Roosevelt’s ‘New Nationalism’: the evolution of a concept and how history dooms a word

Written by: Pauline Darrieus

In summer 1910, Theodore Roosevelt delivers a speech in Kansas about what he calls ‘New Nationalism’, as part of his campaign for the 1912 presidential elections. There, he advocates for institutional reforms to preserve democracy and ensure the accurate representation of all the American people. This speech is set in the context of the early 20th century, and is therefore fascinating, for it reveals a dramatically different understanding of the concept of nationalism from that of today. Roosevelt’s use of the word ‘nationalism’ appears yet untainted by the gruesome nationalisms that would later associate the concept with a completely different political theory, so much so that, today, his political program would instead be called ‘patriotic’. 

Roosevelt proudly reminds his audience that their country stands as the symbol of ‘the triumph of real democracy’, of popular government, as well as of an economic system which allows individuals to thrive, both financially and humanly. He offers to defend this political model through his ‘New Nationalism’, defined as the prominence of the national need before sectional or personal advantage. Indeed, the context is that of institutional and political divisions, particularly within the Republican party, on the matter of patronage. This New Nationalism expresses the feeling of wariness due to the utter confusion caused by local legislation trying to settle national issues. Consequently, it demands the end of division and impotence of governmental powers, which Roosevelt identifies as the source of selfishness and corruption. Overall, the political structure of this New Nationalism is a centralised one, aimed at improving administrative efficiency to the benefit of the people, as summarised by Roosevelt when he says that ‘this New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of public welfare’. In other words, this type of nationalism defends a centralised government which is not motivated by a superior and transcendental nature of the state per se, but purely by practical reasons, with the sole aim of improving social welfare.

Roosevelt’s nationalism is characterised by the desire to serve all the citizens of the country, not only a minority. Indeed, he warns against the inevitable ruin of the country if the national life only produces ‘swollen fortunes for the few’ and allows the triumph in politics and business of a ‘sordid and selfish materialism’. The material progress and wealth of a nation are obviously desirable, but only as far as they lead to the ‘moral and material welfare’ of all citizens. If promoting the development of the nation is a common feature of nationalist rhetoric, the emphasis on the welfare of all citizens deserves a thorough enquiry. Indeed, a contemporary reader would understand the emphasis as put on the ‘citizens’, in opposition to non-citizens, in accordance with 20th century and current nationalist policies, such as that of Modi in India, or Johnson in the UK. However, here Roosevelt actually insists on the ‘all citizens’ as opposed to a minority of political or social elites. Thus, in his mouth, nationalism calls for the gathering and unity of a country, against internal divisions, between the voters and their political representatives, but contains no reference to an exclusionary kind of citizenship.

The New Nationalism also differs from our common contemporary understanding of that political doctrine, for it puts a great stress on the responsibility of the individual in the fulfilment of the national enterprise. Indeed, as opposed to, for instance, Mussolini’s vision of the nation as erasing individual agency to the benefit of the national will and interest, here, Roosevelt places every individual’s character at the source of a striving nation, without which no moral institutions can be founded. ‘We must have the right kind of character’, says he, this right type of character being that of ‘a good man in the home, a good father, a good husband – that makes a good man a good neighbour’. If the traditional role of the man portrayed here corresponds to the typical nationalist views on the central role of the family, as exemplified by Pétain Vichy France’s motto of ‘Work – Family – Homeland’, it is however more surprising to see nationalism placing individual agency above that of the whole national body, especially when its overt aim for the state is to ensure the welfare of the people.

As we have seen, Roosevelt defends conservative views of society, such as the role of men in society, and further develops his appraisal of the benefits of conservatism. Nothing compares in importance, in his opinion, to the ‘great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on’. Apart from the notion of progress and development contained in the twice mentioned adjective ‘better’, this quote conveys a quite permanent feature of nationalism, drawing links between an eternal identity of the nation and the land inhabited by one people, such as theorised by the French political thinker Maurice Barrès in his speech entitled ‘The earth and the dead’, (1899). The ‘patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation’ through the preservation of the land reveals the conception of an inherent immaterial link between one people and the land it inhabits. 

Despite his highly conservative stance on the land, Roosevelt’s nationalism nonetheless accommodates some progressive traits, aiming at the material progress of the citizens, where the nation is but a means to a human end. Overall, Roosevelt’s nationalism is quite distinct from its contemporary counterpart, for the good reason that it predates fundamental events of the 20th century, such as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the 1929 stock market crash and two world wars, and the radical ethnic nationalisms of the 20th century which deeply and irrevocably gave the term a sombre taint. On the contrary, Roosevelt’s nationalism insists on unity, conciliates various ideologies, from conservative to progressive, believes in friendly relations between nations and give a prominent place to the individual, in accordance with the American Protestant spirit. Thus, evidencing two things: first, the central influence of historical events in the evolution of a concept, for in 1910, nationalism was clearly not different from patriotism. Lastly, how a word bears no inherent meaning but the one you give it, while simultaneously carrying the baggage of history and its previous meanings.

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