In recent months, American progressives have gotten nostalgic for a “Roosevelt-style” presidency. I agree with those progressives, but I think they are nostalgic for the wrong Roosevelt.
Democrats are nostalgic for President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) because of the growing coronavirus depression. I disagree, America doesn’t need another FDR. Instead, America needs another Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York).
21st Century America needs another TR, not another FDR. Both President Roosevelts were great reformers and presidents, but Teddy Roosevelt was the better President and the better man.
Why we need another Theodore Roosevelt
More importantly, Theodore Roosevelt (unlike FDR) was a fearless fighter and tireless crusader. Franklin spent his career going along with the party and making backroom deals. Theodore spent his career challenging, opposing, and fighting the power structure.
In his career, FDR always backed down in the face of power. TR’s career was a constant challenge to power. Theodore Roosevelt took the giant risks Franklin was afraid to consider.
For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to challenge Jim Crow’s Racism. In fact, FDR was so frightened of racist Southern Democrats that he opposed laws against lynching. Additionally, FDR refused to fight for single-payer healthcare even at the height of the Great Depression.
Instead, FDR’s modern reputation comes from the erroneous belief that he ended the Great Depression. In reality, World War II brought an end the Great Depression. Thus, the real architects of America’s 20th Century prosperity were Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo.
FDR merely reaped the benefits of the seeds those monsters sowed. Moreover, economic data shows FDR’s New Deal policies did not end the Depression. For example, America’s unemployment rate rose to 19% in 1938 after five years of New Deal programs. America’s unemployment rate only fell below 10% in 1941, when war production was booming.
The Education of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt matters to us because he lived in an age with disturbing similarities to our time. Teddy’s reaction to the evils of his age shows us a way forward in our troubled.
Theodore Roosevelt was a child of wealth and privilege who grew up in the Frist Gilded Age of the late 19th Century. The hallmarks of the Gilded Age were incredible political corruption, rising income inequality, great wealth, growing racism, widespread voter suppression, terrible poverty, political unrest, and widespread violence.
Interestingly, Teddy Roosevelt did not begin as a radical or a crusader. Instead, TR began as a conventional Republican and a firm believer in capitalism, the political status quo, and America.
Two dramatic experiences transformed TR’s worldview. First in 1880, voters in Manhattan’s 21st District elected Roosevelt to the New York State Assembly.
In the 1880s, the New York State Legislature was a cesspool of corruption controlled by political machines and dominated by Big Business and Big Money. Reform bills often died in committee, while big corporations’ pet measures sailed through the legislature. Some legislators even shook down companies with special legislation.
Roosevelt saw the destructive effects of money on government first hand. In the Assembly, Roosevelt became a reformer challenging both Wall Street and the Political Machines.
The Transformation of Theodore Roosevelt
One important experience for TR was an encounter with pioneer union leader Samuel Gompers. Theodore was serving on a committee when Gompers lobbied for a bill banning remote work by cigar makers.
Gompers was trying to end the exploitation of children in apartment sweat shops. The union leader shocked Roosevelt with his description of poverty and squalor in Manhattan tenements. Roosevelt refused to believe the horrific conditions Gompers described existed in his hometown of Manhattan.
Gompers offered to show Roosevelt the reality of the poverty he was fighting. The always-adventurous Teddy agreed to go along. TR became horrified by what Gompers showed him families living in squalor.
In particular, Roosevelt was horrified by two immigrant families of several people living and working in two rooms. Worst of all the terrible conditions, TR saw were just a few miles from his Manhattan birthplace.*
Theodore received a horrifying introduction to the dangers of poverty, income inequality, and the shortcomings of capitalism. Consequently, TR’s transformation from a conventional conservative to a radical reformer began.
The Environmental Catastrophe that Made Theodore Roosevelt
The next transforming experience in Theodore Roosevelt’s life came in North Dakota’s Badlands. After the deaths of his beloved mother and first wife Alice, Roosevelt fled west to become a rancher.
Theodore enjoyed a few years of ranching but eventually resumed his New York life at the urging of his second wife Edith. However, Roosevelt kept his North Dakota ranch.
