Osawatomie, Kansas, is where Theodore Roosevelt famously announced his embrace of progressive politics—from atop a kitchen table, no less, displaying the irrepressible verve that led Henry Adams to call him a “steam engine in trousers.” President Barack Obama, not famous for irrepressible verve, went to Osawatomie last Tuesday looking to inject some life into his flagging political fortunes. The effect was more like a trip to an intellectual mausoleum.
Obama’s rhetoric sounded dated, and his policy prescriptions too. But that should come as no surprise. Obama’s determination to pluck up the agenda of the 26th president only highlights the fact that American liberalism has fallen into philosophical decrepitude. The American left has not had a significant new idea since the progressive period. Yet the progressives’ political program has been tried—fulsomely—without notable success. Thus the plight of Barack Obama: To win reelection, he must sell the country an agenda that is neither new nor promising as a solution to maladies that same agenda helped create.
Still, Obama’s speech should be a call to arms—for conservatives. Theodore Roosevelt was right to insist at Osawatomie that “our country, this great Republic” will prosper in the long run only with an economy in which “each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.” The progressive program he advocated, however, conspicuously failed to deliver on that ambition. It is up to conservatives to undo Roosevelt’s Osawatomie mistake and forge a better way.
That Obama is no TR should go without saying. Roosevelt was justly renowned as a man of action, as politically bold as he was personally courageous. Obama, by contrast, prefers to lead from behind. But Obama’s choice to begin his reelection campaign in Osawatomie was in one sense entirely appropriate. That is where Theodore Roosevelt made the fateful choice to embrace government activism. The consequences still linger.
Roosevelt came to Osawatomie in 1910 vying to regain control of a progressive movement that had splintered badly after his departure from the White House the previous year. Until that time, progressivism had been a largely Republican phenomenon. Indeed, the progressive movement was essentially a reformist group within conservatism, with Roosevelt as its leader. During his tenure as president, TR championed new regulations to guarantee the safety of food and medicines; new disclosure requirements for corporations; new workplace safety standards; tax support for children and marriage; and a much larger Navy. These policies amounted to a more active federal government, to be sure, but for the purpose of promoting market competition, middle-class mobility, and a strong national defense. Roosevelt was the original Sam’s Club Republican.
Republican progressives revered Roosevelt, but they never trusted his successor, the affable yet politically bumbling William Howard Taft. By 1910, with Roosevelt out of political life, the progressive movement was rent by personal infighting and sharp disagreement over the shape of future reforms. For his part, Roosevelt had developed his own doubts in his year on safari and then touring Europe about the Republican establishment’s commitment to reform, and, perhaps influenced by visits to European capitals where Bismarckian social planning was in vogue, arrived in Osawatomie determined to steer progressivism in a more statist direction.
On that humid day in August, Roosevelt led the progressive movement out of the conservative coalition, articulating a set of ideas that would come to define American liberalism instead. He began by identifying with prescience the troubling dichotomies of the industrial age. The country had never been more prosperous, but the wages available to low-skilled workers were low, even paltry, the hours long, the work dangerous. American cities had become sites of devastating poverty. And there was a real danger that unless wages and working conditions improved, the bridge between the working and middle classes might collapse altogether, creating a permanent underclass that Roosevelt feared could turn to violence or revolution.
Rather than try to reform America’s emerging brand of industrial capitalism, however, Roosevelt advocated a turn to government. “Real democracy,” he said, would never come until Americans supported “more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.” He called for a bevy of new federal laws to curb the influence of the “enormously wealthy and economically powerful men” whose “swollen fortunes” he said threatened the country. Among his proposals: a progressive income tax, steep inheritance taxes, federal licensing of all interstate corporations, social insurance for the injured and elderly, and limits on businesses’ campaign contributions. Roosevelt called his program a “new nationalism,” but nationalistic statism would have been more accurate.
A century later, Barack Obama is still sounding these themes, with much the same language. But there is no boldness to this program now. It is pure standpattism. The progressive agenda Roosevelt adumbrated on the Kansas plains has been tried over the last century—and how—from the corporatist policies of Woodrow Wilson’s administration to the hyperactive government-by-agency that was the New Deal, before finally reaching its full flowering with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Following Roosevelt’s lead, liberals have advocated government as the guarantor of equality, as the principal agent of national improvement, and indeed, as the source of shared national identity.
The experiment has not gone well. Many of the basic ills Roosevelt identified in 1910 plague the country today, a testament to progressivism’s failure. Since the 1960s, the prospects of working-class laborers have steadily declined. Inequality has worsened. America’s cities are still places of shocking poverty and crime; thanks to the decay of the two-parent family, the failure of government schools, and the lack of decent working-class jobs, whole generations have found themselves trapped in economic and social squalor. Meanwhile, the lavish entitlement system the progressive model recommended has brought the country to the brink of financial ruin.
Obama does not have a viable alternative to offer. That is the sorry fact that has been true of Obama from the first, though resolutely ignored by the national media—his agenda is utterly, boringly, inexcusably familiar. To the present crisis of unemployment, the worsening condition of less-skilled workers, the problems of poverty and educational failure, Obama offers one solution: more government. Recovery will come with “productive investments,” he said in Osawatomie, meaning more federal spending. And such “investments” are to be funded “by asking everybody to do their fair share”—that is, by raising taxes yet again. This will not do.
Conservatives must find a better way. The place to start is by correcting the error Theodore Roosevelt made in Osawatomie. Roosevelt was not wrong to insist on an economy where each laborer has the opportunity to “show the best that is in him,” and America does not have that economy now.
The solution is not paternalist government, however, but the sort of prudent, structural market reform Roosevelt might have advocated in 1910 had he not been enticed by the false promise of statism. America’s market economy must be broadened to include more individuals in productive work. The goal of government policy should be to foster an environment where every worker can support himself by the work of his own hands, not depend on government payments or social welfare services.
This will require a concerted effort to expand the number and quality of jobs for low-skilled workers. Getting the economy growing again would be a good first start, which means fundamental tax reform that closes out the secret spending of loopholes and deductions in favor of lower marginal rates. But it is just as important to see that economic growth reaches those most in need. Tax incentives for businesses that hire low-skilled workers are one means to this end; converting the Earned Income Tax Credit into a full-fledged wage subsidy is another. In the longer run, the primary and secondary schools in which Americans are educated and prepared for the world must be overhauled. Private associations should be permitted to run state-funded schools, and every parent should have the right to spend her tax dollars on the school that is best for her child.
A century ago, progressives embraced the federal government as the answer to the vexing challenges that marked the industrial age. That route has proved a road to nowhere, and the same challenges remain. Conservatives should lead where Roosevelt did not, toward a broader, more inclusive market economy capable of supporting our great self-government.
Joshua D. Hawley, a law professor at the University of Missouri, is the author of Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.