Finding Unity – The Four Freedoms Plus Two
In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt had to find a way to inspire the country to come together as a unified whole to fight World War II. He conjured up the Four Freedoms – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – as a rallying theme of common values. In our current time when so many are decrying our lack of unity, could these Four Freedoms serve once again to unite us?
The Four Freedoms continue to hold true to our values, and to distinguish us from the authoritarian countries and threats. In the 80 years separating us from Roosevelt's time, however, new challenges to applying these Four Freedoms to our lives have arisen. While complicated, the challenges can be met and still serve us. Progress, however, has brought us another freedom that must be respected – Freedom #5, Freedom from Discrimination. In addition, because various pressures have threatened the hold on power of the Republican party, including the pressures that the new ethnicities have brought on the formerly ruling ethnic group, we have to be concerned with another freedom – Freedom #6, Freedom for Free and Fair Elections and Peaceful Transfer of Power.
Unity is not everything; sometimes basic issues have to be faced and hashed out. We hope to find common goals to work toward – the vision of the Emerald City – even if we dispute the means to get there – the Yellow Brick Road. The common vision makes us opponents; disagreement on the goals can make us enemies. Working toward establishing a common vision could be helpful once again in establishing unity.
Enlightened leadership should be able to use the venerable Four Freedoms and the New Two Freedoms to establish those common goals, and to make our contending forces cooperators and opponents,rather than enemies.
It is commonly thought now, and I agree, that the country is not very well unified, that our parties are far apart and not cooperative with one another, and that the country itself is divided into disagreeing camps. It's uncomfortable, it hurts people, and the rift obstructs us from making progress for our country as a whole, and all our constituent parts.
Of course, countries oscillate from more to less united as conditions change and as basic issues get thrashed out. But I got to thinking, and I wondered, what was the last time we were really closely united as a country? I thought, World War II. We were threatened by the fascist powers, and we put away our grievances and worked together to defeat them. Of course, a war with existential consequences will do that, and no one would wish such a war on us today. But still, divided as we are now in our politics and our country, it should be helpful to look back to see what ideas and values, what appreciation of ourselves brought us together. It should give us a good perspective on where we are today.
Even though we were threatened then, having unity to fight back was not inevitable. It took leadership. Because God must have smiled on us, in those days we had one of the best leaders we have ever had as President, Franklin Roosevelt. He led us to unity by many means, but one of the most visible was one of his greatest speeches, The Four Freedoms Speech of January 6, 1941. In that speech he laid out what he thought were the greatest gifts of our heritage, freedoms that reflected our common values and beliefs, the things that made it worthwhile for us to fight for our continued existence as an independent country.
I wondered if the Four Freedoms still applied to us today, if they were still important components of our shared vision of our country. I wondered if I looked at it I could bring it up to date, and see if it gave us a basis to feel more unified today. So that's what I did.
What I found was that the basic Four Freedoms – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear – still are of core importance to us, and still distinguish us from the non-liberal states abroad. I also found that if Roosevelt had given the speech today, he would have added two more basic freedoms – #5 Freedom from Discrimination, since the Civil Rights movement has changed our world significantly and irrevocably. Also #6 Freedom of Free and Fair Elections with Peaceful Transfer of Power,
which is a surprising discovery, just as fish only discover they have been living in water when all of a sudden the water level recedes, and they find themselves threatened by the absence of what they had taken for granted.
The Four Freedoms Speech, January 6, 1941
In 1941 Roosevelt had just led the country out of the Depression, only to find that he had another great challenge of leadership facing him from abroad. Threatened by the fascist aggressors, he would have to unify the country to meet the horrific challenge of world war. That he would be able to do so was not a given. As intensely loved as he was, he had equally intense opposition from big business, isolationists, and fascist-sympathizers. He couldn't win all of his critics over, but he hoped to persuade some and to marginalize the rest, so that everyone could work together.