In 1887, while on his second Honeymoon in Florence, TR read a frightening newspaper article. A great blizzard had swept through the Badlands and killed most of the cattle.
A few months later, Teddy returned to his Elkhorn Ranch to assess the damage and found a terrifying spectacle. The once rich Prairie had become a wasteland covered with the carcasses of dead cattle. TR, a passionate hunter, found the formerly abundant wild game was scarce.
The cause of the catastrophe was obvious; overgrazing of the plains by enormous hordes of cattle brought by corporate ranchers. The corporate ranchers had destroyed Teddy’s favorite hunting grounds; and their own source of income, with irresponsible practices. Roosevelt received a first-hand education in the fragility of the environment and the destructive power of unrestrained capitalism.
Theodore Roosevelt became a conservationist and skeptical of capitalism because of his experiences in the Badlands. TR’s experience matters to our age because he lived in a time of ecological catastrophe driven by unrestrained capitalism.
Today’s ecological catastrophes; such as Climate Change, are far greater than those in the First Gilded Age but the situation is similar. When he returned from the Badlands in 1887, the Theodore Roosevelt we love; the fearless fighter, pioneering environmentalist, and tireless reformer was born.
Theodore the Politician
Theodore Roosevelt became a great leader and reformer because he was willing to work within the established political system.
TR remained loyal to the Republican Party despite its flaws. Roosevelt remained within the party, campaigned for its candidates, and supported its policies. Theodore even took the thankless job of being the Grand Old Party’s sacrificial lamb candidate for Mayor of New York in 1886. Moreover, TR accepted another thankless office; Vice President, then viewed as a political dead end, in 1900.
The willingness to work within and for the party, gave Theodore to opportunity to rise to high office. Party leaders owed Roosevelt favors they had to fill. More importantly, Roosevelt learned to use political offices as a “Bully Pulpit” to promote his causes.
As a New York City police commissioner, Governor of New York State, and President TR was in a position to promote his reforms and policies. In those offices, Roosevelt used the media to take his case straight to the people and bypass the corrupt political infrastructure.
As governor of New York State between 1897 and 1900, Theodore worked closely with the notorious Easy Boss Thomas C. Platt. The corrupt Platt ran New York’s Republican Party and despised reformers such as Roosevelt.
Teddy, made peace with Platt by allowing the Easy Boss to pick appointments to some state offices. However, Platt had to choose the appointees from a list Roosevelt provided. The arrangement allowed reform while avoiding an all-out war with Platt. Rooesvelt’s peace with Platt, which eventually collapsed allowed for some reform.
Roosevelt’s Big Stick
Yet Theodore also understood when to buck the system. In 1912, a corrupt Republican establishment blocked Roosevelt’s campaign for the nomination. For once in his life, TR stepped outside the two-party system and ran on the Third-Party Bull Moose or Progressive ticket.
In 1912, TR became the only third-party presidential nominee in the 20th Century to get more Electoral College and popular votes than a major party candidate. Roosevelt received 88 Electoral College votes and 3.484 million popular votes more than President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio). Consequently, Democrat Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) won the election in a landslide with 435 Electoral College votes.
Roosevelt’s willingness to risk a third-party run sent a message to political leaders. The message was take progressivism and radical reform seriously or lose. Even though Teddy lost, his actions drove both major parties to the left.
Over the next decade, the US political system went through a radical transformation. Formerly unthinkable radical measures including elected U.S. Senators, an income tax, the Federal Reserve System, and votes for women became law.
Those reforms only became reality because political leaders were frightened of more third-party challenges. By using the Big Stick of a third Party Roosevelt forced reform.
Theodore’s Flexibility of Mind
One of Theodore Roosevelt’s greatest strengths was his willingness to change his mind and consider new ideas no matter what their source.
In the 1912 presidential contest, TR ran on a platform that included federal old age pensions, single-payer health insurance, and unemployment insurance. Many historians believe the 1912 Progressive Party platform became the basis of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security plan in 1935.
