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Commentary: In a time of greed and inequality, we need a Teddy Roosevelt

By John Diers May 29, 2019

Go to Rapid City, South Dakota, and you’ll find the face of President Theodore Roosevelt chiseled on Mount Rushmore. T.R., as he was affectionately known, succeeded William McKinley when the latter ran afoul of an assassin in September 1901. Roosevelt was the 26th President and today ranks high in the hagiography of the Republican Party — not much removed from Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

But was he a socialist?

Maybe not, but by 1912 he’d become a heretic in the party that put him in the White House. Angered by the plutocrats then in charge and the conservative policies of his one-time friend and successor, President William Howard Taft, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party and ran for President as a Progressive Party candidate on a platform that called for a national health service, a social insurance system for the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed, an eight-hour workday, a minimum wage for women, a federal securities commission, an inheritance tax and a federal income tax.

The election was a three-way split, and he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but much of his agenda and platform eventually became law.

On the question of socialism, he wrote: “Much of the discussion about socialism and individualism is entirely pointless because of failure to agree on terminology.” He added, “We can just as little afford to follow the doctrinaires of an extreme individualism as the doctrinaires of an extreme socialism.” It was a debate about words, not action. Roosevelt acted.

Born to a privileged class and family and Harvard-educated, Roosevelt was a pragmatist and a leader for the times. The darling of the press and the muckraking journalists of the era, Roosevelt went after the industrialists and financiers who then dominated American business and had ensconced themselves as an oligarchy of wealth and power through combinations of trusts and monopolies.

They were the “malefactors of great wealth” and “robber barons,” and Roosevelt resolved to break their hold on the American economy. Roosevelt believed in hard work, opportunity and fairness. It angered him to see poor children forced out of school and into mines and factories while the children of the leisure class boarded yachts and private rail cars and put diamond collars on their pets.

He called for popular government that banned the corrupting influence of money and corporate power in American politics. Much of his time as president was spent afflicting the likes of Edward Harriman, J.P. Morgan and James J. Hill.

Today, we’ve arrived at a new Gilded Age. Economic inequality, and what to do about it, is going to be the central issue in the upcoming 2020 election.

Economist Robert Samuelson had a column in the May 5 Washington Post along with statistics that make important reading. Consider:

In 2018, the net worth of the wealthiest 10% of Americans represented 70% of all household wealth. That’s up from 61% in 1989. In these same years, the share of the top 1% went from 24% to 31%.
At the same time, the bottom 50% of all households lost virtually all of their net worth — from 4% of total wealth in 1989 to 1% in 2018. Most of these losses were torn from the middle class.
Corporate giants, Amazon and Netflix among them, paid no federal income tax in 2018, executive pay soars and the wealthy few use their leverage and checkbooks to buy seats for their kids at Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley universities — while everyone else gets stuck with student loans.

I’m reminded of noblesse oblige and the phrase, “nothing personal, it’s just business.”

Meanwhile, the economy keeps right on roaring. The GDP gets bigger, but the share of GDP keeps going to a smaller and a smaller share of Americans and a dwindling middle class so overburdened with debt that an economic downturn will wipe it out.

That downturn is coming. It’s predictable because it’s part of our economic system. It’s happened before, and it will happen again; whether it’s a recession, a debt crisis, maybe another 1929 caused by speculation and an overvalued stock market, or perhaps a catastrophe brought on by our over-consumption and climate change.

What would Teddy Roosevelt do if he were here and a candidate in 2020? For sure he’d be on familiar ground. Would he be ideological and debate the issues of socialism and capitalism like some quarreling theologian arguing the number of angels who could fit on the head of a pin? Or would he be pragmatic and have plans and programs and be an advocate for honesty, transparency and change?

Our issues aren’t about ideology or socialism or capitalism. They’re about fairness and the common good — his issues. There are candidates with integrity on both sides of the political spectrum that share them. Let’s hope they succeed.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.