Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Two speeches at Osawatomie

Very interesting that for his landmark speech yesterday spotlighting middle class stagnation and growing income inequality as "the defining issue of our time," Obama chose to channel Teddy Roosevelt. He delivered the hour-long speech in Osawatomie, Kansas*, where in 1910 T.R. laid down a long manifesto calling for a "new nationalism" that would empower the federal government to effectively regulate powerful business interests and so deliver a "square deal" that would "deliver a more substantial equality of opportunity." Obama cited Roosevelt at length, drawing an extended parallel between T.R.'s fight to break up monopolies and establish fair labor laws and a progressive tax code and his own quest to re-establish effective regulation and more taxes on the wealthy. E. J. Dionne does a nice job today exploring the relevance of T.R.'s agenda to our own time.

Primed by Dionne, I took a look at T.R.'s speech yesterday evening. One thing leapt out at me: Roosevelt, unlike Obama, was a fighter, bred in the bone. His speech in many ways casts the fight against the entrenched privilege of special interests as a moral equivalent of war, as William James famously called for in struggles to better the human condition. T.R. was James' pupil.  But he was less willing than James to abjure war itself as the crucible of character. While James, according to one scholar, "championed the rigor and strenuousness of his rough-riding former pupil Theodore Roosevelt," ... "he also slammed Roosevelt for his ''gushes over war as the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves.'' In the Osawatomie speech, Roosevelt addressed himself throughout to listening Civil War veterans, drawing parallels between their battle and the one he was joining to strengthen democracy and curb special interests.

More comprehensively than he has at any point since he took office (though not more so than in the '08 campaign), Obama yesterday directly confronted Republicans for their belief that "the market will take care of everything," for putting forward further deregulation as a panacea, for advocating trickle-down economics (he used the phrase), for blocking restoration of Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy, for trying to strangle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in its crib.   But for better and/or worse, Obama will never conceive his political task as the sublimated war that Teddy Roosevelt saw himself in:
The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.
Think about that for a moment. Redistribution is a fight, by definition.  Them that have are not going to yield their grip on the levers of power without having it pried off.

On the one hand, Roosevelt's speech lays out the ground rules for peaceful competition, for forging a society that leaves the land and people in a better condition for the next generation. He has embraced the "moral equivalent' meme, and a vision of society in which every man contributes to the general welfare.  But the competition in the good society he envisions -- and the sublimated combat -- is inexorable.  What's more, he admires war itself for the qualities it brings out in men -- including the pressure he believes it generates for pure meritocracy:
At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new. All I ask in civil life is what you fought for in the Civil War. I ask that civil life be carried on according to the spirit in which the army was carried on. You never get perfect justice, but the effort in handling the army was to bring to the front the men who could do the job. Nobody grudged promotion to Grant, or Sherman, or Thomas, or Sheridan, because they earned it. The only complaint was when a man got promotion which he did not earn.

The political struggle is not just analogous to the military one that ended 45 years prior; it is of a piece with it, set against the same forces of self-entrenching privilege:
Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests. Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War, so now the great special business interests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit. We must drive the special interests out of politics. That is one of our tasks to-day. 
If this implied enmity is mitigated, it is not by conciliating the imagined adversary, but by offering him scrupulous justice. At various points, T.R. pits the need to keep mob rule in check against the need to curb privilege:
Every special interest is entitled to justice-full, fair, and complete-and, now, mind you, if there were any attempt by mob-violence to plunder and work harm to the special interest, whatever it may be, that I most dislike, and the wealthy man, whomsoever he may be, for whom I have the greatest contempt, I would fight for him, and you would if you were worth your salt. He should have justice. For every special interest is entitled to justice, but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office. The Constitution guarantees protection to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation.
Finally, Roosevelt accords to the federal government, as high arbiter in an endless competition and struggle, the moral authority to demand much of its most fortunate citizens:
The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need to is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which it is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise. We grudge no man a fortune which represents his own power and sagacity, when exercised with entire regard to the welfare of his fellows. Again, comrades over there, take the lesson from your own experience. Not only did you not grudge, but you gloried in the promotion of the great generals who gained their promotion by leading their army to victory. So it is with us. 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.

Nothing is more true than that excess of every kind is followed by reaction; a fact which should be pondered by reformer and reactionary alike. We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare, chiefly because certain advocates of the rights of property as against the rights of men have been pushing their claims too far. The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.
Conversely, the effort to better the lot of the less fortunate is also undertaken in name of enabling and demanding that citizens do their duty to the community:
No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so after his day’s work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load. We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life by which we surround them. We need comprehensive workman’s compensation acts, both State and national laws to regulate child labor and work for women, and, especially, we need in our common schools not merely education in book-learning, but also practical training for daily life and work. We need to enforce better sanitary conditions for our workers and to extend the use of safety appliances for workers in industry and commerce, both within and between the States. Also, friends, in the interest of the working man himself, we need to set our faces like flint against mob-violence just as against corporate greed; against violence and injustice and lawlessness by wage-workers just as much as against lawless cunning and greed and selfish arrogance of employers. If I could ask but one thing of my fellow countrymen, my request would be that, whenever they go in for reform, they remember the two sides, and that they always exact justice from one side as much as from the other. I have small use for the public servant who can always see and denounce the corruption of the capitalist, but who cannot persuade himself, especially before election, to say a word about lawless mob-violence. And I have equally small use for the man, be he a judge on the bench or editor of a great paper, or wealthy and influential private citizen, who can see clearly enough and denounce the lawlessness of mob-violence, but whose eyes are closed so that he is blind when the question is one of corruption of business on a gigantic scale.

The stakes in the struggle are high. Obama claimed today to be speaking at a "make or break moment for the middle class." For T.R. that moment -- the struggle against entrenched privilege -- is perpetual:
Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.

Obama today lambasted Republicans for advocating policies that serve entrenched privilege. He did not really declare war, or moral equivalent of war, on anyone in particular, however. He called for a modest tax claw-back, and for an empowered Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and for the kinds of long-term investments he always calls for.  He did not announce intent "to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows." Dodd-Frank did not do that, nor the ACA, and there are no such quests on the horizon.

* The occasion was the dedication of John Brown National Park; Brown had battled pro-slavery forces  in Osawatomie, in skirmishes that prefigured the Civil War.  T.R. barely mentioned Brown in his speech -- though as noted, he addressed attending Civil War vets throughout.

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