Enter the Arena, Democrats. Teddy Roosevelt Was Right.

Cass R. Sunstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In April 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke before a large audience in Paris. “The poorest way to face life,” he said, “is with a sneer.”

These days, too many Democrats are sneering — not only at President Donald Trump, but also at one another. From the left, many progressives are describing former Vice President Joe Biden as out of touch, old, too conservative, maybe even a bit racist. From the center, many Democrats are describing Senator Elizabeth Warren as unelectable, unlikable, unrealistic, disconnected from the values and beliefs of ordinary Americans.

That’s a shame for many reasons, but one in particular is that it threatens to put Democrats in a position akin to that of Trump-era Republicans. A recurring question, mostly faced by Republicans in the age of Trump, is whether to work for a party nominee or an elected official with whom they have intense disagreements. Over the last two years, many Republicans have declined to join the Trump administration, others have been criticized for doing so, and some have been, and now are, torn about whether to resign.  

No Democrat is saying “Never Biden” or “Never Warren,” at least not yet. But many have said contemptuous things about Biden, Warren and other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination that could signal reluctance to serve in the wrong kind of Democratic administration.

Roosevelt had the best response to that impulse on that April day in Paris, and lurid though his language may have been, the sentiment remains as fresh as ever:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt was deploring “a cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform.” Speaking before an audience at the Sorbonne, one of the world’s great universities, Roosevelt singled out for opprobrium “the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure.” Those of learning and leisure might be tenured professors in Paris or New Haven, or writers for prestigious magazines in London or New York.

Roosevelt was making a plea for stronger forms of commitment and engagement. As he knew, those who struggle to do the deeds often know incalculably more than those who do not, because of that very struggle. As he also knew, people who sneer often have no idea what they are talking about, even when they speak or write with elegance and panache.

Those who accept Roosevelt’s plea can of course have diverse views about particular politicians and about whether it is appropriate to support or work for them. But it is reasonable to take his argument to support a kind of rebuttable but firm presumption: If you can, enter the arena. Don’t sneer.

With respect to today’s Democrats, the implication is straightforward. Suppose, for example, that you are on the left and that you are unenthusiastic, or worse, about Biden. If he is the Democratic nominee, you should support him and work on his behalf. And if he is elected, and if you are lucky enough to have a chance to work in some capacity for his administration, you should be inclined to say yes. The point holds for public service more generally.

I was fortunate enough to spend nearly four years in President Barack Obama’s administration (and to have had part-time positions for most of remaining four). I learned that if you are in the arena, you can achieve far more in a good month than you can in a decade outside it.

You will certainly get frustrated; your face will be “marred by dust and sweat.” Things won’t always go your way. Many days aren’t a lot of fun. Still, you should be inclined to say yes. You should do that even if you anticipate that you will disagree, on important occasions, with your boss.

Let’s give Roosevelt the last word:

“It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who ‘but for the vile guns would have been a soldier.’”

To contact the author of this story: Cass R. Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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