That was the burden of this State of the Union speech on the eve of war. He first detailed how severe the threat of the Fascist powers was, and what steps he was already taking. But then at the end of the speech, he added the peroration where he answered the question, why should we fight? His answer was, we should fight for our way of life, for our values. Then he summarized them as the freedoms we enjoy, which he called the Four Freedoms – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
I thought that he must have found this distillate of wisdom from his years of experience and public service, but then I knew that every President has speech writers, and I wondered if it had come from them. So I looked it up. It turns out, wonderfully, that it had come directly from him. They were on the fourth of what would be seven drafts of that speech, and at the beginning of the meeting he pulled out a yellow pad of paper and had them listen to what he had written. And that was it, the Four Freedoms, complete. They kept it in the speech just as he had written it. He was really quite a guy.
Our Different Situations
Our situation today in 2021 is certainly different from what it was in 1941. We don't have Nazi's trying to rule the world, even if many authoritarians abroad are ascendant and their ideas are opposed to ours. The ties of global trade makes war less likely, and thankfully the threats of nuclear annihilation have receded. Our national economy is immensely stronger, but our New Gilded Age discrepancy of wealth is the most severe in a hundred years, and rapid change has given great pain to many as others have gained great wealth. Societies with such severe discrepancies cannot easily survive as democracies.
We have two especially severe challenges that 1941 did not face. The first challenge is climate change, and existential threat to the world and our familiar ways of life. If we do not adapt quickly, the consequences for all the world are almost inconceivable. If the Nazi's presented a “something must be done” situation in 1941, so does climate change today. It is just as much a clear and present danger that requires unity of effort just as in 1941.
The second challenge is internal to the United States. Our demographic changes, combined with increased participation in democracy, have led us to the brink of a change in ethnic leadership. White men in charge is giving way to multi-ethnic and bigender rule. As Levitsky and Ziblatt observe, when the domination of an ethnic group is threatened, the dominant group will resist strongly, and that is how democracies die.
So, just as Roosevelt needed unity then, it seems that we could use it now. We will always have our differences – unity is not unanimity. But we need to be united in our vision of our future, what we are striving for, our Emerald City. Real life never gives us a Yellow Brick Road – we'll have to discover that on our own, by disputing among ourselves which path to choose. But if we are united on our vision, we won't be enemies. When we dispute over the specific road to choose, how to get there, we will be opponents. And that's what unity in a democracy brings, contending factions that are opponents, not enemies.
That's what I'm hoping to get by looking more closely at the Four Freedoms Plus Two.
The Four Freedoms Updated, Plus Two
Freedom #1: Freedom of Speech
Roosevelt didn't have to say much about this freedom, it was so obvious. Free speech is at least as American as apple pie. It is both a basic moral human right, and a societal instrumental asset as ideas compete on a free marketplace (at least in theory). The contrast with fascist countries then, just as we see today in contrast with the autocratic and theocratic states abroad, was patent. Defense of free speech will always be a binding tie for Americans.
That said, as with every freedom, there are constant challenges. The most serious and important challenges revolve around the concentrated social media and their connection between untruths, radicalization, privacy, and revenue; and the newly energized use of the Big Lie in politics that is amplified through cable television and social media. These issues are familiar to us and subject to extensive debate.
The form of these challenges is familiar. Each freedom has its limitations – no shouting fire in a theater, no false claims for medications no fomenting violence; no hate speech; no personal threats. The role of government is often to make rules so that desirable activities can proceed freely; the rules strike the balance between conflicting rights. The conflict on how to establish the rules for this new situation brought on by new technology, and the not-new desire of enterprising souls and those who seek power by whatever means, is simply going on as expected.
These elements of discussion seem generally to be well intended to find the new balance:
Do there need to be new restrictions on political speech for “lying?” In the UK, for instance, governmentally-linked OFCOM would probably not allow Fox News to exist. Here in the US, the mainstream media have more and more forthrightly highlighted and labelled “lies,” and both Twitter and Facebook have adopted truth standards, however imperfectly structured and effected.
Can and should private companies be relied upon to exercise good judgement and assert limits, and if so, how?
Do new norms need to be adopted by political parties and participants generally?
Should consumers exert their power by putting pressure on companies that sponsor objectionable programs? In lieu of governmental regulation and censorship, Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post promotes the idea that advertisers should pressure Fox.
