Shortly after leaving office, the former president, who detested everything his successor stood for, stepped to a podium to deliver a searing critique of the state of affairs and to warn of an existential threat to the endurance of republican government.
He recounted ancestors’ indefatigable toils for progress, and he framed the moment as one that called for a renewed sense of civic engagement. He dismissed the notion that one man could sustain or defeat the nation’s proud democratic tradition, and he called on citizens to build themselves up as people of character, of honesty and of initiative who seek to be, and to elect, those who do right. He urged his audience to rise above cynicism and to have hope rooted not in blind optimism, but in faith that, in a republic, citizens have the capacity to shape their nation’s story toward virtuous ends.
That was Theodore Roosevelt, who so abhorred the direction in which his successor was leading the country that he started a new political party in 1912 in an attempt to oust that successor, William Howard Taft, from office.
But first came that speech, titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” and delivered in Paris in 1910, the year after Roosevelt left the White House. Its most famous lines refer to a “man in the arena” who “strives valiantly” and, if he fails, at least does so while “daring greatly.”
Roosevelt did not prescribe policy positions in that address, and he did not weigh in on the ideological issues of the day. He merely posited that for a republican form of government to endure, its citizens must pursue enlightened thinking, civic virtue and hard work so the nation might, in his words, “leave its seed to inherit the land.”
One hundred and ten years later, at this year’s Democratic National Convention, another former president — Barack Obama — delivered a speech with a nearly identical call to action.
His speech represented the natural climax to the arc of his national political career: It was 16 years ago, in a speech that vaulted the young Senate candidate from Illinois to national prominence, that Obama declared there were no blue states or red states, only the United States, that we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens, and that we must dismiss the politics of cynicism in favor of the politics of hope.
In 2016, while endorsing Hillary Clinton, Obama channeled Roosevelt’s words to declare that Clinton represented the citizen in the arena, a woman who had rolled up her sleeves, ignored the naysayers, and served her country as a U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Clinton, of course, lost.
And in the four years since, the politics of division and discord that Obama decried in 2004 have widened the chasm at the core of American society that manifests itself in a ceaseless culture war, fraying — perhaps even obliterating — the fabric that holds together this republic.
To enter the arena
In 2016, Obama suggested that Clinton was the one to help this nation mend the nation’s divides, and with his characteristically soaring oratory, he called her the most qualified person ever to seek the office of the presidency.
This year, however, Obama’s speech took a different tack. He implored Americans to be the ones who enter the arena, arguing that now more than ever — at a time when social injustice is acute and political cynicism is palpable — it is time for citizens to take control of their democracy.
“Embrace your own responsibility as citizens to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure because that’s what’s at stake right now,” Obama pleaded. “Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
In Obama’s estimation, that means voting for Joe Biden. But at the end of the day, it means engaging in the process in good faith, getting involved in one’s community, and lifting one’s voice to support the causes in which one believes.
Poignantly and forcefully, Obama recounted people of past generations who had every reason to believe that American democracy wasn’t serving them, but who nonetheless joined with others — registering voters, marching in the streets, engaging in nonviolent protest, sometimes even to the point of arrest — to secure lasting change that bent the arc of history toward justice.
In Obama’s conception, the U.S. Constitution — more importantly, the system it enshrines — is the great emancipator, capable of fostering reinvention and evolution beyond the values of the time in which it was composed, while preserving a set of democratic principles that can put us on a path toward equality and good governance. Obama often seems to be one of only a few major political figures on either side of the aisle these days who believes in the capacity of our democratic process to do that.
He’s not naive about the way our institutions now are contorted to prevent social change.
But rather than blow things up — as many on the left and certainly on the right have called for — Obama charges us to do the same hard work of institutional reinvention that conservative intellectuals such as Yuval Levin champion. That is, to reject the trappings of plutocratic partisanship in favor of grassroots engagement in neighborhoods, civic organizations and local governments; to secure unobstructed access to the ballot for citizens of all backgrounds; and to believe in the capacity of our constitutional framework to attain justice for all.
People of good faith — on both sides of the aisle — who believe in democracy as the path to civic renewal ought to heed the call to be the people in the arena. This means ignoring the mockery of critics who claim to know better, who suggest that “the system” is beyond repair, who believe that only the foolish would waste their energy trying to fix what is broken. This means standing up and working to fulfill the unfinished promise of our Constitution.
We, the citizens
This November’s election promises to be rancorous. As it approaches, its stakes will surely be characterized in ever more dire terms, even as cloistered pundits proffer platitudes about there being more that unites us than divides us. The truth is that the only people able to decide whether our republic — dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal and so equally worthy of the blessings of liberty — shall endure are we, the citizens of this republic.
Only we, the citizens of this republic, can choose to resist the temptation to amplify propaganda we know to be false even if it might help our side to “win.”
Only we, the citizens of this republic, can choose to extend an olive branch to neighbors who hold differing values and views — prioritizing a long-term civic friendship over a short-term rush of dopamine at having twisted the knife in an opponent.
Only we, the citizens of this republic, can choose to offer grace to good-faith actors in the media, in our polling places, and even in our local political parties, whose functions are foundational to free and fair elections.
Only we, the citizens of this republic, can choose to exercise patience as our votes are counted, knowing that it might take more than a few hours to ensure that our fellow citizens’ voices can be heard along with our own.
And only we, the citizens of this republic, can choose to wake up the morning after the results are announced, look out at our country — with its enduring systemic inequalities, its wildly diverse population, its amazing mix of cities, suburbs, rural communities and towns — and decide that this is a nation, an idea, worth fighting for.
Our Constitution’s founding aspiration is to seek a union that is more perfect, one in which the flaws of today become the strengths of tomorrow through the ongoing — often frustrating, sometimes slow, and never finished — work of activists and elders, business people and politicians, churches and community organizations, families and neighbors, and citizens.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
In this moment, planting seeds of civic engagement and uprooting malignant weeds of division so that representative democracy can flourish certainly seems to be work worth doing.
Fundamentally, that is the call of citizenship in this republic. As citizens, there is no one but us to pursue it.
Benjamin Pontz is a Strasburg native and Gettysburg College graduate. A recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, he will begin studying for a master’s degree in governance and public policy at the University of Manchester in England in October. He previously worked as a reporter for PA Post and WITF.