“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
With these fighting words, Teddy Roosevelt shrugged off an assassination attempt by a deranged Milwaukee saloon owner and — bullet still lodged in his chest — launched into a ninety-minute address railing against the corporatism and corruption that dominated both parties in Washington.
The year was 1912, a time of widespread discontent among both Democratic and Republican reformers. With his fiery speech, the former president established the Progressive Party, known affectionately as the Bull Moose Party, thus initiating a political movement that would stridently challenge corrupt political bosses, big corporations and a pro-business judiciary over the next dozen or so years. Though Roosevelt fell short of his goals, many of the Progressive Party’s priorities, such as the direct election of U.S senators, workers’ compensation and women’s suffrage, became law within the decade. Nearly 100 years later, his speech and his Bull Moose Party platform still speak to many of contemporary Americans’ deepest concerns.
A century ago, Roosevelt explained the need for his third-party candidacy:
The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly what should be said on the vital issues of the day.
These words ring truer today than they have in quite some time. Trillions of taxpayer dollars are propping up a financial sector bloated with profits; but Congress, looking ahead to the midterm elections, is too paralyzed to act decisively and help relieve ordinary Americans suffering through the recession. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned a century’s worth of campaign finance law, giving corporations more influence in elections than they’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt delivered his Bull Moose speech in Milwaukee.
During Roosevelt’s presidency, a conservative Supreme Court comprised of railroad lawyers consistently blocked dozens of progressive federal and state legislative proposals. The pro-corporate Supreme Court appointments of Roosevelt’s successor, President Taft, who filled six vacancies, did nothing to temper progressive outrage. True to form, Roosevelt jumped into the fray, decrying the Supreme Court’s out-sized role as a barrier to social justice. In his Progressive Party convention speech, Roosevelt declared:
The American people, and not the courts, are to determine their own fundamental
policies. . . . The stick-in-the-bark legalism, the legalism that subordinates equity to technicalities, should be recognized as a potent enemy of justice.
Even more boldly, Roosevelt went on to argue for referendum to recall Supreme Court decisions, presaging by several decades his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s high-stakes attempt to pack the Court in response to its intractable opposition to wildly popular New Deal reforms. Today, after Citizens United, Teddy Roosevelt’s proposal seems eminently reasonable.
Roosevelt entered the Republican presidential primaries in 1912 and easily vanquished Taft, winning nine state primaries. Robert LaFollete, more progressive than Roosevelt, won two states, while Taft won only one. The party was still in the grip of conservative bosses however; reading the writing on the wall, Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Convention to found the Progressive Party. The Progressive platform minced no words, declaring:
“To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt
business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”
Roosevelt was not immune to charges of “radicalism”, the common label affixed to anti-corporate populists then and now, but Roosevelt’s patriotism was unimpeachable; he was a war hero, the leader of the world famous Rough Riders. He had been one of the most popular presidents in American history. His platform was appealingly dubbed the New Nationalism. Nevertheless, sidelined for the final weeks of his campaign by the injuries he sustained at the Milwaukee speech, Roosevelt placed a distant second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, winning 27% of the popular vote and eighty-eight electoral votes. It may have been a small consolation, but he did beat President Taft, who became the only incumbent ever to come in third in a presidential election.
Roosevelt successfully tapped into a rich vein of American outrage over corporate influence in politics, but it is important to remember that he wasn’t the first — and certainly not the last — great American leader to recognize the threat.
Alexander Hamilton wrote that at the Constitutional Convention: “Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Thomas Jefferson believed that “banking institutions are more dangerous to
our liberties than standing armies.” Abraham Lincoln fumed, “The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity . . . It denounces as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes.” Franklin Roosevelt declared, “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob…” Dwight Eisenhower famously warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Many of our greatest leaders have recognized, and worried deeply about, the unchecked influence of corporate power on our political processes.
Today, an overwhelming majority of Americans are coming to the same conclusion,
supporting limits on corporate spending in elections, particularly for foreign companies, government contractors and bailout recipients. But Americans are up against formidable opponents in the corporate-dominated Republican Party, the corporate-influenced Democrats, an ideologically driven, right wing Supreme Court, and a powerful army of business lobbyists.
This is just the kind of opposition that would have gotten Teddy fired up. It’s time to revive the spirit of the Bull Moose. Americans are ready for real reforms to the most pressing problems of the day, but the Republicans and (most) Democrats are too busy thinking small. Without a leader of Teddy Roosevelt’s massive statute, a Bull Moose movement today could never survive as a viable third party, but it could wake up and mobilize a lot of disillusioned Americans.
One hundred years later, it’s time to bring the Bull Moose back!
Dan Firger and Janos Marton are both members of the Bull Moose Movement.
Visit bullmoosemovement.wordpress.com to find out how to get involved.