Would antitrust enforcement – forsaken since the Reagan years, the source of much of our informational troubles, the growth of the conservative chains – and multiple alternatives help to defang the lies? https://washingtonmonthly.com/2021/02/27/a-free-market-wont-self-correct-the-disinformation-problem/
Should a new fairness doctrine be imposed on all media?
Are the business models of social media companies fundamentally compatible with a healthy democracy (here)?
Do digital algorithms need adjusting? Tom Friedman writes in the NYT, hoping that the European approach will spread: “While the Chinese have designed and deployed digital technologies to advance their system of authoritarian rule, the West has remained compromised and ambivalent,” Zuboff wrote last month in this paper. ...Ramesh Srinivasan, U.C.L.A. professor and author of “Beyond the Valley,” told me that America urgently needs to follow suit by enacting a digital bill of rights that “sets the right balance between free speech and algorithms that make hate speech and blatantly false information from unreputable sources go viral.”
Or, given the dictum that bad companies stay bad, do you have to just break up Facebook as a matter of interest of the state? https://uctv.tv/public-policy/search-details.aspx?showID=36880
Should very profitable social media be taxed to help support independent local investigative local journalism?
Do new limits on concentration need to be asserted on the old media of radio, television, and newspapers?
Roger McNamee asserts a conflict between the value system of platforms (Facebook and Google) of efficiency and shareholder value, and the public policy of democracy, self-determination, competition, public health, all of which are imperiled by internet platforms. Surveillance capitalism needs to be terminated. ...These tools are the authoritarians' best friends. ...I don't want government regulating these guys, I want government ending this business model. ...There is no way to kill conspiracy theories, what you want to do is to get rid of the amplification of them for profit.”
The Washington Monthly asserts that Democrats are right to target the talking heads of Trump TV and radio. But to really address the problem, they will have to go bigger and deeper. They will have to reverse America’s decades-long retreat, in which both parties have participated, from the government measures necessary to ensure the truly free and competitive media markets needed to make democracy work.
What we see here is the typical American response to new conditions, honoring basic American values. What seems clear is how heavy the imprint of the idea of free speech is in all of these considerations. Did Roosevelt hit it on the head here? I'd say yes.
Freedom #2: Freedom of Worship
Religious freedom was a hard won historical achievement. Although Roosevelt stated it as a positive for our famously religious country, the Bill of Rights asserted it negatively, reflecting the defiant tone of the Declaration of Independence – “making no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That defiance was due to the historical oppression of the nexus of royalty, aristocracy (also banished by the Constitution: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States”), and state religion. For the founders, freedom of religion not only ensured the personal freedom of belief and expression; it was also a statement of who shall be the rulers.
Roosevelt didn't need to reach back to history; he could contrast this well-established freedom to the threatening oppression of fascist regimes (even though we were making common cause with the militantly anti-religious Soviet Union. Oh, well, welcome to you, enemy of my enemy.) The same contrast holds true today, as we compare the oppressive theocracies of the Muslim Middle East, and Chinese religious suppression of Falung Gong, Uighers, and Tibetan Buddhists. The idea of limited state authority rings decisively true with religion.
Nonetheless, religion is such a deeply held value that the line between state authority and personal and institutional religious belief will always need buttressing. Religious fundamentalism is always dangerous because the depth of feeling and conviction leads to contravention of civic codes. State support for private and religious schools, citing religion in refusing to provide services for gay weddings, Christian prayers in public spaces, “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, refusing to supply contraception because of religious beliefs, forbidding free entry to the country for Muslims, allowing religious services to contravene public health decrees during a pandemic, and the intense fights on abortion rights – all test the validity of the line as drawn.
Still, I would argue that the line has held pretty well, and just as with the Founders and with Roosevelt, even though there are and will always be issues to fight, we can look at this integral freedom as a point of historic and current unity.
Freedom #3: Freedom from Want
Freedoms number one and two, Speech and Religion, stemmed from the Constitution. Roosevelt's number three, Freedom from Want, staked out new ground, ground that that Roosevelt himself had gained with the New Deal. There was a subtle message of hope in this new freedom: we have beaten the Depression, and we can beat this new threat, too, he seems to have been saying. He cast this new freedom as both a moral and instrumental necessity – a wealthy nation should care for the less fortunate, and democracy requires a secure populace without huge differences of means. From the speech:
For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment – the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent on the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
The immediate next steps for improvement he saw were:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.
The 1960's Great Society programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid but also many other supportive programs and policies, reinforced our idea that the government should supply positive social and economic good for our populace. The subsequent conservative decades made no substantial retreats on the programs and made some modest additions, such as in health care, the Child Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act. In essence, the New Deal, Freedom #3, has held.
The current challenge is what these four conservative decades of neoliberalism has wrought - - the most unequal distribution of wealth since the Gilded Age. When faced with a similar problem, Teddy, the first Roosevelt, directly attacked the “malefactors of great wealth,” decrying their control over society. Three decades later cousin Franklin echoed the sentiment in an aggressive 1936 campaign speech, citing the excesses of big business and declaring that he “welcomed their hatred.” Some think that the same tactics should be employed now, especially after the Trump tax reform, to say “no one should be rich,” and proceed from there. I would rather to say, “no one should be poor.” Roosevelt saw it this way in his “Second Bill of Rights,” and I would put it this way, as a Policy of Nobody:
The Policy of Nobody
Nobody should be a second class citizen.
Nobody should be without health care.
Nobody should lack education because of money.
Nobody should be food insecure.
Nobody should lack shelter.
Nobody should lack possibilities.
Ideas for the means might differ, but this positive role for government in helping people toward freedom from want is firmly established. If the goals are accepted, deals can be made among cooperators and opponents. Medicare for all or add on to our current system? Free university for all, or targeted assistance? State owned housing or subsidized private housing? Concentrate on ending child poverty? These are disagreements on means.
Since this positive role of government is newer than freedoms #1 and #2, there are those who still opposed it, who would like to see government so small it can drown in a bathtub, who think that health care should not be a right, who think “personal responsibility” to extend even to food and shelter without governmental support. But I think it is fair to say that, given the last fifty years of conservatism, this view has gone about as far as it can go, and the positive view of government helping people is now secure. Freedom #3 is a point of agreement, it is simply extent and means that are up for debate.
Freedom #4: Freedom from Fear
Freedom from Fear is different from the first three freedoms. This one is more of a vision of a general state of mind of the nation as a whole. You can see Roosevelt closing his eyes and thinking of the feelings that a population must have in common when it is threatened with being the next country to be overrun by Hitler's Nazi Germany, and to be subjected to its thugocracy. If everyone in America had that same vision, he must have thought, they would rally around. As they did.
This is contained in the Bill of Rights – freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and from cruel and unusual punishment. But perhaps even more, its visionary quality of a state of mind is contained in the Declaration of Independence, which conjures up a life where (perhaps surprisingly, although there is English legal precedent) individual “pursuit of happiness” is an aim of the state. It's quite a goal, that vision. Leave it to the Founders, and leave it to Roosevelt. Sharing it makes for a very positive unity.
It still applies today, especially if you allow it to cover not just international fear, but domestic fear as well. There is much work to do on nuclear threats, cyber threats, even old-fashioned takeovers and wars as with Russia in the Ukraine. Climate threat should be uniting, not dividing. Internally, a police force that protects some and afflicts others is a threat that would vitiate Roosevelt's vision. Absence of food and shelter and the other items from the Policy of Nobody would make external threats irrelevant. Guns without controls, out of control ICE and CBP and elements of government that torture, white nationalist terrorism – these elements make peaceful contemplation of life and hopes less certain that one would like.
Can we agree that our fear is a problem? That's a start. Can we agree that it is government's role to attend to our state of anxiety? Or do people believe that this is out of our collective hands, that it's too airey-fairy to define, that a posited “state of fear” is for academics and pulpits? Do people think that safety and security is a zero-sum game, or that everyone's security can rise together? Decreasing a sense of fear should be a common goal. Thinking that collective fear is a concern of government, something to work on, should be a source of unity, while debating how to ameliorate fear would be ordinary work, something for opponents to work on, not a cause for enemies to try to obliterate each other.
