War, if not earlier, American intellectuals had been in thrall to German, and more particularly Hegelian political theory, which viewed all thought as the product of its times. Seen in this light, the Declaration and the Constitution were historical artifacts, applicable only to 18th-century agrarian society. Concerned solely with the protection of individual property rights, the founders’ project fell short of the supposedly more advanced conception of the “ethical state.” Moreover, after Otto von Bismarck attempted to outlaw German socialists, many of them immigrated to America, bringing their theories of government with them. These meshed easily with the discoveries in evolutionary biology, lending force to the idea that the state, too, must continue to evolve to meet the new challenges posed by industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration. At the same time, the classical liberalism of the founders took on a harder Darwinian edge in Roosevelt’s day, making it more difficult to argue for a return to their principles. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that, forced to choose between fidelity to the founders (as then depicted) and a solution to their present problems, Americans turned to the progressives.
These developments lead naturally to Yenor’s more theoretical question: was the sober “first wave” liberalism of the founders destined to give way to the “second wave” of modernity, historicism and, in the American context, Progressivism? And if so, must Progressivism itself inevitably turn into “third wave” nihilism? Here, we have to distinguish philosophy, political philosophy, and American political thought, and then consider how each of these different ways of thinking plays out in the real world. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ideas are always refracted through the prism of practical politics. The wise application of these insights is a matter of prudence, not logic. Or let me suggest another metaphor. In a recentPostmodern Conservative blog, James Ceaser, discussing the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, observed that there is a certain logic to Strauss’s three waves of modernity argument. However, the task of political practice, or statesmanship, is to construct “dams” that can hold back the “waves.” The problem is that, as R.J. Pestritto suggests, for the past hundred years, we have been busily dismantling the dams, rather than building new ones.
Yenor: I appreciate the way in which Jean Yarbrough’s book traces the ways in which America’s prestigious universities were subject to a “German invasion.” The care and detail reflected in her book leave no doubt that this German invasion succeeded in conquering T.R. Yarbrough (and Pestritto) show how the “three waves” thesis worked itself in American practice—at least from the “first” to the “second” wave.
Her reply, borrowing from Jim Ceasar’s Machiavellian metaphor, suggests that these waves might have been better channeled with more prudent, principled “first wave” statesmanship, who might have provided more adequate dams in the form of a defense of the idea that human beings have a nature, constitutional principles, and natural rights. A closer look at the “Three Waves” thesis shows that this solution to the problem is, in a sense, a restatement of the problem. I believe Yarbrough’s work (and Pestritto’s) most amply demonstrates the need for those of us concerned with defending the noble institutions and teachings of the American Founders to understand why they were vulnerable to “German invasion” so that we can identify where we need to build the dams.
Perhaps the people of that time were convinced by bad arguments. Such things happen in human affairs. It might even happen occasionally today! Perhaps those defending the founding at the time failed to “keep the tablets” and hence played a key, if unwitting role in tarnishing the founders’ liberal and constitutional legacy. The effects of that tarnishing are seen in President Obama’s contrast between Progressives on the one hand and the American Founders and Social Darwinism on the other.
Perhaps a change in conditions prepared the ground for the population and the educated statesmen of the time to accept these arguments. This possibility the defenders of the founders’ constitutional order must study and explore. If conditions did change, we must think about how the original constitutional order could accommodate those changes or show why it need not have accommodated them. Essentially, we must ask, “What was the proper constitutional reaction to the rise of the large national corporation and the changing character of employment, among other things?” Prof. Patterson implicitly says that the rise of such “malefactors of great wealth” should have led to a regime-level re-evaluation. Is Prof. Yarbrough open to this possibility?
This is where my series of questions comes—questions that both Professors Pestritto and Yarbrough may want to weigh in on. Theordore Roosevelt and his Progresssive cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, emphasize equality of opportunity as much as anyone. They believe that conditions in their times had changed such that, as FDR said in his Commonwealth Club Address, “a glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have know it no longer exists.” Were T.R and FDR right to contend that the old American vision of equality of opportunity was no longer viable? If so, would a regime-level reevaluation of the American Founding be required? If not, what is the proper conservative reaction to the change of conditions, if such there was and if it was not embodied in these Progressives? Or, more generally, do the Progressives sneak in a new wine through the old wineskin of “opportunity”?
Patterson: Although outnumbered three to one in this exchange, I’m troubled more by its abstract and airless quality. Rather than walking in the shoes of Theodore Roosevelt as he navigated uncharted territory, my interlocutors sit back and—especially R.J. Pestritto—indict one of our most popular presidents for not explicitly grounding all his actions in the text of the Constitution or The Federalist Papers. That’s an unrealistic standard that few presidents have adopted, let alone achieved.
