Posts tagged Theodore Roosevelt

Seasons’ greetings

Here’s an item which seemed appropriate and topical to me, given the occasion.

(I refer, of course, to the occasion of Guy Fawkes Eve.)

I rag on Utne, but of course the reason that I read them is that they do occasionally come through. For example, by reprinting this really excellent article by none other than Gene Healy, about the imperial power of the modern Presidency, for an audience full of comfortable professional-class Progressive Obamarchists:

I’m not a preacher, Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm’s fund-raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm’s mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today’s candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher—and much else besides.

In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is Yes we can! We can, the Democratic candidate promises, not only create a new kind of politics but also transform this country, change the world, and even create a Kingdom right here on earth. With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a cause greater than self-interest, he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office and nourished the soul of a great nation. President George W. Bush, when he was passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the commander in chief as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears to be stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humbly.

— Gene Healy, Utne Reader (September-October 2001): Supreme Warlord of the Earth

Read the whole thing. Along the way you’ll find Healy introducing Utne readers to the basics of Higgs crisis analysis and Bourne’s dictum that War is the Health of the State. The only thing to add to Healy’s analysis is to complete the thought: to stress that the progress of the Presidency from a minor administrative position to an elective dictatorship, and from an elective dictatorship to a world-spanning imperial warlord, was not just some unhappy accident, or the result merely of a a decadent culture, or of a conspiracy against the public interest by a few motivated scoundrels. It was the necessary result of an ever-expanding warfare State, and the ever-expanding warfare State was the necessary result of the whole experiment in a centralized, nationalistic limited government (where the only effective limit on the Executing branch of the government are other branches of government, mainly a legislature composed of aparatchiks from the same national political parties from which the President is drawn). The incentives we [sic] have given for the warlord Presidency are built into the structure of the Party State itself, and while massive changes in cultural attitudes towards the Presidency might check or even temporarily roll back the imperial Presidency, but no lasting or fundamental change will happen without structural change — ideally meaning anarchy and freed-market competition in self-defense and neighborhood defense. Or, at the very least, the abolition of the one-man Presidency, just as such.

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Over My Shoulder #20: Damon W. Root (2006), review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race

You know the rules; here’s the quote. I’ve mentioned before some of the reasons that I refuse to call myself a Progressive, and why I loathe the current vogue for the term on the Left. I alluded to some of the historical reasons for it but didn’t actually spell the details out at the time. Fortunately, while I was riding to work on the bus a couple days ago I found out that a book review from this month’s issue of Reason said just what I wanted to say, at least as far as the topic of race is concerned. (There are some analogous points to be made about the experiences of women, workers, immigrants, and psychiatric patients during the same dark, violent era. But the book under review deals specifically with the relationship between the Progressive movement and the triumph of Jim Crow in its most brutal incarnation.) So, thanks to Damon W. Root and his review of David W. Southern’s The Progressive Era and Race, here’s a good precis of how I learned to start worrying and loathe Progressivism:

The Progressive movement swept America from roughly the early 1890s through the early 1920s, producing a broad popular consensus that government should be the primary agent of social change. To that end, legions of idealistic young crusaders, operating at the local, state, and federal levels, seized and wielded sweeping new powers and enacted a mountain of new legislation, including minimum wage and maximum hour laws, antitrust statutes, restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, appropriations for hundreds of miles of roads and highways, assistance to new immigrants and the poor, women’s suffrage, and electoral reform, among much else.

Today many on the liberal left would like to revive that movement and its aura of social justice. Journalist Bill Moyers, speaking at a conference sponsored by the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future, described Progressivism as one of the country’s great traditions. Progressives, he told the crowd, exalted and extended the original American Revolution. They spelled out new terms of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled a flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history.

Yet the Progressive Era was also a time of vicious, state-sponsored racism. In fact, from the standpoint of African-American history, the Progressive Era qualifies as arguably the single worst period since Emancipation. The wholesale disfranchisement of Southern black voters occurred during these years, as did the rise and triumph of Jim Crow. Furthermore, as the Westminster College historian David W. Southern notes in his recent book, The Progressive Era and Race: Reform and Reaction, 1900–1917, the very worst of it—disfranchisement, segregation, race baiting, lynching—went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism. Racism was the norm, not the exception, among the very crusaders romanticized by today’s activist left.

At the heart of Southern’s flawed but useful study is a deceptively simple question: How did reformers infused with lofty ideals embrace such abominable bigotry? His answer begins with the race-based pseudoscience that dominated educated opinion at the turn of the 20th century. At college, Southern notes, budding progressives not only read exposés of capitalistic barons and attacks on laissez-faire economics by muckraking journalists, they also read racist tracts that drew on the latest anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, eugenics, and medical science.

Popular titles included Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900) and R.W. Shufeldt’s The Negro, a Menace to American Civilization (1907). One bestseller, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), discussed the concept of race suicide, the theory that inferior races were out-breeding their betters. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of many Progressives captivated by this notion: He opposed voting rights for African-American men, which were guaranteed by the 15th amendment, on the grounds that the black race was still in its adolescence.

Such thinking, which emphasized expert opinion and advocated sweeping governmental power, fit perfectly within the Progressive worldview, which favored a large, active government that engaged in technocratic, paternalistic planning. As for reconciling white supremacy with egalitarian democracy, keep in mind that when a racist Progressive championed the working man, the common man, or the people, he typically prefixed the silent adjective white.

For a good illustration, consider Carter Glass of Virginia. Glass was a Progressive state and U.S. senator and, as chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, one of the major architects of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of his state’s massive effort to disfranchise black voters. Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose, he declared to one journalist. To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.

Then there was political scientist John R. Commons, an adviser to the Progressive Wisconsin governor and senator Robert M. LaFollette and a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Immigration Commission. Commons, the author of Races and Immigrants in America (1907), criticized immigration on both protectionist grounds (he believed immigrants depressed wages and weakened labor unions) and racist ones (he wrote that the so-called tropical races were indolent and fickle).

Woodrow Wilson, whose Progressive presidential legacy includes the Federal Reserve System, a federal loan program for farmers, and an eight-hour workday for railroad employees, segregated the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I have recently spent several days in Washington, the black leader Booker T. Washington wrote during Wilson’s first term, and I have never seen the colored people so discouraged and bitter as they are at the present time.

Perhaps the most notorious figure of the era was Benjamin Pitchfork Tillman, a leading Southern Progressive and inveterate white supremacist. As senator from South Carolina from 1895 to 1918, Tillman stumped for Free Silver, the economic panacea of the agrarian populist (and future secretary of state) William Jennings Bryan, whom Tillman repeatedly supported for president. Pitchfork Tillman favored such Progressive staples as antitrust laws, railroad regulations, and public education, but felt the latter was fit only for whites. When you educate a negro, he brayed, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.

— Damon W. Root, Reason (May 2006): When Bigots Become Reformers: The Progressive Era’s shameful record on race, pp. 60–61.

As Southern thoroughly documents, Root notes a bit further down, these examples just begin to scratch the surface. Progressivism was infested with the most repugnant strains of racism. That was no accident. And it wasn’t just some minor blight on a basically good movement. It was part and parcel of Progressivism, its pseudodemocratic anti-radicalism, its sustained assault on autonomous, state-free mutual aid assocations and labor unions, its contemptuous pity for the downtrodden, and its embrace of the government-backed Expert as the natural person to solve their problems for them (whether they liked it or not). It’s long past time for Progressivism to be left in the dustbin of history, for we as a society, and the left as a movement, to progress beyond that kind of adolescent power trip to a theory and practice based on respect, mutuality, solidarity, and freedom. Dump the bosses of your back.

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