Freedom #5: Freedom from Discrimination
The founding documents of 1776 and 1787 had lofty conceptions of freedom and its benefits. At the time, however, slavery was widespread and lustily defended, patriarchy was active, and only white men voted. It was a very different world.
There had been improvements by 1941 (women voted), but Jim Crow held sway, other discriminatory practices were widespread and accepted, and even the 1930's New Deal programs frequently had to exclude Blacks to get them passed by Congress. Governmental policies generally restricted health, wealth, education, employment, voting, housing and other elements of normal American life for Blacks, women's rights and pay rates were restricted, there was commonly anti-Semitism in common life, gays were usually closeted, and other groups were disadvantaged as well. Law enforcement observed those same discriminatory practices. It is understandable why this freedom did not make it as Freedom #5 in 1941. That world was one of settled discrimination; it was a latent problem.
2021 is very different, if not wholly so. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, and decades of positive steps taken in governmental action, academia, business, media, and private lives have made our current world wholly dissimilar to Roosevelt's. Just the latest step is the cell phone camera revolution, that has made police brutality toward Blacks impossible to disbelieve. There is still distance to go, but the tide has turned, and the end of discrimination is firmly ensconced. Had the Four Freedoms speech been given now, the Fifth Freedom, freedom from discrimination, would have had to have been added.
The road to follow to the end of discrimination, however, is still filled with hazards. Discrimination has been culturally inscribed for centuries and thus is hard to unwind. Many have benefitted from the discrimination and thus have a stake in its retention. John Calhoun himself noted that “the tranquillity of white people, rich and poor, were secured by the degradation of Black people.” So, disquiet in the oppressing class is understandable.
For there to be unity, there can be no denying the historical and continuing structural racism against Blacks, and discrimination against other groups. This truth must be accepted, and the need to rectify grasped. To the extent that this is not accepted, overarching unity of goals among the rivals will be very difficult.
The means of repair, however, can be debated. Reparations, affirmative action, time schedule? Although there can be compromises along the way, the aim of unconditional surrender needs to be held in common. Freedom # 5 means that all the freedoms will be shared equitably, that the days of assumed inferiority of rights are over.
Freedom #6: Freedom of the People to Choose their own Leaders Freely and Fairly, and to have a Peaceful Transfer of Power
It's remarkable, I think, given the United States' celebrated status as the world's oldest continuous democracy, and given the contrast that the free vote provided to the fascist states, that Roosevelt didn't cite democratic elections as a basic freedom. Maybe the spotty history of our voting, from the obvious gender and racial exclusions of 1787, through the continued suppressions of gerrymandering and Jim Crow and the domination of politics by party bosses and machine politics and various corruptions of the process, made him shy away. But whatever it was then, Roosevelt would have to include it now. The Civil Rights Movement identified voting rights as the keystone that ensured all the others, and President Lyndon Johnson agreed as he pushed through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As we witness the attacks on voting rights today, we realize again that nothing is as central to our continued democracy as the voice of all the people as expressed through voting.
Is it particularly worse now than it has been in the past? Eminent political scientists soberly tell us that there is a “long-standing participatory advantage of the well educated and the well-off.... “(We were) asked whether what we were finding is an old disturbing pattern or a new disturbing trend … we could only answer 'both.' Over and over … we demonstrate that pronounced inequality of political voice are a longstanding feature of our politics and that such inequalities are anchored firmly in inequalities of education and income. However, both economic and political developments in the New Gilded Age are exacerbating the inequalities of political voice that have for so long characterized democracy in America.”
Those past inequalities in voting pale, however, in comparison to the 2020 election, when the very mechanics of counting the votes nationally was attacked.
Dan Rather says: “...the opponents of representative democracy, those who believe that they should not be subject to the will of the people, especially if that will is predicated on Black and brown voters, understand that their very power rests on curtailing the vote.” “In short, democracy is working against Republicans — and so Republicans are working against democracy. You don’t have to study demography to see that race is at the core of the GOP’s tilt toward the authoritarian,” writes Dana Milbank.