All three professors hand down a rather harsh verdict that the 26th president and his policies represented a rejection of the founders’ vision. Scott Yenor and Jean Yarbrough concede that 75% of the 1912 electorate endorsed what they frame as a fatal embrace of European socialism. But rather than considering the possibility that the fall-out of laissez-faire economics—including concentrations of corporate wealth and power that would have troubled the founders and Abraham Lincoln-prompted the American people to peacefully seek pragmatic reforms, Yarbrough blames the election results on the influence of German idealism on American intellectuals as well as a Darwinian hardening of classical liberalism for undermining “fidelity to the founders.” Yet, populists in the South and Southwest, without connections to German progressives, vented similar anxieties of unfettered markets. As early as 1876, the Texas legislature attempted to regulate industry, establishing the Texas Railroad Commission after voters ratified a state-constitutional amendment authorizing the agency in 1890.
But considering the strident, even violent upheavals occurring elsewhere, how can we not praise the first American Nobel Prize-winner for preserving the Union in the face of potential social calamity, even revolution? Any fair assessment would note that the Rough Rider, more than any single individual, sowed the seeds of 20th-century American exceptionalism. Inspiring future presidents, his progressive platform unfolded in the rise of “utility-style” capitalism, which turned corporations into stewards of nation-building, as well as the family wage and Social Security, systems designed around the “American Standard”—the breadwinner/homemaker/child-rich family that Roosevelt considered the foundation of American civilization. The result: three glorious decades after World War II, when the United States reached her “prime of health and vigor,” as French writer R.L. Bruckberger, visiting America in the 1950s, noted. (Jean: If T.R. was not a social conservative, no one is. And his understanding of family did stand at the center of “the American Way” that he expected naturalized and natural-born citizens alike to follow.)
Most 20th-century Republican leaders—from Senator Robert Taft to Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan—would concur. Indeed, the party not only embraced Social Security as amended in 1939 but also overrode Harry Truman’s veto of the Tax Revenue Act of 1948, which delivered T.R.’s pitch for an income-tax code favoring married parents with one income but many children, a provision that European liberals and American libertarians denounce as social engineering. All these exceeding fruitful policies led Father Bruckberger to exult in his bestseller, Images of America, that we had solved the perennial problem of modernity—the “bitter, obdurate antagonism between rich and poor”—creating a humane society that was an antidote for the nihilism of the West. This tribute by the modern-day Tocqueville vindicates T.R.’s estimation of Progressivism as “the highest and wisest form of conservatism.” It also invites a new application of Lincoln’s observation that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
In essence, T.R. “founded” a flourishing middle-class republic that not only held back the “waves” of Leo Strauss but also would have delighted the founders and the Redeemer President. Indeed, gratitude for this quintessential American statesman would revive a Republican Party that, having won the popular vote only once since 1992, needs a fresh vision to beat the real foes of American ideals: no-growth environmentalists, adversarial feminists, and multiculturalists.
Pestritto: Bob Patterson seems troubled by the fact that, in my first post, I tried to address the actual question put to us by the moderator. We were asked to respond to a quote from Jean about the ways in which T.R. appears to have departed from founding principles; Jean makes three specific points on that front, and so my remarks directly addressed each of those three points. It’s not clear to me how else I could have addressed Jean’s quote other than to treat T.R.’s departure from the founding, but mea maxima culpa. At the risk of sinning yet again, I’ll try to respond to some specific points presently at issue in our exchange.
In particular, the initial posts by Yenor and Patterson, though quite distinct in their arguments, pose a similar question—that is, they are concerned about the manner in which T.R. (and Progressives generally) responded to the political pressures and crises of the time. Patterson alone, however, seems utterly unconcerned with the extent to which T.R.’s response repudiated the core principles of American government, as if fidelity or infidelity to founding principles were a matter of little practical consequence to the reality of citizens’ lives.
It seems that for Patterson—as for the Progressivism which he defends—the ultimate standard for judging government or particular political figures is the extent to which they are able to respond to whatever particular crisis or need history happens to throw at them. For them, government must be constantly on the move to meet man’s ever-changing and ever-growing needs. That is the standard that he insists we use to judge T.R. Patterson’s demand is that we adopt his vision of government as problem solver, and thus explain how else T.R. could have responded to the problems of his time (though it is odd that he seems to have ignored Jean’s obvious effort to do just this). To my “abstract” critique of T.R., Patterson poses a defense of exactly the opposite quality—one in which Roosevelt is legitimized almost entirely by showing how his expansions of state power were all in response to some prevailing need of the day.
