America's Four Freedoms, Plus Two
Enemy or Opponent? Trumpism Vs. Americanism
A Guide for the Perplexed
American disunity is as severe right now as any of us can remember. It might be the most severe disunity since the Civil War. There is so much deep unrest, there are so many obvious threats to our basic means of governing, that there must be deep causes for it. Maybe the most profound is the correction we are making in traditional American racism and the associated displacement of a favored ethnic group, perhaps it is the ongoing economic pressure and mistakes in governing over decades, or there are other nominees as well. Or maybe new technical modalities have enabled dark, James Bondian, Rupert Murdochian, Koch brotherian forces to capture the country with lies, deceit and fear to an extent never before seen. It's complicated.
But what has not been the ultimate force behind our descent into discord and disunity has been a disparity of ideas. Despite Keynes' famous quotation about the primacy of ideas in history, most students of events would hold (in the tradition of Marx) that in this time of conflict, ideas are a secondary effect. Reason and reasonableness can be replaced by rationalizations to support basic economic interests, fears, emotions, personal advantages, tribal feelings, prejudice, a sense of justice – in short, all the basic instincts to which man is heir. There are many, maybe a majority, who are never sincerely attached to ideals at all, who just want as much as they can get for themselves, who use arguments just to get what they want, and (since we are importantly driven by comparisons) who mostly want to be somehow better off than at least some others. And it comes as no surprise to recognize that there are politicians who are only interested in power and the various emoluments that office brings, who worship reelection, who function virtually as paid agents of their funders, and to whom democratic beliefs are only shibboleths they must mouth, and sometimes do not even understand.
But while all that is true, it does not mean that ideas are unimportant. In fact, I would argue that when we are under such pressure, our ideas are more important than ever. We need our ideas to clarify our cause to ourselves as well as others, even if we do not hope to persuade more than a few. We need the confidence in ourselves that clarity of thinking can give us, and we need to understand where we stand vis-à-vis the other side. Is the opposition simply our usual opponents with whom we can ultimately cooperate and compromise, or are they our true enemies, whom we must seek to defeat? We have to understand when we are disagreeing on basic principles, and when we have a common end and we are just arguing over means. In cinematic terms, do we share the same image of the Emerald City, the basics of our country, and are we just disagreeing over which Yellow Brick Road to follow, or do we differ on the nature of Emerald City itself?
In times of great division, we need to evaluate our ideas. This is what President Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he needed to unify a divided country to fight World War II. He looked back at the history to find our common ideals, and then used his communication genius to forge a necessary unity of purpose in the starkest demonstration of leadership since Lincoln. Finding those common ideals is what we need to do now, if not to unify to fight a war, at least to clarify our thinking about how divided we actually are, and to chart our course of action.
The Four Freedoms (Plus Two)
Roosevelt faced his problem of unifying the country as fascist Germany was overrunning Europe and World War II loomed, and as we were unprepared materially for war and our people and politicians were significantly divided. His organizational and political skills would take care of material preparation, but to unite the country in purpose, he needed his rhetorical skills. He articulated his conception of bedrock principles of American democracy, principles which stood in stark contrast to the fascists, in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941. This was his Four Freedoms speech, identifying as our uniting principles Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
As a nation, we move forward through time, amending our values, and discovering where we stand at each moment. The first two of Roosevelt's freedoms were present in the vision of the Founders; the second two had been discovered more recently. If he were to give the speech today, 80 years later, I think he would have to add two additional freedoms to his bedrock list of four. The Civil Rights movement changed our basic concepts of ourselves permanently, so we need to add Freedom from Discrimination. The Civil Rights movement also identified what Roosevelt took for granted, as a fish is unconscious of the water in which it swims. Now that it is being attacked, we see the need to declare freedom number six, Freedom of Free and Fair Elections.
These Six Freedoms would seem to be a strong bedrock vision of our American Emerald City. If we look at them closely, it should help us once again to define the details of our own current values and their challenges, and it should also help us distinguish how deep our disunity really is.
Freedom #1: Freedom of Speech
Roosevelt was right to put free speech in the first spot – what could be more American than free speech? We see it as both a basic moral individual human right, and as an instrumental asset of society, letting ideas compete in a free marketplace.
