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Progressivism, Conservatism and the Revival of Battle for the Soul of America in 2012

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11. PD.

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”

While American democracy is often prosaic, from time to time it gets caught up in an ongoing battle between progressivism and conservatism. Elections, such as 1912, 1936, 1964 and 1980, ask voters to choose between profoundly different visions of the nature’s future, raising such fundamental questions about the nature of rights and the meaning of the Constitution. This election year seems to promise, or portend, another surrogate constitutional convention.  President Barack Obama and the Democrats and Mitt Romney and the Republicans have invoked and drawn inspiration from the election of 1912, the origins of the contest between Progressivism and Conservatism that has reverberated through our own political time.

            Last December, President Obama took up the mantle of Progressivism in an address delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas – the same site where in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt delivered the important “New Nationalism” speech that launched his final election battle, as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party, which he famously dubbed the Bull Moose campaign. Although TR did not win the election, the Bull Moose Campaign had the best showing of any third party before or since, garnering 27.4% of the electoral vote, and spearheaded a three-decade progressive advance against the “gilded age” Republican Party– and its “stand pat” defense of industrial capitalism – culminating in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumph of 1936. The Progressive Party introduced the idea of economic rights, including national health care, and promised to advance the rights of African-Americans, immigrants, and, especially women. With his December 2011 speech, Obama sought to ensure that he first term would not be judged on his record alone, but also would make clear the historic differences that divided Democrats and Republicans. A “ruthless pragmatist” during the first three years of his presidency, he now echoed TR’s Bull Moose Campaign in seeking to rediscover the message of hope and change of his 2008 campaign – and to set the tone for his re-election. Like TR, Obama sought to frame his message as the champion of the middle class:

Roosevelt believed that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It led to a  prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world….But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you can from whomever you can…Our country ‘means nothing unless it means the triumph…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that is in him…

Like TR, too, Obama sought to defy the charge of his opponents that his call for political and economic reform posed a radical challenge to core American values. With a knowing gesture, he continued:

For this, Roosevelt was called a radical, a socialist, even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight hour work day and a minimum wage for women; insurance for the unemployed, the elderly and those with disabilities; political reform [most notably, campaign finance reform]; and a progressive income tax.

If Obama has chosen to play the Bull Moose in this campaign, Mitt Romney and, even more so, Paul Ryan (the newly crowned Philosopher Prince of the GOP) have harked back to the conservatism of William Howard Taft, the GOP incumbent who gave a brave, but failed defense of property and limited constitutional government in 1912, and of Herbert Hoover, the Republican who sought to defy the gale storm of the Great Depression, with a militant defense of “rugged individualism.” The Republican platform in 2012 has been animated, in part, by the Tea Party, but with roots in the Reagan “Revolution” and the hard challenges it posed to the liberal administrative state. Traditional constitutional conservatism had been on the defensive since the 1930s, but regained prominence with Ronald Reagan’s campaign and ascendance to the presidency, in part due to the excesses and failings of well-intentioned liberal programs. The Romney-Ryan campaign marks a culmination of sorts of this view. The campaign is rooted in the belief that 1912 marked the original sin of the country, the departure from our belief in “natural rights” and limited constitutional government, and that President Obama embodies the false prophet – a sort of apotheosis – of a progressive tradition that is forging a European form of social democracy on American soil. The president’s approach, Governor Romney declared in Ohio a few weeks ago, is “foreign to anything this country has ever known.”

The rhythms of American history are fascinating – a century after progressives and conservatives fought their first battle for the soul of America, another seems to be taking place. I never claim that history is repeating itself. TR’s credo in 1912 was biblical: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” In the Book of Revelations, Armageddon is the place where the Messiah will return and defeat the anti-Christ in the final battle between good and evil.  This was not simply rhetorical flourish: Socialism, calling for the nationalization of the means of production, led by the popular and effective campaigner, Eugene Debs, was at high tide in 1912 (garnering six percent of the popular vote). With strong movements to his Left, Roosevelt’s campaign was much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. While Obama’s has criticized the courts in the wake of controversial decisions like Citizens United, TR’s assault on a conservative judiciary were much harsher. Scorning the Justices for exalting the right of property, most notably in the notorious Lochner case, which forbade New York from limited the long hours that bakers worked, Roosevelt advocated political reforms that would dramatically reduce the power of courts, including popular referenda and an a more expeditious constitutional amendment process. In turn, conservatives like Taft were stalwarts of an independent judiciary – he called them the “high priests of the Constitution” – for they believed that weakening the constitutional forms that protected the free enterprise system would lead inevitably to the “establishment of a benevolent despotism.”

Neither Democrats nor Republicans in 2012 believe the age-old conflict between private wealth and commonwealth have brought them to the end of time. In fact, as many political scientists have pointed out in recent years, the expansion of the national state championed by TR at its creation has gone so far, and created such a such a complex universe of “thick” institutions and government commitments – many enshrined as entitlements – so as to seriously constrain the political possibilities of America politics. Obama and his political followers call for economic and political reform that they hope will level the playing field, though there has been deafening silence on the poor and poverty. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and his supporters want tax cuts and entitlement reform that they hope will restore prosperity and individual responsibility to the country. But they have promised to save, not destroy Medicare: even militant Tea Party supporters do not want the government fooling around with their Medicare. Social Security is even more telling. In 1936, there was a serious debate over the newly created social insurance state, with Franklin Roosevelt championing Social Security as a new fundamental right and Alf Landon proposing to repeal it.  In contrast, both presidential candidates have exalted Social Security in the otherwise harsh 2012 campaign. As Obama stated in the presidential debate last week, “I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position,” thus defusing a political weapon that Democrats have hammered the Republicans with since FDR’s huge landslide victory in 1936.

The presidency-centered nature of our campaigns also deflects attention from the principle differences between Democrats and Republicans. The New Nationalism, Roosevelt insisted in his Osawatomie speech, required that the president become “the steward of the public welfare.” Since FDR’s long reign, and the consolidation of modern presidency, Americans have looked to presidents to do far more than a republican executive can, or should do. Still, the dramatic events of the past decade – War on Terror and Great Recession – have made parties more relevant than they have been in American politics for a very long time.  In the fundamental, constitutional struggles Democrats and Republicans have waged over the Affordable Care Act, women’s and gay rights, and the right to vote, we hear echoes of the most important elections of the past one-hundred years. As Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself; but it does rhyme.” Or, to invoke our beloved Vice President Joe Biden, this election is a “[friggin] big deal!”

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