Patterson bolsters his case by pointing to the fact that many 20th-century Republican leaders embraced T.R.’s progressive program. On this point, we agree. But unlike Patterson, I see this fact as an indictment of Republican leadership in the 20th century. As conservatives, do we really think that the Republican establishment has been terribly effective at preserving our liberty over the course of the last 60 or 70 years? Notwithstanding the onset, over that time, of a centralized administrative state, with the dependency of a growing segment of the population on that state and with the Left inching closer to realizing its dream of making America into a European-style social democracy (a dream launched by the original Progressives), Patterson would have conservatives celebrating the political achievements of what Charles Kesler has called the three waves of modern liberalism.
If you think this recent direction of American politics has been for the good, then by all means you should be grateful that so many Republican leaders embraced—as Patterson correctly notes—T.R.’s progressive vision of government. Many conservatives, on the other hand (and in this there seems to me the hope for recovery), have been awakened by the Obama presidency to the radicalism of the progressive agenda. This awakening has led to some sober thought about the real consequences for free government (not to mention the more mundane consequences of looming insolvency) of the idea that the government is there to solve all of our problems and to take care of our every need—about the kind of government championed by T.R., whose officers, he argued, ought to serve as “stewards” for the needs of citizens.
Just as Patterson is correct in his contention that establishment Republican figures were enablers of the advance of 20th-century Progressivism, he is also correct that the original progressives were “conservatives”—albeit in one narrow respect only. It is more accurate to say that the policies advocated by Progressives were the more conservative alternatives to those being pursued by the state-socialist movement of that time. For both Progressives and socialists, American government was hopelessly anachronistic—it was simply a question of how much change the country was ready for at the time. The socialists wanted complete upheaval, and wanted it immediately; the Progressives saw themselves as the more cautious advocates for changing the social and economic order, and indeed they were. This sentiment is expressed perfectly by Woodrow Wilson in his essay “Socialism and Democracy”—follow the link to that brief essay, and see how much of a comfort you should take in the Progressives’ alleged conservatism.
Yarbrough: What Bob Patterson dismisses as the “airless and abstract” character of this exchange is precisely the point: Professors Yenor, Pestritto, and I are exploring the philosophical underpinnings of T.R.’s political thought; Patterson is focused simply on the results. In his telling, Roosevelt is a conservative hero because his policies helped to shore up the “child-rich” nuclear family, with father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker that set the stage for three decades on unparalleled economic progress after World War II. Patterson also finds much to praise in T.R.’s support for “utility-style” capitalism, which turned corporations into “stewards of nation-building,” whatever that means. Still, it’s a stretch to attribute American prosperity and stability after World War II to T.R.’s statist vision, when in fact the United States emerged virtually unscathed from the war and faced no serious economic competition for decades. And once that competition began to surface, the “blue state” model did not fare so well.
As a factual matter, Patterson is correct to point out that mid-20th-century Republicans essentially accepted the progressive changes first championed by T.R. and then enacted by his cousin, FDR. But I agree with R.J. Pestritto that this is a far more dubious achievement. As Harvey C. Mansfield has observed, conservatives have never been sure whether their aim is to oppose the Progressive program or simply to slow it down and/or co-opt it. Patterson is clearly on the side of the latter alternative, which, following his hero, he considers “the highest and wisest form of conservatism.” However, as I argue in my book, there is another kind of conservatism, which is to return to the principles of the founders and adapt them to our current situation. The genius of Ronald Reagan was that he was the first Republican president in the post-World War II period to attempt to restore the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. As Reagan’s writings make clear, it was possible to ground social, economic, and foreign policies in the political principles of the founders. Indeed, given the economics and the demographics of our present situation, it is imperative that we come up with a more modest, liberal alternative to the welfare state and its top-heavy, self-dealing administrative apparatus. It gives me no pleasure to point out that Patterson’s attack on our arguments as “airy and abstract” merely confirms Tocqueville’s warnings about the dangers that democratic nations have to fear. For even big government conservatives like Patterson show scant regard for constitutional forms that get in the way of their desired policies.
That said, there are pockets of sane policy in T.R., about which Patterson and I largely agree. Roosevelt spoke out strongly in favor of the assimilation of new immigrants, and would surely have opposed today’s celebration of multiculturalism, to say nothing of dual citizenship. He saw the traditional family as an interdependent economic and social unit, and resisted socialist reforms that would undermine it, making women and children more dependent on the state as the infamous “Julia” campaign ads illustrated in the last election. He thought that natural resources should be developed, rather than locked away or abandoned altogether as our current crop of environmentalists argues. (Nevertheless, T.R. was also convinced that only the federal government could carry out these policies wisely, and saw the conservation movement as a way to re-think the relation of the individual to the state, especially regarding property rights.) And finally, T.R. favored a strong military establishment as the best means to secure peace, though Patterson, while lauding the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, omits mention of his muscular foreign policies.
