Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

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.

Tags: Abraham Lincoln, american history, David Brooks, liberal, New York Times, progressive, Teddy Roosevelt (all tags)



Tips for liberals!

That's right, I said liberals!

by Ian Reifowitz 2008-07-18 07:55AM | 0 recs
Re: Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

David Brooks is a stunning historical revisionist.

He also likes to pretend he is some non-partisan, but he is just a conservative hack.

OF COURSE he wants to claim Teddy, hell, I have heard clowns like him try to claim JFK, FDR.

Well, who can blame them? So many of their elected conservatives are crap, besides Reagan, WHO ELSE can they point to?

by WashStateBlue 2008-07-18 08:07AM | 0 recs
In some ways, yeah... that TR was all about making the economy work for everyone, busting up the trusts, and rooting out corruption.

But in other ways - like that whole "let's build an empire!" thing - TR was a bit of a neocon.  He also was a bit suspect in his attitudes toward non-white people...

by mistersite 2008-07-18 08:07AM | 0 recs
Re: In some ways, yeah...

TR was a liberal, for his time. Just as Jefferson was for his time. Jefferson owned slaves. Does that mean he wasn't a liberal?

by MS01 Indie 2008-07-18 08:44AM | 0 recs
Re: In some ways, yeah...

Empire-building was as non-liberal then as it is now... maybe even more so in that empires were vogue in the pre-postcolonial days.

I'll buy your argument for his attitudes toward people of color, though.

by mistersite 2008-07-18 09:00AM | 0 recs
Re: In some ways, yeah...

I wasn't trying to excuse TR's militarism or desire for empire. I was trying to point out that no one is perfect. There are no perfect humans.

Obama favors the death penalty for certain crimes. I oppose the death penalty for any reason. Obama favors faith-based initiatives. As an atheist, I am completely against any tax dollars going to any religion for any purpose. Does that make me more of a liberal than Obama? Maybe, but then again, maybe it he is more liberal on other issues than I am.

As pointed out above, TR was for an inheritance tax. He was also for more regulation of business, a graduated income tax, social welfare programs, etc... That makes him a liberal in my book despite other stances he may have taken.

You have to keep in mind that this was 100 years ago. Times have changed and so has the definition of liberal and progressive. For his time, TR was a radical populist on many issues.

by MS01 Indie 2008-07-18 09:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

Here's an interesting article suggesting McCain would do well to learn lessons from TR's actions, rather than from his blustery words: d=38a5ae60-9b53-42a2-a7aa-6e16e5c1f6bc

by danielj 2008-07-18 08:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

This was a stunning load of bs and is a pointer to how bankrupt these people are. His nominees to prove that Conservatives are more activist than liberals? Disraeli and TR! In Britain the three most activist govt of the past hundred years were Asquith/Lloyd George(Liberal), Attlee (Labor ie socialist) and Blair (Labor again). In the US it's Wilson, FDR, Truman and Johnson although it's fair to say that TR was an activist.  

by ottovbvs 2008-07-18 08:47AM | 0 recs
Re: Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

The Republican party has come a long ways from the values of Lincoln and TR. This quote by Lincoln is one I love to throw at Repugs. I also enjoy pointing out how TR was the source for much of FDR's policies. I've read comments on conservative sites that knock TR for being a radical.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." Abraham Lincoln.

by MS01 Indie 2008-07-18 08:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Stop David Brooks!: TR was a LIBERAL

Great Lincoln quote! I have to remember that.

by Ian Reifowitz 2008-07-18 09:29AM | 0 recs


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