If conservatives have in common a desire to "conserve" or restore something that they think has been lost with the onset of modern liberalism, they occasionally become confused about what it is, exactly, that ought to be restored. It is especially fashionable for some conservatives today to look to the Progressive movement as a source for conservative values, and to argue that a restoration of certain elements of Progressivism might be just what the doctor ordered for what ails modern America. The more sensible of these arguments make sure to distinguish between the different elements of the Progressive movement, normally pointing to the perceived virtues of Theodore Roosevelt as a source for conservative values, and conceding that not all elements of Progressivism are similarly worthy of imitation. The "national greatness" idea advanced by some at The Weekly Standard is the most well known example of this line of argument, but it is not the only one.
In a recent editorial ("What's Wrong with Progressivism?" Ashbrook Center, August 2005), Andrew Busch joins the list of those who think TR has much to offer today's conservative movement. Focusing on TR's State of the Union message from 1906, Busch argues that it is today's liberals who have departed from Progressive principles, and that today's conservatives can, by contrast, point to TR's Progressivism as a source for many of their own convictions. Busch points to three particular features of TR's Progressivism: 1) its patriotic defense of national sovereignty; 2) its moral and religious seriousness; and 3) its refusal to defer to the national judiciary. He warns that conservatives must, of course, be wary of other elements of Progressivismits hostility to property rights, its embrace of the "living constitution," and its deference to administrative expertisebut suggests that the Right's faithfulness to TR's principlesand the Left's departure from themhelp to explain recent Republican electoral success, especially in the "red" states of middle America.
Busch is one of the smartest conservatives writing today, and I have nothing but admiration for his impressive and insightful body of work, from which I have learned a great deal. But I have to take issue with his argument hereand the argument of those other conservatives who look to TR for guidancenot only with respect to its understanding of the Progressive movement, but of the ends that should guide contemporary conservatives.
What should worry conservatives most today is that America has largely abandoned its original principles. It has ceased to understand that government ought to be dedicated primarily to securing the natural rights of its citizens, and that limited constitutional government, based upon the consent of the people, is the most effective and just means of attaining this fundamental end. The Progressives in America understood very clearly this original view of American government, and were united in their belief that the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had to be replaced if their own vision of America's future was to be realized. While Progressives shared this fundamental goal, they frequently differed about the particular means required to achieve it; they differed, for example, on the role of the party system, and on mechanisms of direct democracy, among other institutional questions.
The mistake made by many conservatives today is to confuse these differences over the particular means of achieving the Progressive vision of American politics, with the fundamentals of the Progressive vision itself. They fall victim here to much of the standard historical scholarship on the Progressives, which makes a great deal out of the differences (real or feigned) on parties, direct democracy, bureaucracy, and the like, and gives little weight to the fundamental agreement among Progressives on the need to overthrow the basic principles of American constitutionalism. Even a brief examination of TR's theory of government reveals that he subscribed thoroughly to the sharp critique of the American constitution offered by his Progressive brethren.
Among the most famous and clearest examples of his hostility to the fundamentals of American constitutionalism is TR's explication of his so-called "stewardship theory." Contrary to the founders' notionembodied in the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitutionthat the national government is one of enumerated powers, where all political authority is presumed to lie with the people themselves unless they grant it to government through the Constitution, TR suggested exactly the opposite formulation in the reflections on presidential power contained in his Autobiography:
I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.
The national government, in TR's view, was not one of enumerated powers but of general powers, and the purpose of the Constitution was merely to state the exceptions to that rule. This is a view of government directly refuted by Alexander Hamilton (who was hardly a shrinking violet about the powers of the national government) in Federalist 84. Hamilton explains there that the fundamental difference between a republican constitution and a monarchic one is that the latter reserves some liberty for the people by stating specific exceptions to the assumed general power of the crown, whereas the former assumes from the beginning that the power of the people is the general rule, and the power of the government the exception. TR, of course, turns this on its head.
And it is no accident that TR employed a vision of governmental power so much broader than that conceived of by the founders. He needed such a broad conception of power in order to satisfy his thirst for achieving Progressive policy aims at the expense of individual property rights. As he proclaimed in his New Nationalism speech in 1910, when explaining how Progressives aimed to use the power of the state for the purposes of bringing about economic equality:
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
Government, according to TR, was to sit in judgment of the best use of private property, and was to respect property rights only insofar as it approved of the social utility of the property held. In today's post-Kelo America, this doesn't sound to me quite like a conception of government that most conservativesmuch less most red-state, middle-Americans, would or ought to embrace.
And while conservative defenders of TR like to make a big deal out of his differences with other Progressives, on these principled matters of the scope and ends of governmental power, there was little disagreement at all. As Frank Goodnow, the first president of the American Political Science Association and a father of the modern administrative state, put it in his argument that natural rights could not stand in the way of community action:
The rights which he possesses are ... conferred upon [the individual], not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action.