Returning to more theoretical matters, Scott Yenor wonders whether the political principles of the founders were adequate to the task of reining in corporate capitalism? Or did the emergence of the modern corporation make the transformation of the American republic inevitable? In my view, there is nothing in the political thought of the framers that precludes government regulation of these industrial behemoths. The real question, as John Adams Wettergreen pointed out, is: what is the purpose of regulation? Is it to make a basically free enterprise system work better, or is it to substitute for competitive markets and individual decision-making rule by supposedly impartial experts? Is it to reward risk-taking and personal effort or is it to foster brotherhood by re-writing the rules of the game, as Herbert Croly and Roosevelt argued? T.R. continued to pay lip service to the old-fashioned virtues of individual industry and initiative, but the regulatory policies he championed undermined the very qualities he admired. Although Roosevelt convinced himself that he was steering between the Scylla of plutocracy and the Charybdis of mob-rule, his “middle way” relied on top-down government regulation and a significant redistribution of wealth.
Why then, Yenor asks, were these ideas so attractive to so many Americans? Was there something about the founders’ political thought that was defective, or were their successors somehow deficient in transmitting these principles to later generations, and especially later generations of immigrants? As James Ceaser has argued in Nature and History in American Political Development, American statesmen have only appealed to natural right in times of great political turmoil, as Lincoln did in the slavery crisis, blacks and women did in support of their civil rights, or Leo Strauss did against historicism beginning in the 1950s. For much of our history, these principles have remained in the background as politicians quarreled over more mundane matters. Moreover, the challenge to the founders’ principles came not only from foreign imports, i.e. German thought and Darwinism, but also from democracy itself. As Tocqueville noted, by removing hereditary distinctions, democracy gives rise to the idea of indefinite perfectibility. Then, too, their very love of liberty makes democrats reluctant to commit themselves to solutions forged by their ancestors. As Roosevelt observed in an argument reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson, Americans of his generation must be free to determine the scope of their rights and not be bound by the ideals in existence at the time of the founding. And finally, much as modern democrats love liberty, many are more enamored of equality, and want to use the state to level the playing field. In democracy, everyone honors the principle of equality of opportunity, but people have very different ideas about what this means and what measures are required to bring it about. To make matters worse, a century of progressive education has reinforced all of these tendencies.
CRB: Earlier in 2013, this Upon Further Review web feature offered a discussion of the present state and future prospects of conservatism. This discussion, despite analyzing a politician who died 94 years ago, feels like a continuation of that one. Upholding self-government while responding to convulsive economic change, wrestling with the proper weight good governance should allot to political principles, on the one hand, and political realities, on the other—these were pressing questions at the beginning of the 20th century, and are again at the beginning of the 21st.
CRB thanks all four of you for these thoughtful, stimulating contributions during the first two “rounds.” Any points you wish to emphasize in this third and final round are welcome.
One we suggest, however, is to address a significant difference between 1913, when Theodore Roosevelt’s political career was just over, and 2013. The difference is that the intervening 100 years have happened. The Wilson presidency, the New Deal, the Great Society, and Republicans’ decisions to uphold this legacy more than confront it—these things have all happened. The conservatives of a century ago really were trying to conserve a still vital tradition of constitutional government. After a century of retreats and accommodations, however, the advocates for that attenuated legacy are more plausibly considered “restorationists” than conservatives.
Can conservatives revive a constitutional tradition so diminished, for so long? If so, how? If not, does conservatism have any future other than arranging the terms of its own surrender? Your thoughts on these questions, and the light that T.R.’s words and deeds shed on them, would be most appreciated.
Yenor: Conservatives’ domestic successes in the last 35 years have occurred mostly on the supply side, as the basic American tax rates have been lower than at any time since World War II, as significant de-regulation occurred, and as America regained some of its commitment to free market principles. These measures provide small levers as we seek to meet the challenges of the late welfare state.
Other successes, however, proved short-lived because conservative reform did not go deep enough, often enough toward constitutional reform. De-regulated industries could be re-regulated because the administrative state was neither dismantled nor re-introduced into the separation of powers system. Successes in trimming the welfare state where it was most vulnerable (the repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children) or introducing competitive principles to welfare state provision (Medicare Drug benefit) have also been undone through administrative action or subsequent, apparently more generous legislation. Some recent estimates suggest that the costs of complying with regulations are equal to the overall size of the national government.
Opportunity for a constitutional restoration exists. Remember the post-World War II prosperity of which Prof. Patterson reminds us. That prosperity was due, partly, to special circumstances of American hegemony, but also to the creative, limited government reaction to the New Deal in the form of the Republican take over of Congress in 1946 (for the first time since 1928). Not only did the Taft-Hartley Act permit states to establish a right to work and limit the power of the unions, but other legislation deregulated wages and prices (against the wishes of President Truman); this “Do-Nothing Congress” passed a first post-War tax rate cut and killed several Truman-led attempts to expand the welfare state into the field of health care. The growth of the 1950s might have looked much different had there not been this particular Congress.
This example set the rhythm for postwar American politics. Conservatives and restorers have much to learn from the moments in American history (1920, 1946, 1980, 1994, and, perhaps 2010) when Progressives took one on the chin. Opportunity knocks infrequently and narrowly, and when it knocks, the welfare and regulatory states can be trimmed where they are most vulnerable; getting the Democratic Party to acquiesce in the changes is essential to the long term maintenance of those changes (e.g., Taft-Hartley, Reagan tax cuts, welfare reform).
Where is opportunity knocking today? The costs of regulatory compliance are so high and the discretion accorded to unelected administrators so vast that Congress and the courts can and should seek to reintroduce the administrative state into the checks and controls system. Crises and scandals may make this easier. Checking the administrative state may mean jettisoning the conservative judicial deference to administrative agencies as embodied in the 1984 Chevronstandard. This may mean reviving the legislative veto or equivalents in order to allow Congress to weigh in on administrative rules. It may and should mean forcing discipline on Congress as it undertakes its job of legislating. This certainly means making a public argument against certain regulations as inimical to economic growth and as bringing very little bang for a very big buck.
There will come a day of reckoning for the welfare state. When it comes, the concept of vulnerability will expand considerably and, in my view, those interested in constitutional government should act magnanimously in that circumstance and trim the welfare state more in sadness than in anger. As the crisis comes, I would paraphrase Lincoln’s analysis from his Kansas-Nebraska Speech: I have no prejudice against today’s liberals. If their programs did not exist in their current forms, liberals would probably not introduce them in such an unsustainable form. They would not ignore our debt except that they have to if they want to protect the programs for which they have labored so hard. These programs have been objects of partisan struggles in their minds and liberals have dug in their heels to defend them in whatever form; they regard Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the new healthcare bureaucracies as building blocks to what they regard as a just society. One would think, paraphrasing a CRB contributor William Voegeli, that a country rich enough to have a welfare state would not need as much of a welfare state, but the modern world teaches us that wealthy countries build—and overbuild—welfare states. Such must be the way of nature. It is futile to struggle entirely against it; we can only hope to improve on it and make it consistent with human freedom and self-government.
I acknowledge that government obligations under the welfare state exist and they were voted on in legitimate elections. Government cannot easily or quickly shed these obligations, in a satisfactory way. If all earthly power were given to me, I do not know what I would do with these obligations. We must meet them, but it is impossible to meet them how we have in the past. The population seems satisfied with many of the current programs, but the population does not favor the taxes necessary to sustain them in their current form. There is scarcely enough money in the country to pay for these obligations. There is no easy way out, though there is a simple solution. We must take on fewer obligations and stop expanding current programs. We must foster economic growth and promote individual freedom to make these obligations somewhat easier to meet. Government does many noble things and has many noble aspirations. The time has come to prioritize what government does. We must take on only what is necessary to do, and shed some of the rest.
Thus would I envision the first steps on a road toward a constitutional restoration.
Patterson: Allow me to express my appreciation to the CRB for hosting this engaging conversation, as well as to Jean Yarbrough and her award-winning book on our 26th president, R.J. Pestritto and his initial review of Jean’s volume, and Scott Yenor for raising probing, yet conciliatory questions that suggest we may, in fact, share plenty of common ground.
Any assessment of conservative prospects a century after Theodore Roosevelt depends on the lens through which we read American history. If conservatives and Republicans accept the meta-narrative that the American Republic remained alive and well until the most popular and influential Republican president of the 20th century traded our founding birthright for a mess of big-government pottage, we might as well give up as an active political force and arrange terms of surrender.
Why? Because attempting to cut the federal government down to its 19th-century size is a losing proposition. Even if we decry “a century of retreats and accommodations,” the fact remains that without T.R.’s “transformation,” the United States would have lost a couple of world wars, never landed a man on the moon, and left polio and other diseases to cripple and kill. Is that diminished country what conservatives, or the American people, would have preferred?
Moreover, writing off the American century as constitutionally problematic does nothing to help us appreciate how explicitly conservative the country remained throughout much of the same century, offering a model of social and economic policy that still holds promise. Up until the mid-1970s, America was no statist, European social-democratic regime seeking to solve all our problems or intrude in every nook and cranny of private life, ideas that T.R. denounced in his last book, The Foes of Our Own Household. Nor did the country exhibit—until very recently—democratic vulnerabilities that Jefferson and Tocqueville feared might undermine individual industry and initiative. We were a flourishing middle-class republic with a robust private-sector economy, modest social-insurance programs (and very little means-tested welfare), and an independent civil society nurtured by intact families, growing churches, and community-based organizations. Everything the Founders and de Tocqueville could have hoped for, in part because the GOP, as Scott Yenor concurs, refined rather than repealed progressive policies.
Given that she sees “pockets of sane policy” in the Rough Rider, I hope Jean Yarbrough might agree that her urgent call for a “more modest, liberal alternative to the welfare state” is exactly what we enjoyed a generation ago, before “the moral republic” of the founders, Lincoln, and T.R. gave way to Michael Sandel’s “procedural republic.” Indeed, the “top-heavy, self-dealing administrative apparatus” that rightly concerns Jean did not emerge until the Great Society kicked into full gear and an activist Supreme Court—rewriting the 14th Amendment—issued a whole new Bill of Rights, inventing unlimited constitutional rights to public assistance, elective abortion, birth control, pornography, non-marital cohabitation, and all kinds of non-conjugal sexual relations. Captive to John Locke’s notion of personal liberty and Justice Kennedy’s musing that “at the heart of liberty” is the right to confuse one’s fantasies with reality, the Court’s rant last month, in two decisions overturning votes by Congress and the California electorate, paves the way for the complete legal deconstruction of marriage—the primordial society that predates the individual, our unalienable rights, and the state.
These relatively recent developments mark the real break from the American tradition, as the War on Poverty set up bureaucratic programs ad infinitum while the judiciary’s blatant rejection of ordered liberty accelerated the very family breakdown, fertility decline, and social disparities that drive welfare expenditures, government dependency, and our fiscal woes. Rather than building upon the socially conservative New Deal, the Great Society actually reversed the achievements of the earlier era.
Even Reagan understood that not all progressive policies were cut from the same cloth. As Jean notes, the 40th president intentionally sought to follow the Constitution, yet as a former Democrat who cast four votes for FDR, he made room for the New Deal. “Reagan Democrats” were an integral part of his political coalition, and he strengthened, not privatized, Social Security. A 1982 diary entry makes it clear that he had no intention of rolling back the 20th century: “The press is trying to paint me as trying to undo the New Deal…. I’m trying to undo the Great Society.”
Nor did he view regulation as merely a tool for greasing the skids of free enterprise, if that means allowing global markets to gut U.S. manufacturing and the middle class. Keeping company with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln, the Gipper delivered more import relief to U.S. industry than any chief executive since FDR. And he was on good terms with private-sector trade unions, winning the Teamsters’ endorsement in 1980 and 1984. In essence, Reagan committed the same transgression for which Professors Yarbrough and Pestritto indict T.R.: substituting competitive markets and consumer decision-making for “rule” by supposedly impartial experts.
If the party of Lincoln wants to mount a comeback in the age of Obama, conservatives will need to choose their battles more carefully than we have since Reagan left the White House. I hope my interlocutors might concede that our 26th president is not the source of our crisis today. And perhaps agree that if we don’t rebuild the social and economic policy foundations of Middle America that T.R. laid, we risk losing not simply the Constitution, but the entire country.
Pestritto: Thanks to CRB for providing us a forum to exchange these views, and to my interlocutors for their thoughtful contributions. And congratulations to Jean, again, for giving us the very fine book which has served as a springboard for these discussions. It seems that we’ve moved from a discussion of T.R.’s principles to a debate on the effects of his policies. Much of this debate hinges on what conservatives ought to make of 20th-century America and on what T.R. contributed to that century.
In the conversation thus far, we seem to be offered a false choice based upon a dubious assertion. First, the dubious assertion: Bob Patterson tells us that if we like the prosperity and advances of the 20th century, T.R. must be credited for them. Second, the false choice: either accept T.R. and his progressive legacy for America, or cut the government back to its 19th-century size.
