12/30/2010 11:32 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Killed Teddy Roosevelt?

There can be little doubt that, here in America, 2010 will be remembered as a tough year coming on the heels of a tough decade. Be it unprecedented rancor, record-setting obstructionism, the waxing crescent moon of our economy, or the continuously embarrassing fecklessness of much of the media, this year gave us a great deal to cringe about. Sure, we benefited as a nation from many of the hard-fought legislative achievements of the most productive Congress in fifty years, but each of those gains -- substantial though they may be -- carries the heavy asterisk of what could have been. This is the year that brought us the nightmarish stultification of the conservative movement and the nearly parodic collapse of the exhausted liberal will; it introduced us to Christine O'Donnell, Eric Massa, Tony Hayward, Sharron Angle, Terry Jones, bedbugs, death panels, Miami LeBron, and Four Loko. As demoralizing as so much of it was, however -- I'm looking at you, Four Loko -- my biggest regret of 2010 is reserved for an event that never happened.

2010 ought to have commemorated the hundredth anniversary of an American political movement which sought to make our country a kinder and better land, a movement which was conceived on August 31st, 1910 in the southwest corner of Osawatomie, Kansas, and which died, stillborn, during the presidential election of 1912. That August evening was supposed to have marked the culmination of a two-day festival memorializing America's most famous radical, John Brown, with the dedication of a park in his name; in the course of an hour-and-a-half-long address, however, the illustrious keynote speaker hardly even mentioned the notorious honoree. Two years removed from the presidency and two years shy of announcing that he would run again, Teddy Roosevelt spoke to 30,000 Kansans from atop a kitchen table that night, delivering what would come to be known as the "New Nationalism Speech." It was a speech about justice, about the principles we as a nation hold dear; it was a clarion call that -- for a moment -- reminded us of America's promise of a fair shake for all, and of how far we had already fallen from that foundational ideal.

"Every special interest is entitled to justice," Roosevelt told his audience of farmers and veterans, the children of Bleeding Kansas, "but not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office." Roosevelt's listeners knew well the profound leverage business interests exercised over politicians. Corporate influence in elections had been contaminating American democracy for many years prior to 1910; before there was Citizens United there was Standard Oil, and before there was Karl Rove there was Mark Hanna, President McKinley's Rovian campaign advisor who famously enumerated the two things that are important in politics: "The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is." While in office, Roosevelt had earned a reputation for curbing the unchecked consolidation and unrestricted electoral might of corporations that had been the unabashed legacy of the administration he inherited from McKinley upon the latter's death. His antipathy to corporate dominance over the individual grew in fervor and pitch as he watched his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, burrow increasingly deeper into the pockets of the business world. All around him, Republicans and Democrats alike had cozied up to the lucrative embrace of corporatism.

"Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration," Roosevelt told the crowd, and quickly fortified the notion: "If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln's." One hundred years later, capital has strangled labor to the point of near-death. The richest one percent of Americans account for twenty-three percent of the nation's wealth, about fifteen percent of our citizens live below the poverty line, and the country's most powerful self-proclaimed populist movement is in fact a thinly veiled pro-corporate front -- founded and financed by the billionaire Koch Brothers, supportive of an hysterically anti-labor agenda, and advancing such cherished populist proposals as the restriction of voting to only property owners. An average CEO today takes in 263 times the salary of an average employee (the year Ronald Reagan was elected, that number was forty-two), and every measure of income inequality points to the tremendous effect of corporate deregulation on the colossal gulf between the few who are super-wealthy and the many, many more who are not.

"We must drive the special interests out of politics," the former president railed on, "there can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains." His listeners had suffered the consequences of rampant deregulation only in the form of localized bank panics; by 2010, triumphantly deregulated corporations had long-since sprawled into the world of complex financial instruments, and the progeny of those panics had metastasized into a full-blown global crisis. When the bottom fell out of the American economy, there was public outcry from every corner, to be sure, but no consequences for the corporations responsible, and certainly no consequences for the political ideology that allowed them to bleed us dry. The spirit of populism that had once coursed through the veins of America, that had oiled the machinery of human progress in the freest nation ever devised, had long since desiccated -- so when we groped and grabbled for the words that would make things right, we didn't know what to say to our government, our business leaders, ourselves. Everywhere we looked, there they were: a thousand McKinleys, and not a Roosevelt to be seen.

Early in Roosevelt's 1912 campaign, he was shot in the chest by an attempted assassin named John Schrank; the bullet was slowed by his glasses case, and by a fifty-page speech on the New Nationalism that had been folded many times over in his breast pocket. When reporters later asked him whether he was healthy enough to continue to seek the presidency, the candidate famously responded that he was "fit as a bull moose," and the name stuck to the principles of the man. These last hundred years have seen a great deal of progress. America should be proud of its successful struggles against those forces who, through the ages, have stood in the way of positive reform. We have dramatically advanced civil rights, we have protected our most vulnerable citizens; we have been innovators, demonstrators, defenders, and diplomats for a litany of noble endeavors. But one hundred years removed from that kitchen table in Osawatomie, we have let the bullet sink in to the heart of Teddy Roosevelt. We have let the torch of populism be extinguished by those who pervert and degrade words like 'freedom' to protect the ever-amplifying noise of corporate clout. In the hundred years to come, may we climb the table, block the bullet, light the torch again, until the promises we made to ourselves -- a square deal, a fair chance, an equal voice in the corridors of power -- are finally fulfilled, until our American dream becomes an American reality at last.