Bill Kristol says: “After all, we did just fail to have a traditionally peaceful transfer of power. One of our two major parties—having failed in a coup attempt—now claims that the current administration is illegitimately elected, the result of massive, coordinated fraud. The logical extension of this position would seem to be that the American constitutional order deserving of our allegiance no longer exists. So we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.”
Molly Ball details the horrific (but fascinating) details of the conspiracy to hijack the election, and how only a counter-conspiracy rescued it. She quotes chief counter-conspirator Mike Podhorzer, senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO: “The chief difference between the U.S. and countries that lost their grip on democracy, he concluded, was that America’s decentralized election system couldn’t be rigged in one fell swoop.”
Jane Mayer says, “The lesson we learned,” (former Solicitor General Seth) Waxman said, “is that the state of our democracy is perilous—even more so than we thought. I am very, very worried.” She also quotes historian Christopher Browning: “the McConnell wing was ready to embrace Trump’s usurping of democracy—if Trump could pull it off.”
Steve Coll observes: “The hard reality is that American democracy is in the midst of a prolonged decline; in the latest annual rankings of “global freedom” published by Freedom House, the U.S. has fallen below Mauritius, Latvia, Greece, and Slovakia, landing just above Argentina and Mongolia. It is not always easy to discern what is cause and what is symptom, but—even before Trump arrived to trash the Constitution—rising inequality, underregulated social media, demagogic right-wing media, complacent and self-involved liberalism, white backlash against racial-justice movements, the distortions of the Electoral College, and a Congress too divided to take on difficult problems had all weakened the country. … Officials … can be expected, judging from their records to date, to embrace Trumpian vandalism against election administration and law, while refining litigation strategies to appeal more effectively to Trump sympathizers in the courts. The manipulation of elections by antidemocratic leaders, even as they claim to defend democracy, is the new, subtle playbook of global authoritarians, as the political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas document in their 2018 book, 'How to Rig an Election....'” ...Just as Trump’s election in 2016 was a trailing indicator of the rise of right-wing populism in troubled democracies abroad, so may post-Trump America be a bellwether of the patterns that Cheeseman and Klaas identify, in which local Trumpians across the country slowly acquire power not by staging provocative dramas, like the one on January 6th, but by bending elections, intimidating civil servants, and winning over judges, without ever abandoning a pretense of faith in democracy. Trump may have improvised his Big Lie while in an unhinged state of rage, but many of his followers remain determined to forge from it a potent plan of action.”
The Republican focus is now on 2022. Ari Berman notes: “According to a new analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, 253 bills to restrict voting access have been introduced in 43 states already this year.” "Right now we are facing an avalanche of voter suppression that we have not seen before, at least not since Jim Crow, in state after state." - @marceelias. The Washington Post thinks the proposed legislation, if passed, would put us back in the late 19th century.
In addition, one must consider the successful efforts of the Republican party to capture the judicial branch of government, including the Supreme Court with the infamous exclusion of Merrick Garland in 2016, and the blocking of judicial appointments during the Obama presidency and the singular attention to judicial appointments during the Trump era. Further, not content with the three branches of the federal government, the famous ALEC project has been very successful both in capturing state governments for Republicans, and further the underlying commercial interests of the big money creators and backers of ALEC.
Taken all together, the sophisticated operations to capture government leaves one in awe of the conception and masterful implementation of the conservative interests. Most of it is legal, and some of it the Democrats would do also, if they were capable. But one has to question how long a society can tolerate political dirty pool and not be overcome with cynicism. And with cynicism comes disengagement, and anything but unity.
With this history and this present, where is the potential basis of unity? We can't ask for pristine elections; they have never been that. But we can ask for elections within the traditional norms, not too many dirty tricks and lies, not too much manipulation, not too much lying. It's not an easily depicted line, but whatever it is, it's pretty easy to tell that it is being severely violated, in what is this most serious and sacred of enterprises in a democracy voting.
I'm afraid that having someone on the other side of this autocracy line makes dealing with an opponent quite difficult. If it were a boxing match, maybe one low blow gets a warning, but a second gets a disqualification. If the current non-opponents of autocracy quickly recant their actions and inactions, if they haven't done anything too horrible, reentry as an opponent should be possible. Being slippery and cowardly is not a crime. If political courage were common, we wouldn't have had the book Profiles in Courage. We might be on the verge of discovering the contemporary distinction between “treason” and “near-treason.” We'll just have to see.
