Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL
by Ian Reifowitz, Fri Jul 18, 2008 at 07:54:34 AM EDT
David Brooks tries in his column today to do something I've warned about before. He tries to claim Theodore Roosevelt as a conservative, which he most definitely is not. TR was a liberal, period. I've written about the need to claim liberal Republicans as our own. This is crucial for us as we frame American history as a march, however uneven, toward the triumph of the progressive values we share, and progressivism as being rooted in American history going back two centuries (rather than simply being seen a deviation from 'traditional values' that cropped up in the oft-[unfairly] derided 1960s). Why is this important? Because progressivism has been a winner in the big picture since 1776, and we need to portray it as being a winner. Doing so makes it more likely that progressivism will continue winning. Winners win. Losers lose. It's that simple.
See more after the jump.
Abraham Lincoln was a liberal. So was Teddy Roosevelt. They were also Republicans. The Southern Democrats who were pro-slavery in the 1850s and pro-segregation in the 1950s were right-wing conservatives. An accurate narrative of liberal and progressive leaders in American history must have these facts front and center. Liberalism has deep historical roots and all those who championed its principles are part of the liberal tradition. When contemporary conservatives and Republicans talk about the greatness of Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt, progressives must respond that these two Presidents fought against the right-wing conservatives of their time, whether the issue was race or economics.
In the Civil War era, the Republican Party contained all the leading liberals on race. Lincoln and the Radical Republicans enshrined freedom and equality for black Americans into the Constitution for the first time. These liberal forefathers do not belong to today's conservatives or even so-called moderate Republicans. Those early liberals fought the status quo; they were not in the middle of the political spectrum any more than they were on the right. Lincoln freed the slaves and at Gettysburg reimagined the meaning of America to include racial equality. How much more progressive can you get?
Furthermore, the Reconstruction plan he would have implemented if not for his murder by John Wilkes Booth, a right-wing conservative, would have brought the South and the country a long way towards full racial equality. Lincoln's most vociferous opponents were the culturally conservative white Southerners whose contemporary analogues serve as a key component of today's Republican base. Today's moderates would have been the ones urging compromise in the post-1865 era, a healing of the divisions between North and South, which of course meant bringing about a reconciliation of the white South and the white North at the expense of black Americans. This is in fact exactly what happened after Reconstruction. No, only liberals can claim Lincoln and his fellow radical Republicans as their political forefathers.
Teddy Roosevelt was equally dangerous to the status quo of his time. A good deal of what FDR ultimately implemented as the New Deal was inspired by the beliefs of TR. Just as Lincoln was the first liberal President when it comes to race, TR was the first liberal President on economic issues. He fought against the power of concentrated wealth and endorsed progressive taxation, including the inheritance taxes for which virtually all of today's Republicans, whether moderates or conservatives, express such strong displeasure. On another front, he was clearly the first environmentalist President.
Liberals can and must present a robust tradition of liberal leadership in American history going back to before the Civil War. They ought not to allow Republicans to claim progressive champions as their own, particularly because Republicans often warp the real legacies of liberals like Lincoln and TR to fit their anti-progressive agenda.
Liberalism means fighting for the interests of average Americans against those who seek to gather power and wealth in the hands of economic elites. It means fighting against prejudice and hatred, for equal treatment before the law for all Americans. Leaders, whether Democratic or Republican, who have fought for these causes are liberals. Those who fought against them, whether Democratic or Republican, are conservatives and right-wingers.
Progressives have been on the correct side of every major question in American history, from slavery to Civil Rights to equal rights for those of any ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation; from women's suffrage to equal opportunities for women; from religious freedom to civil liberties and privacy rights; from supporting progressive taxation and workers' rights to supporting union organizing and fair trade.
Liberals have a proud tradition going back more than 150 years. Leaders from both major parties have served as their ideological forebears. Liberals need to ensure that the American people understand the differences between political leaders who are progressive and those who are right-wing conservatives, whether we are talking about the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries.