If there’s one American political figure that the 2012 election makes one yearn for, it’s Teddy Roosevelt. Not for all of his policies, but for what he recognized and saw in the American political system; something that he quite frankly would not find today. Speaking at the Harvard Union (now the Barker Center) in 1907, Roosevelt stated, “In popular government results worth having can be achieved only by men who combine worthy ideals with practical good sense.” Today, the individuals Roosevelt was referring to would be dismissed as ideologues, not demagogues. The end of their campaigns is not to win powerful political positions but to advance their philosophy. They don’t follow polls; they lead with ideals.
The great men and women of history became great because they had the courage to stand for something larger than themselves. For many, that something was God; for others, liberty or human rights. They had a vision based on their understanding of human nature and the world, and they campaigned to advance it. The greatest tragedy in America today is that most of our leaders have lost their vision, and we as American citizens don’t have a great enough understanding to propose a new one. We declare wars upon poverty and inequality and then fail to acknowledge the inequality of results inherent to liberty or the limits of human nature. We scream about the war on women and “abortion rights” without discussing what rights are in the first place. These questions are not settled, but they have been addressed. The intellectual history of the liberal and conservative movements in America is rich but too often ignored.
If you want to be a leader in politics, you need to be motivated by more than a sound bite. The “worthy ideals” that Teddy Roosevelt saw within true leaders don’t fit within tweets; they find their homes in books. So study Friedman and Keynes. Consider Rawls and Locke. Ponder Chesterton, and, before you vehemently disagree with her, at least read Ayn Rand.
The philosophies of these thinkers are clashing in 2012 just like past elections. But unlike all other elections, 2012 is your first—and only—presidential election as a student of Harvard. Like other elections during your adult life, the parties have drawn similar battle lines that extend across issues, but during this one, you live in an academic environment with scholars who can teach you the intellectual history of political thought. Like other elections, this one is focused on the solutions to problems like broken education and immigration systems, but today you can meet professors (with office hours) who have advised presidents and determined major policy initiatives in these areas. Like other elections, campaigns will beg for your precious time, but only this time can you volunteer with a group of truly energetic classmates.
Yes, participating in an election is your civic duty, but it’s also a unique educational experience. Harvard has been a part of American history for nearly four centuries, but your part in American history begins today. Do more than just register to vote. Learn about philosophy and public policy with Harvard’s tremendous resources, and then share what you’ve learned with America on the campaign trail. Listen and learn; respond and repeat. The advertisements on TV and across social media may be ugly and negative, but you can make this election something else. Introduce philosophy, and you can make it inspiring.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the President of the Harvard Republican Club.