Assuming that the seditious tide relents, locking up safe and equitable representation and the process of voting needs to be high on the list of reforms. The suggestion of a Federal Elections Agency makes sense, as will other institutional changes. But until then, I'm afraid that true unity, as opposed to conditional and situational accommodation, will be difficult to find.
The Present Moment
The point of this essay was to look at the Four Freedoms, which Roosevelt used to unite the country under the flag of common values, to see if they would still serve that purpose. The answer is, yes and no. Yes, The Four Freedoms still encapsulate basic values that Americans should share. Three of them (Speech, Religion, and Fear) have the virtue of distinguishing us from authoritarian countries.
The newer freedoms, (Discrimination, Elections) are more problematic. On an individual basis, many people are still racist and find difficulty giving it up. On a societal basis, institutions are often racist by heritage, and the predominant class of power has been white males, and resistance to change is palpable and strong. In addition, apart from society at large, the Republican party as an organization is faced with an existential threat. If it backs one-person one-vote, it will lose power; if it forgoes one-person one-vote and retains power, it loses democracy. In general, the party has chosen the latter, to try to retain power by fully using many mechanisms to subvert democracy.
So if people are looking for unity, there are certainly many opportunities to achieve that, but if a significant portion of the electorate, and one of the great parties, do not recognize the righteousness of these two freedoms, that unity will be elusive.
Not that everyone needs to agree for us to feel sufficiently united. Anne Applebaum argues that we may have to learn to live with the seditionists, who might total about 15% of the population. “We have no choice except to coexist.” Unity is never unanimity; substantial widespread general agreement is enough for us to move forward.
The good news, however, is that even if unity eludes us for a while, we can still exist and make progress without it. Unity is only mandatory when there is an existential threat to existence. World domination by those who completely dispute our values would be such an emergency, which is what Roosevelt faced, and which is what he sought to convince America of. But at present, even though there is a worldwide trend toward authoritarianism at present, it is only a trend, not an existential threat.
Yet, it is an important threat, if not yet existential. Steven B. Smith poses the international challenge this way: “Can democracies husband the resources – moral, intellectual, political – to defend themselves from a concerted enemy or enemies?” It's a fight, as was reflected after 9/11 in reference to bourgeois Western society vs. the Arab world, between “the barbarian and the bourgeois” “What we are experiencing – not only in the US but in many countries throughout the world – is not so much an insurgency but a resurgence of barbarism....I would argue the fundamental social cleavages between class, race, education, and culture are greater now than they were then (60's, 80's America).”
The challenge is likely to be persistent, then, and we need not be trapped in a rush to unity. Unity is worthwhile to achieve goals which are agreed upon. It is nonsensical to talk about unity on the one hand and dispute election and foment sedition on the other. The party of Trump is a party of opposition to the Six Freedoms, so they will never be opponents, they will always be enemies. To see them asking for unity is obviously just maneuvering for political advantage:
What to do
As Anne Applebaum says, in the present time, “We have no choice except to coexist. But how? Clearly we need regulation of social media, but that’s years away. Of course we need better education, but that doesn’t help us deal with the armed men who were standing outside the Ohio statehouse this week. Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject.” She says: “Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting.”
Which is pretty much what Biden is doing – don't talk theory, just do practice and see what works out. You can't picture Truman talking theory, and that is Biden's most familiar precedent. Pursue the freedoms aggressively, and the view of the desirable future becomes clearer. The important thing is delivering services and rights to everyone, show that all ships can rise at the same time, and not favor just the Democratic supporters. People who are rising find it harder to complain about others rising, although they can do it, for sure. While they are walking this walk, they are also talking the talk, and calling people to unite on the goals they are expressing.
There are some things they should be doing with a longer range intention – to change the atmosphere, to depollute the cultural water we are all swimming in, we will need some long range projects . These would include the following:
Keep talking about long term goals, talking the talk while you walk the walk.