As for the assertion about T.R. and the prosperity of the 20th century, there is certainly much for conservatives to like about the 20th century, though also much cause for alarm. Jean Yarbrough and Scott Yenor have elaborated both on the successes and on the causes for alarm, so I won’t repeat that here. To suggest that we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the successes of the 20th century without T.R.’s “transformation” seems to me unsupported by any evidence Patterson provides and really quite an exaggeration. Yenor offers a much more sober and realistic account of the causes of American success, pointing to many factors, among which were the pro-growth and limited-government moments in 20th-century American politics. And Patterson appears to disregard the obvious connections between today’s bureaucratic welfare state. and T.R.’s ambition for government by expert commission (about which he was explicit) and for government stewardship of people’s needs based upon a redistribution of private wealth (about which T.R. was also explicit). Of course these ambitions were not concretely realized or even close to fully implemented by Roosevelt himself; even T.R. was not that powerful, and these aims had to wait for the appropriate historical developments and depended upon the like-mindedness of future leaders to carry them out in a series of waves in future decades. Take a look at T.R.’s Progressive Party platform from 1912 if you doubt the connection between his vision and future waves of American liberalism. Patterson would have us believe that the Great Society just magically appeared ex nihilo, as if no ground had been prepared for it by the earlier progressives whom he admires. And the idea that Jefferson or especially Tocqueville wouldn’t have been appalled at T.R.’s demagogic impatience with constitutional forms and thirst for administrative centralization doesn’t pass the laugh test. In fact, I cannot think of a better poster child for Tocqueville’s fears for democracy than Theodore Roosevelt. (Jean’s book, even though it says little about Tocqueville, still does a nice job of showing why this is so).
As to the false choice, I resist the suggestion that a criticism of Progressivism must translate into a strategy of urging a return to the 19th century—as if critics of Progressivism are deluded fanatics who believe an entire century of political developments can or should be wiped away. The more realistic and pertinent question is how we, as conservatives, can best pursue steps that will restore as much of a free and prosperous republic as the realities of the day allow? In order to do that, we should have a notion of what such a thing is—of what it means to have self-government, and to be secure in our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we have lost our way, in other words, we need some reference outside of our current political paradigm in order to show where we have strayed and to help illuminate the right path. Readers of the Claremont website will recognize this for what it is: an Aristotelian approach to statesmanship, where political actors must have knowledge both of right principle and of what is possible in a given situation in order to bring about political justice. Some would evidently dismiss this first kind of knowledge as “airless and abstract.” Fortunately for the conservative movement, however, it seems to have come to the realization—better late than never—that we do need to focus on our origins. There is a much greater—if imperfect—focus on the founding and a recovery of its principles within the conservative movement these days. Who knows if it can be sustained, or if it will meet with much success in the end? But it at least offers more hope than embracing the very figures who led us astray to begin with.
Yarbrough: So far, this spirited exchange has moved back and forth from the lofty plane of first principles and constitutionalism on the one hand and more down to earth questions about policies on the other. To the extent that Scott Yenor and R.J. Pestritto have focused on policies, they have emphasized how, starting with Reagan, conservatives have scored their largest victories in reducing taxes, advancing deregulation, and raising awareness of American’s founding principles.
By contrast, Robert W. Patterson seems untroubled by the progressive expansion of the state and the drift away from our constitutional moorings as long as they benefit the traditional family. T.R. remains Patterson’s hero because the Bull Moose championed the child-rich family and proposed policies to strengthen it: minimum wage and maximum hours legislation, workman’s compensation, heavier taxation on unmarried working men and married couples with fewer than three children, job security, and insurance against illness, unemployment, and old age. Although the Republican Roosevelt was unsuccessful in implementing these policies, Patterson nevertheless credits him with first having proposed them, and praises his Democratic cousin FDR for enacting many of them.
Patterson emphasizes that at their inception, these programs were socially conservative because they encouraged mothers to stay at home and provided little or no benefits for women and children outside of marriage. These measures, however, have to be seen against the backdrop of the overall Progressive project, which means that it is wrong to discount, or worse to endorse, the statism of T.R.’s and FDR’s policies. What, after all, were the Bureau of Corporations and the National Industrial Recovery Act if not efforts to replace relatively free markets with top-heavy government control of the economy? Yet this seems to be precisely what Patterson favors when he praises T.R.’s efforts to promote “utility-style capitalism,” the purpose of which was to turn “corporations into stewards of nation-building.” In this context, one must wonder to what extent T.R. saw the child-rich family as also serving the goals of the state? As Roosevelt never tired of saying, mothers were to set an example of sacrifice for their children and raise them to a life of service to others and to the nation.
What’s more, Patterson is wrong to lay all of the blame on LBJ and the Democrats. Republicans may very well, as Prof. Yenor notes, have temporarily stemmed the tide of government expansion in 1946, but let’s not forget that Richard Nixon made major concessions to the left on domestic policies in order to advance his foreign policy aims. Indeed, once the welfare state was put in place, the pressure to eliminate the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor would be impossible to resist. In retrospect, it seems clear that these programs were socially conservative when they were first enacted only because the larger culture was socially conservative; there was nothing intrinsically conservative about them, and when the culture changed, so, too, would the programs. Indeed, the programs may well have accelerated the change.