The inspiration for TR’s social insurance program was the German Empire, the first government to give its people national old-age pensions and single payer healthcare. Roosevelt copied his program from the Great German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
Under Bismarck, the German Empire became the first nation to adopt a social-insurance program in 1889. Like TR, Bismarck realized that the insecurity, poverty, and income inequality of 19th Century capitalism were the real roots of radical politics and violence.
Roosevelt’s willingness to abandon American exceptionalism and seek ideas in other nations improved life for all Americans. Theodore Roosevelt despised the German Empire and was horrified by its militarism and authoritarianism. Yet he realized the Germans had some policies that could benefit ordinary Americans and copied them.
Modern Americans could learn from TR by adopting the policies of foreign countries. For example, we could look to countries as diverse as India, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and even the People’s Republic of China for ideas to fix our broken welfare state and economy. Roosevelt’s story shows that Americans can adopt the good ideas of foreign countries without practicing their destructive ideologies.
Theodore Roosevelt reminds us that true patriotism requires flexibility and open minds. TR understood that “America First” is an intellectual and political dead end that will cripple the nation.
Who is the New Theodore Roosevelt?
In the final analysis, America could use a 21st Century Theodore Roosevelt. Hence we need to identify that person.
Fortunately, there are some individuals with Roosevelt tendencies among our political leadership. I think the best possibility for a new TR is failed Presidential candidate Andrew Yang (D-New York).
Yang’s life story is similar to TR’s, he began as a conventional neoliberal believing that entrepreneurship and good jobs could America’s problems. Yang founded Venture for America a program that encourages college graduates to become entrepreneurs and create jobs in Middle America.
To promote Venture for America, Yang went out to the Rust Belt and realized that the rot in America went far deeper than the lack of jobs. Yang learned that capitalism was failing ordinary Americans and set out to fix the system.
Yang’s experiences mirror those of Theodore Roosevelt who started out as a conventional Republican and ended up promoting radical solutions including social insurance. Accordingly, Yang is a tireless advocate of the Basic Income which he calls the Freedom Dividend.
Yang took a Teddyesque course of action in 2020 by dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary contest before Super Tuesday and endorsing Joe Biden (D-Delaware). I think Yang was in a position to win at least state on Super Tuesday. By dropping out, Yang did Biden a favor that the presidential nominee will have to repay.
Progressives vilified Yang for that action but it could put him a position for greater political influence. There is now talk of appointing Yang to the cabinet as U.S. Secretary of Labor or a new Secretary of Technology.
Such offices could give Yang national stature and a bully pulpit. Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt became a national figure through the offices of US Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
Beyond Yang, there is U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California). Harris set aside her radical beliefs and presidential aspirations to assume the thankless position of Joe Biden’s (D-Delaware) running mate.
Hence, Harris could follow TR’s path of ascending to the Presidency by replacing a conservative establishment standard bearer. Theodore Roosevelt became president after the assassination of William McKinley (R-Ohio) in 1901.
Harris could follow TR’s example if the 78 year-old Biden dies or is driven out by ill-health. Interestingly, many progressives are attacking Harris for her pragmatism and willingness to work within the party.
Teddy suffered similar attacks from First Gilded Age radicals. Ironically, those progressives could be attacking the one person in the strongest position to carry out their agenda.
Could We Have a Republican Roosevelt Again?
There are some other intriguing possibilities for a new TR in the Republican Party. For instance, US Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) coauthored a radical wage guarantee plan based on a proposal from Denmark in April 2020. Pundits regard Hawley as a rising conservative star.
Other Republicans who could follow the TR path include U.S. Senator Corey Gardner (R-Colorado), a conservationist who signed onto Hawley’s radical wage proposal. There’s also U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) who sometimes flirts with leftist ideas.
One thing is clear however, 21st America needs the kind of leadership Theodore Roosevelt provided. Unfortunately, there appears to be no 21st Century Theodore Roosevelt to lead us out of the Second Gilded Age. Hopefully, another TR will appear soon.
*See Theodore Roosevelt: A Life by Nathan Miller pages 144-145 for Gompers education of TR.
* See Theodore Roosevelt: A Life by Nathan Miller page 188 for the tragic end of TR’s western adventure.
Some other good books on Theodore Roosevelt include:
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
For a frightening yet optimistic look at the problems facing America see: