Wednesday, July 30, 2008

We Are All Theodore Roosevelts Now

While I have yet to conduct an empirical analysis, I can say with near certainty that the past couple of months have featured more odd references and comparisons to Theodore Roosevelt than to any other figure in American history. Christopher Nolan apparently remarked that his reincarnated Batman is based on a particular reading of Edmund Morris' The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Today, we learn that an ABC interviewer once compared Osama Bin Laden to TR--in an interview with Bin Laden in the late 1990s. By far the most frequent obeisance to Teddy has come from the McCain campaign and its minions, a subject I will return to later. (For a head start, see McCain sample rousing TR speech in a recent campaign ad, and the usually accurate Eric Rauchway who opines that Roosevelt was kind of different.)

Everyone, it seems, has his or her uses for the brilliant, complicated, and inconsistent Teddy these days. I am no exception. My interest in TR, like many others I suspect, was aroused by reading John Cooper's excellent Warrior and the Priest this summer. Together with T.J. Jackson Lears' No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, a far different picture of TR emerged than the one I had previously imagined. Given that TR was a president during this period we call the Progressive era, I had always grappled with Roosevelt as a figure dealing with the same emerging broad problems most historians have associated with the time: as a member of a particular class and ethnic background whose influence was quickly waning; as the executive of the state in an age of the first billion dollar trust; and as commander and chief in the years following America's first successful attempt to expand its economic and political power outside of the continent. The dominant ideology of Roosevelt I had always took be simple: the need and will to assert the power of the nation-state so as to put big business (that is, monopoly capitalism) in its place. Thus, although Roosevelt was in practice not much of a "trust buster," as we are taught in school, it was true that should a company egregiously overstep its boundaries contrary to the express wishes of the government, it would be prosecuted. Likewise, if big business thought U.S. foreign policy should dedicate itself to providing predictable commitments to secure their investments, they would discover that it was hegemony, not merely economic power, that drove the government, etc.

What the Cooper and Lears books demonstrate, however, is that the implications of Roosevelt's
ideology were quite contrary to the dominant trends of the time. His embrace of the "strenuous life," of militarism, and national greatness he believed could come only at the expense of America's obsessive concern with material possessions. While economic issues had always dominated political debate among the average American voter--currency and tariff reform being the two most salient--Roosevelt believed the cure to the nation's ills lay elsewhere, via non-economic and material means. As Cooper wrote, "with his heroic virtues and renunciation of materialism, he represented a road not taken for American conservatism" (219).

With McCain, I do think we are seeing conservatism take this road. His and TR's shared militarism and "America is awesome and should be awesome" project in many ways explain why they both put economic matters in a distant second. The daily material concerns of Americans is beneath them and insignificant when measured against the such unifying and edifying activities as public service, military victory, and minor though symbolic domestic reforms. I can neither recall nor imagine any other candidate, other than these two who in the history of this country would readily admit that he was not adequately informed (or concerned) with economics. While the jury is still out as to what this kind of conservatism would actually amount to, I have a feeling there's a reason American conservatives have eschewed it.


Blogger Scantron said...

I can't speak for the Teddy bits, but what makes you think McCain is like TR qua "renunciation of materialism"? There's a difference between degrees of emphasis and personal codes of ethics. The fact that "the daily material concerns of Americans [are] beneath [him]" is more easily answered by a purely negative reason, i.e. "he doesn't care about their material concerns because he isn't affected by those conditions," than by an attribution of principle, i.e. "he doesn't care because he thinks we shouldn't care because there are better things."

Note also that when you call his interest in economics "a distant second" you are still saying it occupies the secondary position, which is no mean place to be (compared with, say, 14th).

Did George W Bush tout his knowledge of economics? Did Reagan? Does any Republican run on an economic platform other than cut taxes, cut spending, and "free" trade? Those are precisely the things McCain's economic advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer said on the Newshour yesterday. It may be that circumstances in the economy have changed and it seems perverse for Republicans to rely so lazily on these bromides now, but they are part of a continuity, and don't in my mind mark a change.

Obama certainly does look like the more economically informed candidate here, though. His recent meetings with Bernanke, Paulson, Volcker, Summers, Buffett, and Rubin show his concern to look serious (McCain has met with Bernanke and Paulson too, though). Wall Street has more than come to terms with Obama as well -- this will probably be the first time since 1994 securities and investment has spent more on Dems than the GOP.

11:16 PM  

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