Patterson also ignores the ways in which Social Security may have inadvertently undermined the child-rich family he celebrates. Since one reason that parents had so many children was to ensure that they would be taken care of in their old age, guaranteed federal benefits may have acted as a disincentive for larger families. (So, too, did the migration from farm to city where the manufacturing jobs were located.) And with their economic and medical needs secure, the elderly would be free to pull up stakes and retire to sunny climes far from their families. In addition, the costs of paying for these programs would be shifted to the younger generations, making it more difficult for parents to provide for their own children and discouraging them from even considering larger families. Finally, Patterson praises the homemaker pension for non-working married women, but he says nothing about the way in which this provision has also subsidized divorce by paying full benefits to both. These are just some of the unintended consequences of having the government assume a substantial role in caring for the elderly. And the same could be said of other government programs that were established to help families.
In this exchange and elsewhere, Patterson has focused his attention on economic measures aimed at strengthening the traditional family, under assault from both cultural and economic forces (feminism, sexual liberation, no-fault divorce, “creative destruction” of capitalism, etc.) Some of his proposals are worth considering, though they will not be easy to implement, especially because measures that reward married families (and fathers of these households in particular) will face strong opposition both from working wives and unmarried mothers as well as constitutional challenges. What’s more, they too readily dismiss the desire of educated women to combine career with marriage and motherhood. Other suggestions, such as a $12 minimum wage, as part of an overall effort to return to the family wage (where married men could support their growing families on a single salary) strike me as both backward looking and misguided.
The best way for men to provide for their families is to acquire the skills that are currently in demand. So many of Patterson’s remedies seem aimed at building a bridge to the past, which, as Bob Dole sadly discovered, is hardly a winning message. That said, Patterson is right to point out that the Republicans must find ways to lure Reagan Democrats back into the Republican fold. As Mitt Romney’s defeat makes clear, Republicans cannot win elections simply by championing tax breaks for the wealthy. They must develop proposals that speak to the needs of the working and middle classes so that they will get out and vote.
Even then, it is not clear that such measures can repair the damage done to the family by the cultural revolutions of the last 50 or so years. The problem is that once mores have changed or decayed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to bring them back by economic incentives alone. (Just look at how unsuccessful the Japanese and Europeans have been at trying to get women to bear more children.) Up to a point, I share Bob Patterson’s worry that children are not well served when both parents work full-time outside of the home, especially when many of the jobs women perform are a far cry from the feminist vision of “meaningful careers.” And it is worrying that the growing number of two income families bids up the costs for those who wish to raise their families on one salary alone. Nevertheless, even greater than the decline of the traditional family, with husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker and mother surrounded by many happy children, is the growing failure of the working classes to form families at all. And when women have children, but no husbands, it is inevitable that they will look to the state for support.
Let me second Prof. Pestritto’s observation that the alternative to T.R.’s progressive (and statist) agenda is not a return to some idyllic 19th-century notion of small government. It is true that T.R. made the case for a strong national defense, but it does not follow that we would not have won World Wars I and II without his and FDR’s progressive agenda. Nor does is it the case that we would still be battling polio without the progressive expansion of government under FDR. The stricken president may well have lent his prestige to the effort, but the cure for polio was largely due to the private March of Dimes, just as more recent major medical advances are owing to private research. I’ll grant that there are certain big projects that government can successfully undertake, such as the space program, and that these can contribute to national greatness, but I am wary of assuming that greatness comes primarily from government actions. As the founders and Lincoln understood, the true greatness of America resides chiefly in the character of its people and in their capacity for republican self-government. And this in turn depends on the emergence of a statesman who is not afraid to lead, and who can make clear to Americans just what is at stake in this contest. In moments of peril, extraordinary leaders have sometimes emerged, but as 2012 makes all too clear, this is by no means guaranteed.
As for the question “what is to be done?” Prof. Yenor is right to urge conservatives to seize whatever opportunities arise. Scandals provide an opening, and might well be used to rein in the administrative state by subordinating it to the elected branches of government and the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. It also would not be a bad idea to keep pressing how far the powers given to Congress can constitutionally be delegated to unaccountable bureaucrats. Nor should conservatives overlook principled ways to aid working and middle-class families. But we should also steal a leaf from the Progressive playbook by trying to recapture control of the institutions that shape public opinion. Conservatives should buy up newspapers, or better still, the soft news outlets of magazines and daytime television. Most important of all, they should take on the education establishment and develop a curriculum that nurtures the desire for ordered liberty and republican self-government in the young. In short, we need a return, not to the Progressive policies and statist vision of Theodore Roosevelt, but to first principles.