As Theodore Roosevelt finished his address to the people of Osawatomie his speechwriter leaped up and cried: "Citizens of Kansas, you have just listened to one of the greatest pronouncements made by any man. Its effect will be felt in the nation and the world for years to come." Last week President Obama turned up in Osawatomie to deliver a speech that harked back to that 1910 address. So it may be the speechwriter was right.
Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech was the most radical of his career. According to historian Robert La Forte, Roosevelt let Gifford Pinchot write it and "Pinchot, even more of an extremist than Roosevelt in upholding strong governmental control over individual activities, tinted the address with radicalism far in excess of what Roosevelt would probably have done alone."
Roosevelt argued for equality of opportunity and the destruction of privilege. He insisted that the "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." He explained:
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.
According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt: "The psychological meaning of fairness is proportionality. Human beings have been engaging in cooperative enterprises for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’re now vigilant for signs that anyone is taking out more than they’re putting in." And this was the sentiment President Obama hoped to tap when he arrived in Osawatomie, Kansas to deliver his most radical speech yet.
"I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own", President Obama said. "I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules."
Obama argued that business leaders and Wall Street bankers weren’t pulling their weight. He said that America’s business leaders need to understand that their obligations don’t end with their shareholders, that banks need to accept tighter regulation and that tax cuts for the wealthy need to end.
It was a speech built around the idea of fairness as proportionality, a speech that embodied the moral ideals of the average American. And where better than Kansas to make that case? As American writer Thomas Frank observes: "Kansas figures in literature and film as a stand-in for the nation as a whole, the distilled essence of who we are."
"Kansas may be the land of averageness," writes Frank, "but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness." Before Teddy Roosevelt arrived in Osawatomie, Kansas was the heartland of the 19th century American Populist movement — a movement that translated the American ideal of fairness into radical political action.
Made up of farmers and workers the Populist movement stood against the banks, railroads and other corporate interests they saw as exploiting ordinary working people. They argued that infrastructure like the railroads , grain elevators and the telegraph should be government owned. They demanded easier access to credit and controls on banks. They railed against Wall Street and the ‘money power’.
The Republican Party was horrified. "What’s the matter with Kansas?" asked William Allen White who argued that the populists were ruining the state’s economy. "Here are people fleeing from it by the score every day, capital going out of the state by the hundreds of dollars; and every industry but farming paralyzed, and that crippled, because its products have to go across the ocean before they can find a laboring man at work; who can afford to buy them."
White’s 1896 tirade against the Kansas’s anti-business politics helped send Republican William McKinley to the White House. McKinley’s assassination in 1901 saw his vice-president Theodore Roosevelt ascend to the presidency. But by 1910, Roosevelt was no longer in office and the conflict between the Republican Party’s conservative and progressive wings were splitting the party apart. Meanwhile William Allen White was helping Gifford Pinchot write Roosevelt’s Osawatomie speech.
Roosevelt would go on to lead a new Progressive Party — a party that supported much of the populist reform agenda. Today’s Republicans have moved a long way from Roosevelt’s ideas about fairness. As Fox News political editor Chris Stirewelt put it :
What Teddy Roosevelt was calling for was a sort of a socialistic nationalism, in which the government would take things away from people who got things that he didn’t think they should have [and] give it to the working man. They talk about ‘the square deal, ‘fairness,’ all of these new mandates for government—something the Republican Party has walked away from in very decided fashion certainly since the Reagan era in terms of what the role and purpose of government is.
But, of course, the Republicans could never walk away from fairness. That would mean giving up the votes of millions of average Americans. What they did was re-direct grievances downwards.
Concern about about people taking more than their share runs in two directions. It runs upwards against large corporations and Wall Street banks but it also runs downwards against welfare recipients who are seen as taking out without putting in. Despite anything Fox News might say, Roosevelt had no sympathy for poor people who made no effort to better themselves. As he said in Osawatomie: "When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit."
This is the sense of fairness that appealed to Republicans like Richard Nixon. In a 1970 speech he said:
… let us recognize in this country the dignity of work. By "the dignity of work" I should like to point out what was to me a rather disturbing report I read a few weeks ago with regard to some individuals on welfare in one of our cities who refused to take jobs because they considered those jobs to be menial.
Nixon harked back to his father who worked as a streetcar motorman, an oil field worker, a farmer and in a filling station. "Let us recognize once and for all", said Nixon, "no job is menial in America if it leads to self-reliance, self-respect, and individual dignity."
This lopsided interpretation of fairness where only those at the bottom enjoy incomes that are unearned has prevailed over most of America’s recent history. But perhaps in a post-global financial crisis world, Osawatomie won’t be forgotten.
Update: A few right-wing bloggers think they see a more sinister meaning in President Obama’s trip to Osawatomie. They’ve noticed that Osawatomie was the name the Weather Underground chose for their newspaper. According to Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, they named the paper after the radical abolitionist John Brown who earned the nickname ‘Osawatomie’ Brown after a battle there.