Advice from Teddy Roosevelt as Congress heads toward debt, shutdown deal

As the Senate nears a budget deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts to seek out fellow citizens across party lines and divisions of class, creed, and culture are a timely example for Washington's brinkmanship.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
House Speaker John Boehner arrives on Capitol Hill Oct. 16. Chaos among Republicans in the House of Representatives has left it to bipartisan leaders in the Senate to craft a last-minute deal to fend off a looming US debt default and to reopen the federal government. Op-ed contributor Danny Heitman writes: Teddy Roosevelt's 'precepts for progress...need to be practiced' today.

To end their political brinkmanship, today’s leaders in Washington need as much good advice as they can find. One promising source of wisdom is Theodore Roosevelt, who left the presidency more than a century ago.

Roosevelt led the country from 1901 to 1909, and he’ll get a renewed profile with the November release of “The Bully Pulpit,” the book about his tumultuous times by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

But lately, instead of Roosevelt’s political battles, I’ve been thinking about his efforts to seek out fellow citizens across party lines, and divisions of class, creed, and culture, too. As the government grapples with shutdown and debt, his thoughts on collegiality and politics, outlined in a January 1900 article for Century Magazine, seem as timely now as when they were first printed.

“Fellow-Feeling as a Political Factor” appeared at the dawn of the 20th century, in the same year Roosevelt was elected as William McKinley’s vice president. Although Roosevelt hadn’t yet gained national office when Century published his remarks, he was already reflecting on the political climate in the country as a whole. He urged Americans to transcend narrow interests in favor of mutual good.

“Fellow-feeling, sympathy in the broadest sense, is the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life,” he told readers. “Neither our national nor our local civic life can be what it should be unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.”

How do democracies encourage a culture of empathy in which civil discourse can thrive? Roosevelt outlined four factors that can help remove barriers.

First, he looked to public education as an incubator of national solidarity. “When in their earliest and most impressionable years Protestants, Catholics, and Jews go to the same schools, learn the same lessons, play the same games, and are forced, in the rough-and-ready democracy of boy life, to take each at his true worth, it is impossible later to make the disciples of one creed persecute the other,” he wrote.

Second, Roosevelt celebrated military service as a civic glue. Serving together in the defense of the republic reminds citizens that regional distinctions and other differences aren’t all that important. Shared military service, in Roosevelt’s view, reminds citizens that the welfare of one part of the country “is indissolubly bound up in” the welfare of another area.

Third, Roosevelt stressed the importance of civic engagement at the local level as a catalyst for unity at the national level. He recalled with fondness the Fourth of July celebrations and county fairs in his neighborhood that provided a public square where people could acknowledge – and perhaps even celebrate – their differences.

Finally, Roosevelt believed that true empathy required leaving one’s comfort zone to connect with people from other walks of life. “If the merchant or the manufacturer, the lawyer or the clerk, never meets the mechanic or the handicraftsman, save on rare occasions, when the meeting may be of a hostile kind, each side feels that the other is alien and naturally antagonistic,” he observed.

Roosevelt practiced what he preached on this point, defying the expectations of his patrician upbringing to form friendships with carpenters, cowboys, and railroad workers. “Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow Americans if he only gets to know them,” he concluded.

Since Roosevelt’s death, the fortunes of public education have declined, and military service has become a specialized vocation rather than a national duty. Local civic events compete with TV and the Internet for Americans’ time. To the degree that many Americans pay attention to those who seem different, it’s often through reality shows meant to ridicule, not respect, the human condition.

Is it any wonder, given these realities, that so many Americans seem captive to the self-imposed boundaries of party, class, and religious belief?

I don’t want to suggest that Roosevelt exemplified a golden age of civic tolerance. For one thing, he lived at a time when women and people of color were treated as second-class citizens. But he seemed to understand the basic mechanisms through which an intolerant society could become more respectful of differences.

His precepts for progress – supporting public education, sharing in national service, engaging civically at home, and making friends beyond one’s comfort level – need to be practiced.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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