Is Bernie Sanders channeling Teddy Roosevelt? Having recently re-watched Ken Burns’ in-depth biography, The Roosevelts, I am struck by the similarities—both in substance and in style.
I started thinking about this comparison as I watched Burns’ old-time film snippets of Teddy Roosevelt—particularly those documenting him on the campaign stump. Roosevelt, known affectionately as TR, was a fighter. In the film clips, his body language shows a man leaning into his arguments, gesticulating for emphasis, speaking forcefully and intently—all of this in a less-than-Adonis-like body.
The similarity to Bernie Sanders’ outspoken, forceful, vigorous and passionate campaign persona is uncanny.
But, of course, there’s more to this comparison than style. Teddy—the leader of the Republican party of his day, became a driving force for the Progressive Era in the US in the early 20th century—and Sanders has adopted that mantle 100 years later.
I’m not a historian [although I do occasionally binge-watch Drunk History]. So here are some of the similarities noted by people who know much more than I do:
In a 2016 article, The Observer observed:
Both [Sanders and Roosevelt] are strongly skeptical of corporate power, and live in periods in which the power, influence, and abusiveness of these institutions (in the view of the general public) is considerable and growing. Teddy’s major domestic agendas (trust busting, environmental stewardship and national parks, consumer protection) are at odds with significant corporate powers of their respective times, insofar as these interests collided with those of everyone else.
… both intended to save capitalism from self-inflicted injuries driven by greed. Teddy Roosevelt did it by busting up the big trusts of his day. Bernie is focused on the banks that are too big to fail. He wants to break them up before their reckless gambling collapses the economy again as it did in the Great Recession of 2007-2010.
…In 1912, when Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency as the leader of the Progressive [Bull Moose] Party, he laid out one of the most progressive platforms in American history. The party backed, among other policies:
• Limits on campaign contributions
• An eight-hour work day
• A commission to regulate securities markets
• A workers compensation program
• A “national health service”
• Passage of the 16th Amendment to allow for a federal income tax
• Infrastructure through “the early construction of National highways;”
• An estate tax
Roosevelt explicitly expressed his desire to increase the share the wealthy paid in taxes in his “New Nationalism” speech:
I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective—a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”
Sanders’ 2020 platform–like that of 2016– is, of course focused on issues more modern than creating a national highway system–although Teddy would undoubtedly support the modern call for a vast upgrade to our crumbling infrastructure. Clearly, Sanders is continuing the Roosevelt legacy of progressive populism, and, like Teddy, he, willing to stump—tirelessly—for what he believes in, and is focused on matters of corruption and the abuse of power. You can take the Roosevelt platform and, almost point-by-point, correlate it with what Bernie Sanders is proposing 100 years later.
I see that as good news.
The bad news that, more than a century later, we are still not there on these issues. We’re still fighting for the basic tenets of a progressive, equitable society. And it’s just sad that a presidential candidate who is fighting back against democracy-killing corporate greed is regarded as out of the mainstream.
What would Teddy think?
[Note: Voice recordings of Teddy Roosevelt are rare, but here’s one that gives you a flavor of his speaking style, and of the substantive nature of his speeches.]
[Editor’s note: This post first appeared here on Occasional Planet in 2016, when Bernie Sanders emerged as a presidential hopeful. We are republishing it because of its new relevance in the 2020 election.]