Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Should Conservatives Look to TR?

It is not difficult to convince conservatives today that many Progressives -- Wilson, Croly, Goodnow, etc. -- were enemies of the American founding and its principles of limited, constitutional government. But Theodore Roosevelt remains, in some ways at least, an attractive figure for some conservatives.

A few weeks ago, the very capable Andy Busch posted an editorial which pointed to certain virtues in TR’s progressivism (while being careful to criticize other elements of it). I have offered a friendly critique of his argument in an essay recently posted here.

Discussions - 11 Comments

RJ-

Agreed, agreed, agreed, this fascination with TR is a short dead end street. But there is one aspect of Progressive Era governance that needs more reflection on our part (your book on Wilson is helping to prompt this; perhaps it will come up on the panel next week): the idea of "expert administration." Now one obvious objection to expert administration is a practical one: turns out the "expertise" of the experts is often wrong; in other words, bureaucrats have a tendency to be in-expert.

But on a more theoretical plane, which is where Wilson and the Progs begin, it is not clear what the alternative is to some problems of modern governance. A good example I think is FDA regulation of drug approval. The FDA gets a lot of things wrong and moves too slowly, but what is the alternative to some form of this? Would we really want Congress voting on individual drug approvals? I don’t think so.

Even if we restore the principles of natural right to our constitutionalism, it is not clear how these kinds of problems of scale are to be handled. The Progressives were not perhaps wrong about this aspect of the modern problem.

And who could possibly give any credit to a guy who said this:

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else."

Theodore Roosevelt in the Kansas City Star
May 7, 1918

Yeah, but note that TR didn’t say that when he was in the White House; he said it when there was a Democrat in office. And I fully agree--criticism of Woodrow Wilson was fully appropriate.

And criticism of Bush is fully appropriate today.

It might be noted that Wilson encouraged the passage of some anti-sedition laws. I’m not quite certain about the specifics of the laws, but I do think that some people were arrested because of it. Anti-war speech was outlawed, etc., and I believe the Supreme Court upheld the law. Although not tied to government action, people also burned books featuring the German language, and some State and local governments outlawed the teaching of German as a language. Saurkrat (spelling?) was also renamed Liberty Cabbage.

People complaining about the "repressive" Bush regime, the one always waiting to take away their free speech rights, might compare today’s laws with those laws. I suggest there is no comparison, and people today are merely whining, or have a psychological need to be "oppressed" so that they might feel heroic and good about themselves.

Steve, assuming you’re accurate on those things that you "think" and "believe" happened, that may indeed be somewhat worse than today. Is your point that as long as we don’t reach those depths everything is necessarily fine? That’s the message I’m hearing there. Personally, I don’t feel oppressed, heroic or good. And I’m still not finding your "things could be worse" rationalizing to be very reassuring about the present situation. Amateurish psychobabble to dismiss political opponents.

Just recently the head of the American Legion called for banning anti-war demonstrations, and I visited the House cafeteria where they changed French Fries to Freedom Fries. Secy. of Edu. Paige likened teacher’s unions to terrorists. And we had people burning and crushing Dixie Chicks CDs for whatshername’s treasonous remark at a UK concert (not mirrored on the album). The government is good at ignoring dissenters; Bush likens them to "focus groups." Additionally, Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter & Co. are doing their part to threaten any angry rabble-rousers. Michelle Malkin pushed for internment camps for The Swarthy Ones. I could go on, but why bother?

Chris

I merely wanted to show that people complaining have little historical perspective. I used history to establish some sort of a baseline, and argued that things concerning civil liberties are not bad or even in jeopardy. No one is throwing large amounts of Qur’ans into fires (though it would be interesting to see what would happen if we did), we still have Arabic horses (I think), and people are not going to jail because they oppose the war, and/or Bush’s handling of it.

I think the left’s (or at least the radical left’s) inability to view Bush as an average President (not the best, not the worst) is most amusing. Some people seriously think Bush is like Hitler, and all that stuff. I offered a reason for the left’s belief of such assertions: they feel a need to be persecuted so they can form stronger bonds and so they can be heros in the present, and at some later date.

Can you offer a plausible reason for why the radical left seriously thinks Bush is the moral equivalent to Hitler? I offered my theory, I would like to see yours.

Just recently the head of the American Legion called for banning anti-war demonstrations, and I visited the House cafeteria where they changed French Fries to Freedom Fries. Secy. of Edu. Paige likened teacher’s unions to terrorists. And we had people burning and crushing Dixie Chicks CDs for whatshername’s treasonous remark at a UK concert (not mirrored on the album). The government is good at ignoring dissenters; Bush likens them to "focus groups." Additionally, Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter & Co. are doing their part to threaten any angry rabble-rousers. Michelle Malkin pushed for internment camps for The Swarthy Ones. I could go on, but why bother?