Civics teaching. We need massive education and reindoctrination into our constitution and the theory of the state. That means civics with 4+ effort. Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy is a high-profile, well supported proposal. “A constitutional democracy requires a citizenry that has a desire to participate, and an understanding of how to do so constructively, as well as the knowledge and skills to act for the common good.” It also means giving people a stake in our government – that means goodies, green new deal, outdoor work, opportunity plus safety net.
Personally, I think the Roadmap is too minimal. A couple of classes aren't going to do it. We need whole curricula inculcating civics, starting in middle school, fully represented in the Department of Education with significant funding, and with enlightened ideas on learning. In other words, pretty much exactly what schools don't do now.
National service would be very supportive of Freedom number five. I'm always reminded of the rather mindless World War II John Wayne platoon pictures – “Martinez, you go scout, and Rosenberg, radio in our position.” Applebaum, advocating the growth of AmeriCorps: “This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.” Steve Waldman also advocates persuasively for national service.
Reinforce norms of truth and honesty – both virtues decimated by the Trump experience. Other countries expect dishonesty and suffer as a result. The Greek disaster of eight years ago was on the background of massive habitual accepted tax evasion. We need to expect the basic virtues. We can't elect a Senator from Montana who has roughed up a journalist. We need the expectation of basic standards of behavior that cannot be legislated.
Call for generosity of spirit – as Robert Reich observes on Twitter: Truth v. Lies, Survival v. Suffering, Justice v. Hate, Empathy v. Cruelty, Democracy v. Fascism – We have to remember that there is a huge difference between not having enough and having enough, but a much smaller difference between having enough and having more that enough. How can you have unity if a prime objective of those with great resources is to protect and indeed increase those resources, to the exclusion of sharing with others? Unity can be viewed, however, as getting together to hash out those issues and go forward as a functioning polity with some mutual accommodation. It might be that the holders of the high cards might be brought to feel that the game is not unidimensional, that they themselves can benefit in a different way by contributing some of their wealth and advantages. The church was certainly successful in doing this throughout the ages, as the wealthy sought to buy holiness. And actually, many are already so convinced. They are called highly educated liberals.
Pursue unifying goals that benefit everyone, like climate change, universal child care, space exploration, bringing up the hindmost, and even infrastructure.
Unity comes and goes. As a country we are sometimes at loggerheads, and sometime (less often) we find ourselves all pulling the oars in unison toward an agreed upon goal. It's situational – how intense are the grievances that tear us apart, and how threatening are the challenges that force us together? Most of the time we muddle through, fixing some of the grievances and making the common advances at the same time. Most of the time we feel that the other side from us is our opponents, not our enemies, because we basically agree on the important values of our American life. But sometimes we are way out on one pole or the other, and then it seems that the other side is our enemies, that our beliefs and our values are fundamentally opposed. That's a dangerous time.
It's important then to look to your basic beliefs and your basic visions. I think Roosevelt did that with genius when he came up with The Four Freedoms. This we believe! I think we still believe it today, although we have new challenges. We also have new basic freedoms that must be included in our vision. Freedom from Discrimination is now required. And since the basic element of democracy has been terribly challenged, we need Freedom of Free and Fair Elections and Peaceful Transfer of Power. Truly believe in these six, and you can debate what steps are necessary to achieve them, but you can get to work. If you have reservations about them, then you cannot be included in mainstream thought and action, you're too far out.
We have impediments to unity now – transition to a new mixed ethnic democracy seems to be the biggest underlying difficulty – but we have always had them. If you look back on our history, the times that our society was just sitting around a pool having drinks were non-existent. We have always struggled.
But there is every reason for optimism. Our society is getting wealthier as a whole, our security is getting better, our acceptance of one another is getting better, we are all getting safer. If we can just all find our better natures and rise as a whole and be fair to one another, not give into meanness and hate and feelings of loss of self-worth, and share better, and keep working hard, then we should be able to find our way to our ever-present challenges and work and invent our way out of them, and survive, and be reasonably happy.
Leadership is important, creativity is important, sensitivity is important, and clarity of vision is important. These are the arts of collective living. And you know, it could all work out if we tried a little harder.