“No one matter is of such vital moment to our whole people as the welfare of the wage-workers. If the farmer and the wage-worker are well off, it is absolutely certain that all others will be well off too.”—Theodore Roosevelt, First Annual Message to Congress, 1901
With these words, Theodore Roosevelt projected a vision that shaped America throughout most of the new century. Affirming that “on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together” and that “a period of good times means that all share more or less in them,” his 19,600-word treatise revealed a new president eager to strike a Square Deal to safeguard “the rights of wage-worker and capitalist, of investor and private citizen, so as to secure equity as between man and man in this Republic.”
In balancing labor and capital, the 26th president leaned on Abraham Lincoln, who had observed in his first annual message to Congress exactly 40 years earlier: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
Consequently, TR concerned himself more with the welfare of average Americans — tradesmen, small-business owners, and factory workers — than with the welfare of “capital.” In fact, his “One Nation” conservatism posited that an expanding middle class would ensure that “all others will be well off too.” Although noting with pride that wages in the United States were then the world’s highest, the Rough Rider still admonished Congress: “Every effort of legislator and administrator should be bent to secure the permanency of this condition of things and its improvement wherever possible.”
Were he alive today, Roosevelt would surely advise his fellow Republicans to wake up to the social and economic turmoil of the past 25 years, end their libertarian obsession with cutting income-tax rates for investors, rentiers, and the upper-income set, and focus on lifting Middle America. Indeed, TR would express alarm over the boom of the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) at the expense of domestic manufacturing, defense-related industries, transportation infrastructure, and energy production — the true pillars of American strength.
Most important, the Bull Moose would seek to reverse the downward mobility that demographer Joel Kotkin calls the “gradual descent of the middle class into proletarian status,” a devolution that, coupled with mass immigration, has turned California into a land of income extremes that resembles a Third World country.
Noting that the middle 60 percent of earners’ share of national income has declined from 53 percent in 1970 to 45 percent today (whereas the percentage of U.S. families earning middle incomes doubled in the postwar decades), Kotkin warns: “The current downgrading of the middle class undermines the appeal of the ‘democratic capitalism’ that so many conservative intellectuals espouse.”
Central to TR’s efforts would be calling Corporate America back to the nation-building role that it played so well in the past, building factories in the United States, developing our workforce, and securing what would become known as the Arsenal of Democracy. In a dangerous world, safeguarding America takes priority over allowing Big Business to ship its operations overseas, hand over its best technology to China, move increasingly into financial services, and slash millions of Americans from its payrolls — all in the name of short-term profits.
It’s no coincidence that the United States has weakened economically, politically, militarily, strategically, and socially at the same time that Corporate America — while cozying up to the globalists and transnationalists — enjoys record profits (about 14 percent of national income, an all-time high) and sits on unprecedented cash reserves of nearly $1.5 trillion.
Conservatives should have no reservations about demanding that U.S. companies advance American ends. As TR understood, joint-stock corporations are “artificial bodies” with special legal privileges and, therefore, do not share the rights of citizens. “Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions,” TR reminded Congress, “and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.”
Restoring harmony with American ideals demands leadership and vision. We could encourage the Fortune 500 to bring their operations back home by declaring the entire United States a Jack Kemp–style enterprise zone: a pro-growth and pro-business haven boasting a competitive 10 percent corporate tax rate, tort reform protecting industry from trial-lawyer plundering of profits, relief from the diversity police, iron-clad protections of U.S. intellectual property from foreign assaults, and a moratorium on environmental-impact statements and the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.
Moreover, we could build a new generation of safe nuclear-power plants offering cheap and plentiful electricity to factories and startups in the Heartland. And we could ensure a robust market for made-in-the-USA goods by instituting a 100 percent domestic-content requirement for all Pentagon procurement contracts and mandating that all public-transportation construction and renovation projects use American-made supplies and materials.
In exchange for these incentives, corporations would agree to rapidly expand the U.S. job market while taking seriously their responsibilities to the American workforce by upholding the TR-style social contract and dramatically curtailing the rampant abuse of 1099 contracting and third-party staffing agencies.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve never been a nation of self-employed peddlers. In chartering nationwide corporations, it’s not too much to ask these enterprises to fortify the U.S. economy by creating productive, well-paying, and secure jobs for their fellow Americans who consume the goods and services they create.
This was the essence of TR’s Square Deal and the “American Way” that emerged during World War II and lasted into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Their renewal offers the only hope that a hollowed-out America can regain her strength — and survive the 21st century.
— Robert W. Patterson served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett.