Tag: progressivism

Teddy Roosevelt Is No Model for a President

Cato senior fellow Jim Powell, author of Bully Boy: The Truth about Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy, writes at Forbes.com today that TR is a bad model for President Obama:

Theodore Roosevelt was the man who, in 1906, encouraged progressives to promote a federal income tax after it was struck down by the Supreme Court and given up for dead.  He declared that “too much cannot be said against the men of great wealth.”  He vowed to “punish certain malefactors of great wealth.”

Perhaps TR’s view was rooted in an earlier era when the greatest fortunes were made by providing luxuries for kings, like fine furniture, tapestries, porcelains and works of silver, gold and jewels.  Since the rise of industrial capitalism, however, the greatest fortunes generally have been made by serving millions of ordinary people.  One thinks of the Wrigley chewing gum fortune, the Heinz pickle fortune, the Havemeyer sugar fortune, the Shields shaving cream fortune, the Colgate toothpaste fortune, the Ford automobile fortune and, more recently, the Jobs Apple fortune.  TR inherited money from his family’s glass-importing and banking businesses, and maybe his hostility to capitalist wealth was driven by guilt.

Like Obama, TR was a passionate believer in big government – actually the first president to promote it since the Civil War.  He said, “I believe in power…I did greatly broaden the use of executive power…The biggest matters I managed without consultation with anyone, for when a matter is of capital importance, it is well to have it handled by one man only …I don’t think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man’s hands.”

Also like Obama, TR was almost entirely focused on politics – personalities, speeches, publicity and so on.  He seemed to be concerned about an economic issue only when it became a big problem, particularly if it was big enough to affect the next election.  There wasn’t much evidence of long-term thinking beyond the next election.  Certainly there was no evident awareness of unintended consequences.

Much more here.

Toward Restoring Constitutional Government

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

In light of today’s reading of the Constitution in the new House, what misinterpretations of the Constitution do you regularly see in American politics? And are House Republicans implying that the previous Democratic majority did not have a firm grasp of the government’s founding document?

My response:

Thanks to the Tea Party, as I wrote in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Congress seems to be rediscovering the Constitution – or at least many House Republicans seem to be. When members read the document aloud today, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, they’ll be throwing down a marker: “We take the Constitution seriously, and intend to abide by its principles.” If true, how refreshing.

This is not a partisan matter. As many Republicans have said – albeit, some only after November’s elections – both parties for years have ignored the Constitution’s limits on political power. To confirm that, we need look no further than to James Madison, the principal author of the document, who assured skeptical ratifiers in Federalist 45 that the powers authorized by the Constitution were “few and defined.” That hardly describes today’s federal behemoth.

Thus, the main “misinterpretation” has been over the very idea of constitutional limits – particularly as inherent in the doctrine of enumerated powers, the principle that “We the People” gave Congress only 18 enumerated powers. The Commerce Clause, for example, was written mainly to ensure interstate commerce unfettered by state interference, not to enable Congress to regulate every aspect of life. And the General Welfare Clause was meant to limit Congress’s taxing power pursuant to its enumerated ends to objects of national, not particular, concern: it wasn’t meant to enable Congress to redistribute private wealth at will.

The great change came during the New Deal, of course, after FDR’s infamous Court packing threat, when a cowed Court began turning the Constitution on its head. But don’t take my word for that constitutional legerdemain. Here’s Roosevelt, writing to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1935: “I hope your committee will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.” And here’s Rexford Tugwell, one of the principal architects of the New Deal, reflecting on his handiwork some 30 years later: “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document [i.e., the Constitution] intended to prevent them.” They knew exactly what they were doing.

So when today’s liberals tell us the Constitution authorizes the vast federal programs that now reduce so many Americans to government dependents, they reveal their historical ignorance – or their political ambition. And they’re reduced to the silliness we saw in Tuesday’s New York Times, where the Times editorialists ranted against today’s constitutional reading as “a theatrical production of unusual pomposity.” Illustrating their own penchant for pomposity, they then dug into their bag of adjectives and let loose: “a self-important flourish,” “their Beltway insider ritual of self-glorification,” “a presumptuous and self-righteous act,” “an air of vacuous fundamentalism,” ”all of this simply eyewash,” “a ghastly waste of time.” They must have been emotionally drained when they finished their screed.

The Constitution is not a blank slate, details to follow, as decided by transient majorities. Were it that, it never would have been ratified. After all, we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of overweening government, and fought a Civil War to institute at last the grand principles of the Declaration of Independence. Nor will those principles be restored in a day. But today’s reading will start a debate that is sorely needed, at the end of which one can hope for restoration.

Podhoretz on Palin

Today Politico Arena asks:

Comment please on Podhotetz on Palin

My response:

To complete Norman Podhoretz’s thought in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “I knew Ron Reagan. Ron Reagan was a friend of mine. Governor Palin, you’re no Ron Reagan – but I like you all the same.” And that distinguishes Podhoretz from those “conservative intellectuals” whose antipathy to Sarah Palin and “the loathsome Tea Party rabble” is ultimately explained, he believes, by “the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers.”

To be sure, that “class bias” explains a good measure of the hostility Mrs. Palin has faced, especially among that often diverse band called neoconservatives. For like their counterparts on the left, most neoconservatives find their roots in progressivism, not in limited government classical liberalism, and hence in the idea that society should be “run” by elites trained at the “best schools” – the difference being that in engineering society the neoconservatives march to different drummers than modern liberals. Both camps have greater faith in government than does ”the common man,” who is distrusted by both camps (not always without reason), although Podhoretz seems more trustful than most in his band.

Where he errs, I believe, is in his too breezy comparison of Palin to Reagan. There are similarities of course – especially in the reactions of elites to both, on which his essay dwells – the most important of which is that both show a certain common sense approach to the world and to public affairs. Their intuitions seem sound, that is. But it takes more than sound intuition to be a successful president. Ronald Reagan was always underestimated. Unlike so many of his elite critics, left and right, he came from humble beginnings, but he was an autodidact his whole life. He read and understood economists, political theorists, historians, and biographers. That knowledge, coupled with a wealth of experience, including two successful terms as governor of the nation’s largest state, distinguishes him from Mrs. Palin. Both have that common sense that enables them to speak to “the common man,” but the similarity ends there.

Perhaps Mrs. Palin will find the life she has carved out since leaving the governorship of Alaska will be attractive enough to encourage her to continue in it. My sense, however, is that the millions of Americans who today are deeply troubled by the direction the country is taking under the Obama administration are still looking for candidates who combine the understanding, the common sense, and the humility that Ronald Reagan so clearly embodied.

Populism: Good and Bad

Today, Politico Arena asks:

What is it about the word “populist”? (these days)

My response:

“Populist” (or “populism”), in its American usage, invokes the “common man,” yet the idea’s origins – in ”the people” or “the polis” – can be traced to ancient Greek democracy and, in particular, to political demagoguery.  Both Plato and Aristotle had reservations about democracy as a system of government precisely because it was susceptible to corruption by populist appeals to superstition and error.  In America, populism has had a long and varied history, but it is most often associated with the Populist Party that was formed in 1891 and, in particular, with the fiery speeches of the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1896 and 1900, William Jennings Bryan, and his famous ”cross of gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Thus, in a fundamental way, populism stands opposed to elitism, yet it’s more complicated than that.  On one hand, the populism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries contrasted with the Progressivism of the era, which held that society should be organized and run by “professionals” trained at the best schools.  (Thus, the emergence of political “science,” as distinct from the older tradition of political philosophy.)  But on the other hand, Progressives themselves purported to speak for “the people,” even if in practice they were often contemptuous of the people’s capacity to govern themselves, susceptible as the people were to the appeals of demagogues.

At the end of the day, therefore, populism is a double-edged sword.  Used pejoratively, it stands for the idea that politicians, to obtain or preserve political power, will appeal to base popular sentiments or mistaken (often economic or legal) ideas.  A good example is Obama’s reaction last week to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, rooted in the First Amendment’s guarantee of political speech:  He called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”  There is an element of truth to that sentiment, of course, because the system of government that has evolved in America under the influence of Progressive “professionals” has endowed those professionals (read: the governing class, in all its reaches) with unprecedented power over “the people,” who often feel powerless as a result.  But demagogic appeals like that or like others we’ve heard lately from Obama will only exacerbate that problem.  By contrast, a “populist” appeal that seeks to return power to people (N.B.: I did not say, as in the ’60s, “power to the people”) – power to run their own lives, free from unwarranted government regulation or dependency – is a side of the idea we hear too seldom.  Yet it’s what our founding documents are about.  They established not simply popular government but limited popular government – ensuring the right of the people to govern themselves, not mainly through government but individually or in voluntary association with others.  It is that liberty that Progressive elitists who “knew better” – the folks in Cambridge who voted 84 to 15 against Scott Brown – have gradually extinguished.