Ronald J. Pestritto teaches politics at Hillsdale College and is the author of Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. I learned as much about American politics from Pestritto’s book as any book I’ve read in the past ten years. I commented at some length on the book here and here, drawing from my remarks on it at a 2005 Claremont Institute panel devoted to the book.
Although Wilson was a Democrat and Theodore Roosevelt a Republican, they were both progressives. Professor Pestritto explains what Wilson and Roosevelt had in common:
Progressives of both parties, including Roosevelt, were the original big-government liberals. They understood full well that the greatest obstacle to their schemes of social justice and equality of material condition was the U.S. Constitution as it was originally written and understood: as creating a national government of limited, enumerated powers that was dedicated to securing the individual natural rights of its citizens, especially liberty of contract and private property.
It was the Republican TR, who insisted in his 1910 speech on the “New Nationalism” that there was a “general right of the community to regulate” the earning of income and use of private property “to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” He was at one here with Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who had in 1885 condemned Americans’ respect for their Constitution as “blind worship,” and suggested that his countrymen dedicate themselves to the Declaration of Independence by leaving out its “preface” — i.e., the part of it that establishes the protection of equal natural rights as the permanent task of government.
Although some conservatives have invoked Roosevelt as a model for Republicans in the era of big government, Pestritto demurs:
Many who respect individual liberty and the free market believe that the electoral tide has turned, and that an era of big government is inevitable. But recall that John McCain gained traction in the closing days of his campaign only when he attacked Mr. Obama’s desire to “spread the wealth” through higher tax rates on the upper-income earners. His attack clearly resonated among the public. But it came too late, and truth be told, his heart wasn’t really in it.
Looking ahead, conservatives hardly need to look back to progressives for inspiration. If there is a desire to “conserve” or restore something about our political tradition that has been lost with the rise of modern liberalism, how about the American founding as a model? It is with the founders that we can find the patriotic promotion of America as an exceptionally great nation — a notion that attracts some conservatives to TR.
The difference is that, with the founders as a model, we get the idea of American greatness, but without the progressives’ assault on the very enduring principles that justify America’s claim to greatness in the first place.
Pestritto’s column appears in today’s Wall Street Journal as “Theodore Roosevelt was no conservative.” I should add that Pestritto’s 2004 Claremont Review of Books review of H.W. Brands’s book on Wilson’s presidency touches on some of the same themes that Pestritto develops in this column.
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