Teddy's Progressive Politics

Image from Old American Century

Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary The Roosevelts, among many things, should remind us just how radical and extremist the Republican Party has become since the turn of the century.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the progressive politics of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president from 1901 to 1909, would be greeted today by conservative politicians, who advance the cause of states’ rights and corporate greed over the welfare of their country.

Roosevelt eventually wanted his “Square Deal” for people, arguing, “The effective fight against adequate government control and supervision of individual, and especially of corporate, wealth engaged in interstate business is chiefly done under cover; and especially under cover of an appeal to States' rights . . . “ That’s simply the antithesis of the Republican Party today.

Burns’ documentary is a fascinating study of Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Republicans must hate it because it exposes the contemporary paltry platform of this country’s right-wing reactionaries, who in their paranoia always see sinister motives in their country’s government. Theodore Roosevelt’s political philosophy was much larger than that.

Oklahoma’s Republicans, who dominate state government right now, are especially anti-federal government as evidenced by Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s legal actions against the Affordable Care Act and any number of recent legislative actions based on supposed intrusion.

The war here on the federal government always has its negative consequences. When the legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin recently scrapped some Common Core standards for schools because of supposed intrusion, for example, the federal government announced the state would lose its “No Child Left Behind Waiver” and may have to reassign some $29 million federal funding.

The most recent mess to come to light because of paranoia over the federal government involves state driver's licenses. In 2007, lawmakers passed a law banning the state from participating in a federal program called the REAL ID Act, which was implemented as an anti-terrorism measure. Now, we’re finding out that Oklahomans starting in 2015 won’t be able to use their state licenses to get through a federal government security checkpoint. Starting in 2016, Oklahomans also won’t be able to board an airplane by showing their state license. Instead, a federally approved document, such as a passport, will have to be used.

Obviously, the paranoia and resulting hassle and contradiction are not limited to Oklahoma. An article this week in The New York Times points out that despite the success of the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky, some residents there—even those who have benefited from so-called Obamacare—are supporting Republican politicians who want to do away with the new health care law.

It’s tempting to file all this anti-federal government sentiment here and elsewhere under “stupidity” or just argue that it’s Republican and corporate manipulation of low-information voters, but Burns' documentary reminds me that something more fundamental has changed among a major segment of the electorate.

More than ever, it seems impossible to me that we can bridge through words or arguments the great partisan divide or educate voters in some meaningful and large-scale sense. Perhaps, only incremental demographical developments—an increase in minority voters, for example, who reject racist politics—will make a difference and advance progressivism in the twenty-first century.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican politics at the turn of the twentieth century started this country on an enlightened course and his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, showed us how government can be a humane force in our lives. They were two significant politicians from the country’s two largest political parties in agreement with the pressing issues of their time. They were united under the philosophical idea of progressivism.