A Big Shtick

Miley Cyrus's Smartest Tattoo

What’s that on Cyrus’s arm in Rolling Stone? Well, she’s hurled herself into the arena, risking everything. James Poulos on the twerker’s intellectual tie to Teddy Roosevelt.

Miley Cyrus is serious. On the inside of her left forearm,” Rolling Stone reveals, a powerful message is inked:


You might be familiar with the line. It’s one of the few presidential maxims that Americans still relate to, or even remember. “It’s from a Teddy Roosevelt speech,” Miley told RS. “It’s about how people judge who wins and who loses, but they’re not the ones in there fighting.”

For those who disagree that Miley is the most authentically punk artist working today, this tattoo probably holds even less authenticity or spiritual heft than an Om tattoo on the throat chakra of a vegan stripper. Alas, we can’t pretend that there aren’t disturbing, dramatic questions lurking here. In fact, it’s no coincidence that TR’s words have reappeared over a century later on the limb of America’s most beloved twerker. The secret history that connects them is the history of America. Their story is our story.

As is true of so many things in an American tale, one of our first clues is to be found in Alexis de Tocqueville. After cranking out the first volume of Democracy in America—the product of a long hangout with lots of Yankees, originally meant to survey our prison system—the youthful French genius retreated to his ancestral estate to ponder how his subject unveiled the meaning of life. Some five years later, Tocqueville dropped Volume 2—a deeply philosophical yet plainspoken meditation on the party in the USA.

It was history’s biggest party. For Tocqueville, America was unique in its prosperity, its potential, and its possibilities. “In America,” he wrote, “I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords”—but there was a puzzle: “it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.”

The title of the chapter that begins this way is Why Americans Are So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity. Yes, some things never change.

But some things do change, and Tocqueville feared that the Americans of the 1840s were already beginning to intuit the troubling transition that awaited their world. “When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished,” he warned, “when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience.” Try not to shudder as Tocqueville prophesies the way we live now:

 “The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position. When men are nearly alike and all follow the same track, it is very difficult for any one individual to walk quickly and cleave a way through the dense throng that surrounds and presses on him. This constant strife between the inclination springing from the equality of condition and the means it supplies to satisfy them harasses and wearies the mind."

There is, of course, a small bit of the populace—say, 1%—who aren’t harassed and wearied by the invisible barriers to ambition that equality puts in our place. Who are these charmed people? The ones with lots of talent and very little fear. As Chris Hayes and others have noted, our democratic age is predisposed to let “merit” rule—and we, within it, not-so-secretly believe there’s nothing that can stop the most talented people with the most ambition. Yet, sadly, neither talent nor ambition cultivates prudence, wisdom, love, or magnanimity. Welcome to the age of Larry Summers.

In his farsightedness, Tocqueville knew that America could fall into the hands of today’s super-elite. Though he didn’t predict the Internet, he did devote a huge, dense chapter to the possibility of a weird new faux-aristocracy composed of industrial titans. In 1845, our political economy wasn’t centralized or militarized enough for ambitious meritocrats to seize mastery. But within 20 years, the Civil War did exactly that. In an astoundingly brief time, the Party of Lincoln became the Party of Robber Barons. They ruled with virtually uninterrupted and unfettered control until they were challenged at the turn of the 20th century by a spasm of outrage so powerful that it nearly conquered both major political parties.

Enter Teddy Roosevelt. Shocked by how inefficient and amateurish government had become relative to the colossal machinery of elite industry, Roosevelt determined that only a new kind of politics could liberate America from its meritocratic cabal. Rather than a mere executive of duly passed laws, the president would have to become a leader—the source of organization and inspiration among the masses of confused, powerless, and disillusioned. As Ronald Pestritto points out, TR freely admitted in his Autobiography what this meant for constitutional government:

Roosevelt wrote that he “declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the nation could not be done by the president unless he could find some specific authorization to do it.” The national government, in TR’s view, was not one of enumerated powers but of general powers, and the purpose of the Constitution was merely to state the narrow exceptions to that rule.

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According to Teddy, Pestritto recounts, government under a leader-POTUS should only let you keep property and earn profit if “the gaining represents benefit to the community.”

For conservatives then and now, Roosevelt’s progressivism was a nightmare. But it was first and foremost an attempt to wake up America from the torpor of the daily grind under its meritocratic overlords. For TR, politics was the last remaining realm open to the experience of true greatness. Not “achievement,” certainly not measured in piles of amassed wealth, but personal courage, authentic freedom, and justified power: you know, the good stuff—the opposite of anxiety.

Shamefully, if predictably, Roosevelt’s impressive vision fell far short. He failed to retake the presidency as an independent, but Woodrow Wilson triumphed with two terms of his own, related brand of progressivism. A century later, it’s painfully clear that the original progressive vision of a government powerful enough to free the people from private-sector masters led instead to the ultimate dystopia— collusion, corruption, and cronyism between the ambitious and the talented who rule both big business and big government. 

How could this happen? To be blunt, nationalism failed. TR’s “New Nationalism,” with its nascent cult of the leader, flowed all too naturally in the slipstream of history toward the nationalistic cataclysms of the first and second world wars. That’s not to say that a strong American president is basically Hitler Junior. Indeed, America triumphed over insane Old World nationalism by replacing populism with corporate and bureaucratic managerialism—apparently the only force that could contain the outsize egos and skills of the many Napoleons vying for membership in the super-elite.

All that’s to say that Teddy Roosevelt was wrong about politics being the last refuge of the bold and the beautiful. Today, politics is a sickening spank shack of pervy strivers, goldbricking buffoons, and amoral apparatchiks. Nobody now looks to politics as Teddy did—as the stage where human beings can show forth their true, full selves.

No, today, that’s what celebrity is for.

Today, the frontier is not where men and steel carve out America’s manifest destiny. It is where a tiny few rack up 100 million YouTube views. We still believe, as Teddy said, that the “credit belongs” to the one “who is actually in the arena,” who “knows great enthusiasms,” who, “at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Miley knows what she’s talking about. In today’s economy, as Tocqueville knew, not even a legacy celeb with a blockbuster TV series who’s been handed every ingredient of privilege can count on stability, security, and success. She’s got to hurl herself into the arena. She’s got to risk everything—her reputation, her identity, maybe even her sanity. 

Many of us understand that neither the politicians nor the entertainers can save us. But today, Miley Cyrus does a better job than Barack Obama or John Boehner of commanding our attention and inspiring new dreams. No, we shouldn’t go carve her face into Mount Twerkmore. But we might just have to carry the spirit of Miley’s TR tattoo into the living of our own lives. In a free society, nobody’s gonna do it for us.