The problem with free speech, as with every freedom, is balance. The traditional obvious example of free speech limitation is falsely yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater. We can disagree on current proposed limitations that might or might not be equivalent to yelling fire. Hate speech, for instance, or Holocaust denial – offending feelings is a common price to pay for free speech, but what about exciting prejudices that go beyond simply offending feelings, but which would lead to discrimination or even violence? Or what about denial of publishing by a major outlet based on expressed political views, or alleged views on misogyny, when there are other outlets, perhaps less prestigious, available? These are obviously upsetting and important issues, but at least for the present, they would seem to be boundaries that can be rationally discussed and disputed among opponents.
A more severe test of democracy than those arises from modern technologies. Today we are faced with the threat of the Big Lie, conspiracy theories and misinformation reverberating and promoting home-grown terrorism. Cable television and social media have created platforms living in the nexus of untruths, radicalization, and revenue. While we won't adopt the UK solution of a state institution, OFCOM, to banish lying media, self-regulation is a possibility, political norms could improve by informal pressure and elections, consumers could pressure sponsors of objectionable programs, antitrust agencies could arise from their long slumber to break up social media and conventional media concentration, the fairness doctrine could reemerge, and social media business models could be changed.
While it is not clear what must be done, it is clear that there must be something, because we face not only the threat of the Big Lie, but the threat to the value of truth itself. We regulate truth in advertising, truth in medical claims, truth in safety. We value truth as a basic human duty. Truth is so important to democracy, in fact, that we cannot abide the free-speech abusers, those putting profits over preservation of our values, and those perpetrating lies (or “alternative facts”) for power.
There needs to be agreement on this goal, even if proposed solutions will differ. Something must be done, because the Big Lie constitutes malicious use of a freedom against the freedom itself, which is intolerable. Defenders and proponents of the Big Lie and all the other constant lies spells enemy, not opponent. The Big Lie spells Flying Monkeys impeding the path to the Emerald City.
Freedom #2: Freedom of Worship
Even if Roosevelt's reference to a Christian-tinged God seems outdated today, American freedom of religion provided a stark contrast to the anti-religious fascists abroad (and the Communists, too, of course, which was papered over in favor of the-enemy-of-my-enemy principle). While he cited freedom of worship as a simple personal moral human right, the Founders were closer in time to European religious wars, and to the European power structure triad of king-aristocracy-established religion that America had revolted against. To them, keeping state and religion separate was a passion.
Today, ironically, the Freedom of Worship issue has returned to the table. Deeply held religious convictions are always a threat to civil government, as in the oft-repeated words of former Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” One is left waiting to see where “American” will appear in his list. It seems increasingly clear that several Supreme Court justices might be comfortable with a similar declaration. State support for private and religious schools, refusing to provide services for gay weddings or gay foster parents, prayers under public auspices, refusing to supply contraception because of religious beliefs, forbidding free entry to the country for Muslims, allowing religious services to contravene public health measures during a pandemic, and the intense fights on abortion rights – all test the validity of the line as it has been traditionally drawn. Linda Greenhouse observes that “Despite a rapidly secularizing society... the Court's majority … is reflexively choosing religious over secular interests.”
Does the Emerald City vision of separation of church and state hold? Clearly, the claim of the intense minority that we were founded on Christianity and Christian principles should prevail over the traditional interpretation of the constitution threatens our vision of the Emerald City. To Katherine Stewart, Christian nationalism “is not a social or cultural movement. It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America's pluralist democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity....”
We could still be opponents negotiating over the Yellow Brick Road, but we could also quickly become enemies fighting tenaciously over the vision of the Emerald City. The return of the old European problem that the founders thought they had solved once and for all would be bad news for the republic.
Freedom #3: Freedom from Want
Unlike the clear constitutional pedigree of the first two freedoms, Freedom from Want staked out new ground pioneered by FDR’s New Deal. The state's role in helping to provide the basic material requirements of life has now become our heritage. Roosevelt defended it both morally and instrumentally – a wealthy nation should care for the less fortunate, and democracy requires a secure populace without huge differences of means. In his speech he stressed equality, including access to jobs, civil liberties, pensions, unemployment insurance, and medical care.
The Lyndon Johnson years added to Roosevelt’s social and economic legacy. Although the conservative years of government from Reagan to Trump have led to the most unequal distribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, the basic social safety net has remained intact, and especially with the Affordable Care Act, has even been extended. It is impossible to say that this freedom is not now basic to America's conception of our Emerald City.