The conception of state power necessitated by such a view of rights was put even more succinctly by Woodrow Wilson, who wrote in 1889 that "Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand." This is exactly the conception of government to which TR subscribed, in spite of his many policy differences with Wilson, and it is exactly why no conservative ought to look to TR as a source of political principles.
Busch is certainly aware of these problems with the Progressive conception of government, and he even cautions us that "there are many points on which conservatives today can criticize the Progressives." But this admonition doesn't sufficiently appreciate the deep and fundamental difficulties posed by the Progressives' view of state power--which I would suggest ought to be a threshold issue for conservatives. Busch concedes that, yes, the Progressives held some questionable positions on issues like the natural right to property, limited constitutional government, and granting large powers to unelected bureaucrats, but then again they were good (or at least some of them were) on things like patriotism, moral issues, and attacking the judiciaryas if these things are all on the same order of magnitude and one can simply and coherently pick and choose the positions most congenial to one's own point of view, and disregard those that are less so.
Furthermore, even with the issues on which it is claimed that TR held views congenial to contemporary conservatism, there is much to question. Busch likes the fact that Progressives didn't hesitate to criticize and circumvent the judiciary, contending that this is something with which today's conservatives have more in common than today's liberals. True enough, but the affinity here doesn't go very deep. TR and other Progressives resisted deferring to the judiciary because the judiciary, at the time, was the primary roadblock to implementing Progressive policies. Furthermore, it's not as if liberals today defer to the judiciary due to some deep-held principle. Rather, just like TR's Progressives, liberals today adopt their attitude toward the judiciary out of expediencethe contemporary Supreme Court has been the best vehicle for implementing liberal policies in recent decades.
The moral seriousness of TR's Progressivism is also cited as a plus for today's conservatives. Again, it's true enough that there is a superficial similarity here. But conservatives would be well advised to stay clear of the Progressive conception of morality and religion, since the Progressives' views on these matters were tied closely to a vast enlargement of the state. This is because the Progressives, like their cousins in the Social Gospel movement, saw the state itself as a god. Their moral and religious fervor could be intense at least partly because it went hand in hand with a devotion to the state and its social enterprises. Many of the Progressives, TR included, were heavily influenced by German historicism on this question, where the state is understood as the manifestation of the divine on earth. TR's speech at the 1912 Progressive Party convention conveys this sentiment:
Our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness; and even though we who now lead may for the time fail, in the end the cause itself shall triumph. ...We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.
For many Progressivesat least those of serious faith like TR and Wilsonthe achievement of their vision of expansive government was not simply a matter of politics, but a matter of divine will.
Finally, Busch concedes that some Progressives promoted an "anti-democratic reliance on experts," but contends that other Progressives did not. While one could certainly dispute the asserting of such a distinction (which is often grounded in the differences on national administrative power between Wilson and TR in the 1912 campaigndifferences that were more superficial than real, as Wilson's presidency proved), it seems a very strange assertion to make in an essay that touts TR's alleged virtues for conservatives. This is because TR, perhaps more than any other Progressive, championed power and discretionary authority for bureaucratic experts. Such a program of deference to expert regulators, free from the influence of politics, was a pillar of his New Nationalism. TR called for the aggressive regulation of property, wealth, and business with a system of steeply increased taxation and management of the economy by expert bureaucrats "wholly removed from the possibility of political pressure." If the extra-constitutionality of the administrative state is a problem for today's conservatives, then TR is hardly a model to follow for the conservative movement.
Which brings me to my final question. Why is it that when some conservatives look for guidance on matters such as national sovereignty, moral and religious seriousness, and reining in the judiciary (to cite the three issues named by Busch), they look to TR? Is this the best they can do? Let me suggest, instead, a better model for today's conservatives: the American founders. If you want a source for defending American sovereignty, look no further than Hamilton's contributions to The Federalist or Washington's Farewell Address. If you want an argument for the importance of morality and religion, look again to the Farewell Address. As for keeping the judiciary from usurping the power of the other branches, I've always found Madison's Federalist 49 to be one of the best sources on this matter ("The several departments being perfectly co-ordinate by the terms of their common commission, neither of them, it is evident, can pretend to an exclusive or superior right of settling the boundaries between their respective powers"). And the great thing about going with Washington, Hamilton, and Madison is that you can get positions congenial to today's conservatisma vigorous defense of national sovereignty, moral and religious seriousness, and a proper perspective on the judiciarywithout the Progressives' principled hostility to individual liberty and limited government that entirely undercuts those positions.
If conservatives are, therefore, to accomplish anything, they first must get straight what it is they want to conserve. This means going with the founders, not with Theodore Roosevelt.