John McCain’s recent comment to the New York Times that he views himself “as a conservative . . . in the Theodore Roosevelt mold” has provoked anguished hand-wringing in various quarters on the Right. Michael Knox Beran’s reaction is typical: He dismisses Roosevelt as an ersatz progressive more interested in self-advancement than genuine reform. Those reforms TR did pursue, Beran argues, amounted to little more than anti-business adventures in state aggrandizement that ultimately failed to address both the corporate misbehavior and the social inequities Roosevelt (insincerely) preached against. For McCain to endorse this opportunistic statist only reveals how out of touch with conservative thought he really is.
Virtually none of these criticisms of TR is fair and each misses the point. The question is not whether TR was a Reaganite conservative. Of course he was not. He lived in a different age with different challenges; the political spectrum of his day does not map neatly onto that of our own. The question is whether modern-day conservatives can learn anything from the politics Roosevelt practiced. And the answer is yes, we can.
To appreciate TR’s relevance for contemporary conservatism, however, we must first take him seriously as a political thinker — something his detractors, including Beran, have been unwilling to do. Beran contends that Roosevelt’s “Progressive agenda was driven not by principle but by political opportunism and a heightened sensitivity to the mood of the moment.”
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, absurd. The policies TR pursued as president and in the years that followed sprang from a coherent, well-developed political philosophy he spent his life elaborating. Roosevelt was essentially a republican. He believed that liberty was more than a set of legal guarantees, like the right to vote every two or four years. It was more than a form of representative government. Liberty was a whole way of life.
A truly free democratic nation was one in which citizens directed their own lives and shared in directing the life of the republic. Consequently, Roosevelt thought liberty required certain social and economic conditions. For example, citizens needed to be able to get work at a decent wage that would allow them to support themselves and play a role in their communities. They needed to have a reasonable chance at advancement in order to reward their investment of time and labor, encourage innovation and the development of individual talents, and give workers — especially immigrants — a stake in the larger society. Citizens needed safe streets and safe communities. Children needed strong families and access to quality education. Roosevelt regarded these as constitutive conditions of democratic liberty.
In the final analysis, TR believed that liberty depended on the good character of its practitioners. “Self-government is not an easy thing,” he said in 1905. “Only those communities are fit for it in which the average individual practices the virtues of self-command, of self-restraint, and of wise disinterestedness.”
Roosevelt’s politics were designed to establish the conditions that make liberty possible. He worried that the circumstances of the industrial age were undermining the sort of political economy on which democratic government depended. He feared the emergence of a permanent underclass, composed mainly of immigrants and non-skilled workers, shut off from the rest of American society and hostile to the American way of life. And he feared the rich were becoming indolent, materialistic, and uninterested in the plight of their fellow citizens.
So he backed a minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, and child-labor laws to tackle declining social mobility and his era’s glaring income inequalities. He pressed for government regulation of monopolies to prevent competition-killing concentrations of wealth. He advocated tax benefits for married couples and even greater benefits for couples with children. He was a strong proponent of public education, including vocational training for those without the aptitude or means to attend college.
Roosevelt’s critics, then and now, accuse him of being a closet socialist — and that jibe has driven much of the recent consternation over the comments by Senator McCain. Critics like Beran are right that TR displayed a fondness for government action, though he hardly advocated a “command economy.” TR’s regulation of the railroads, which Beran singles out for criticism, permitted the Interstate Commerce Commission to set a maximum shipping rate in the event of a dispute between the railroad and the shipper. That rate was then subject to court review. This is not exactly Soviet-style central planning.
As for the pure food and drug acts, which Beran also criticizes, these laws prevented the sale in interstate commerce of adulterated foodstuffs and created the first effective regime of food-safety inspections in U.S. history. Such targeted public-safety regulations would seem to be precisely the sort of market-structuring government intervention conservatives should favor.
But it is not so much from TR’s specific policies — some of which were wise, some of which were not — as from his approach to policy that contemporary conservatives can learn. Roosevelt understood that a healthy democracy requires a particular social context in which individual choice is possible and meaningful. It requires strong marriages, strong families, and safe and stable communities — what we might call a robust civil society. It also requires a productive, innovative economy rich in opportunities for workers of every social strata.
TR thought government had a role to play in promoting these things. Government could help strengthen society, including marriage and the family, through its regulatory and tax policies. And it could promote broad-based economic vitality with the same tools.
These remain worthy goals for conservatives searching to find a constructive use for government and a constructive agenda to offer the country. At the very least, Roosevelt’s example should prompt conservatives to think more deeply about what social and economic reforms are needed in our day to allow individuals to direct their own lives and to allow our self-governing society to flourish.
Roosevelt was constantly calling his countrymen to be more, to be better, to improve themselves and their society. He inveighed against “prosperity at any price . . . love of soft-living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.” Instead, he called Americans to temper their self-interest and serve the common good. In sum, he challenged them to live up to their identity as free people. These remain potent conservative themes — not anti-business, but pro-responsibility, pro-service, pro-society, pro-America. We could use more conservatives in the Theodore Roosevelt mold to sound them again.
– Joshua Hawley is a former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts. He is the author of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, published earlier this year by Yale University Press.