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.
Baton Rouge, LA.
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.