Indeed, what would be the point, because you obviously have a problem distinguishing between real violations of individual rights (i.e., things that the government does) and private expressions of opinion (which are themselves the exercise of individual rights). If what’s-her-name from the Dixie Chicks has the right to criticize the president, why don’t individuals have the right to destroy the band’s CDs (assuming, of course, that these people were destroying their own property, and not someone else’s). There’s a world of difference between ignoring dissenters and locking them up; where in the heck does the Constitution guarantee us the right not to be ignored? Finally, Michelle Malkin may talk about interning Arab-Americans, but that’s as far as it’s gone; we have a president who immediately after 9/11 specifically denied that the problem was Islam, and denounced attacks on Arab-Americans. That’s quite a difference from FDR’s policy of actually interning Japanese-Americans.

Pop quiz: which president is idolized by American liberals--FDR or George W. Bush?

John Moser: You’re absolutely correct that people have every right to destroy CDs or ignore dissenters, and that there’s a huge difference between ignoring and incarcerating. But I think the fear is that the rabid, vitriolic reaction to any sort of dissent was just the beginning. Why angrily smash a band’s CDs that don’t contain any anti-Bush lyrics simply because one member of that band made an anti-Bush remark? Why change the name of French fries to "Freedom fries?" Why even suggest that Arab-Americans be interned?

I don’t think any of that can be really be labeled merely "ignoring." It’s insulting and disturbing to be accused of prefering bin Laden to Bush or "hating freedom" for merely questioning a war or criticizing the President, but many on the right (like Dain) have made those very accusations. There’s a general feeling that the "you’re either with us or against us" statement didn’t just apply to other countries.

But I think the fear is that the rabid, vitriolic reaction to any sort of dissent was just the beginning. Why angrily smash a band’s CDs that don’t contain any anti-Bush lyrics simply because one member of that band made an anti-Bush remark? Why change the name of French fries to "Freedom fries?" Why even suggest that Arab-Americans be interned?

I agree with you that these are silly responses. However, an examination of history--both domestic and international--suggests that they are extremely tame given the circumstances. In times of national crisis the natural tendency is for people to rally to each other and to their leaders, and to distrust those who refuse to do likewise. And sure, this can be abused by the people in power--anyone remember Clinton’s lame attempt to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on "right-wing radio"? But instead of asking why an atmosphere emerged in the wake of 9/11 that was suspicious of dissent, we might well ask why that atmosphere was not a lot more oppressive.

It’s insulting and disturbing to be accused of prefering bin Laden to Bush or "hating freedom" for merely questioning a war or criticizing the President, but many on the right (like Dain) have made those very accusations.

Sure it’s insulting and disturbing, but such accusations are easily made, and rhetorically quite effective, so nobody should be surprised that people use them. And their use certainly isn’t limited to conservatives--I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been accused of being a racist for opposing affirmative action.

John, similar to what Steve Sparks did in comment 5, I merely listed a few anti-dissent actions that have occurred in the last couple years, off the top of my head. While I didn’t demarcate the government actions from the private as Sparks did, I can distinguish between them, and presume most readers here can as well. Didn’t feel it was necessary to point that out. I was trying to very briefly describe the sociopolitical atmosphere, not simply govt. actions.

Despite some warnings from Ari Fleischer and Rumsfeld for people to "watch what they do" and "watch what they say," and the FBI making some visits to political artists and activists, I think that thus far the Bush administration has not found it very necessary to make really extraordinary efforts to rein in dissent. While I certainly don’t see Bush as an average president (um...is "misoverestimitate" a Bushism yet?), I also don’t think he’s the "moral equivalent to Hitler" and haven’t seen or heard anyone seriously suggest that. But need it be pointed out that one can be a poor, or even dangerous, leader long before they have reached equivalency with Adolph? This reminds me of the similarly low standards that the right has been applying to the Gitmo and Iraq prison camps. This notion that as long as something/someone isn’t as bad as Auschwitz/Hitler, then we should stop "whining," well, that’s a disturbing benchmark to set.

I don’t think someone is necessarily racist just because they oppose affirmative action.

I don’t idolize FDR, either. Certainly FDR’s internment camps should be thoroughly examined in history books, as should the Downing Street Memo, and the Rumsfeld/Gonzalez papers regarding torture at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

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