We can argue as opponents about the extent of help to be given and the specific path of the Yellow Brick Road. Medicare for All or extend our current system of health insurance? Free university for all, or targeted assistance? State owned housing or subsidized private housing for the poor? But if you deny that state help for economic security needs to be part of the American vision of the Emerald City, if you think that government should be so small it can drown in a bathtub, that health care should not be a right, or that “personal responsibility” should extend even to food and shelter without any governmental support, then you are far from the mainstream and will be counted as an enemy.
The debate over this third right has been sharp. The Right defends the last 40 years of material gains for only the upper classes, giving short shrift to un-American inequalities of opportunity and shrinking social mobility. They are edging up to a very different view of the Emerald City.
To be fair, the Left also tries the patience of traditional American thought with claims of “nobody should be a billionaire,” which is close to “nobody should be rich.” Personally, I would propose a modern Freedom from Want agenda for an Emerald City credo as 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.
Freedom #4: Freedom from Fear
Roosevelt's fourth freedom was directly aimed at the fascist thugocracies threatening neighbors and the world. Roosevelt cast this threat in terms of a state of mind of safety, security, and non-intimidation, reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence's call for freedom in “the pursuit of happiness.” Our current thugocracy threat where might rules right, of course comes from within rather than from abroad.
States trade their monopoly on violence for a pledge to administer justice fairly. The cell phone camera revolution has illuminated for the country at large what has been known for decades, that police enforcement does not meet the standard of legitimate fairness. Now that the problem is impossible to ignore, opponents will contend on how and at what rate to fix it. Enemies will defend the current standards and prevent police reform.
Given the recent assault on the capital and the specter of armed rebellion by an intense minority in other venues, not a few of them members of exactly those elements of society that exercise the state monopoly of violence, the threat is less abstract that before January 6. The vision of justice fairly administered and backed by judicious use of violence is in question.
The founders tried to balance the need for state monopoly on violence with the need to resist tyranny. Their solution was to ensconce a right to armaments for a “well-regulated militia,” so that central force illegitimately used could be resisted. How this was changed to an interpretation of free guns of all types for all types has a clear history, but a mysterious motive force. What is perfectly clear, however, is that the dispersal of guns has now become inimical to feelings of safety and security in the general population. Solutions are difficult, but realization that solutions are necessary is less so. Opponents will agree on the problem and propose solutions with different means and timelines. Enemies will deny the problem and even seek further “freedom” to own, display, and use guns, as the general population cowers.
Freedom #5: Freedom from Discrimination
A case can be made that the biggest change between Roosevelt's time and ours is the status of discrimination and racism. The Civil Rights movement, and the associated liberation movements that followed, have unalterably changed the basic creed of the country. Non-discrimination is now accepted as morally right, and as instrumentally useful for the country in allowing more people to contribute, and in its morality, enhancing the legitimacy of our government. Were FDR to give his speech today, he would certainly add non-discrimination as a basic value.
Erasing the historical practices of discrimination needs to be part of the Emerald City vision. Which Yellow Brick Road to take, however, is difficult. What time schedule and what kind of enforcement, what if any reparations, how much affirmative action, what protections for non-minorities from counter-discrimination? All changes have their pace, and there is always a progression from innovator to early adopter, to early majority, to late majority, and then to laggards. We seem to be well into late majority adoption of the new ethos.
Realistically, this change is hard, as every change that involves giving up even an unfair advantage is hard. But what is jarring today is to watch television and see spokespeople with foreign names and foreign faces speaking perfect English and extolling the American creed with deep feeling, while traditional white faces and names proclaim themselves the “real Americans” and extol exclusionist, racist doctrines.
Opponents will debate the Yellow Brick Road to non-discrimination; enemies will call the former advantaged group now the oppressed, declare change unnecessary and sabotage and obstruct progress, and support white supremacist groups. We have to acknowledge that the forces of the enemy in this category of the American freedoms are substantial.
Freedom #6: Freedom of the Free and Fair Vote
Free and fair voting is both morally important and instrumentally useful in conferring legitimacy to the government, leading to a more stable society, and (some say) resulting in better decisions and directions for society. It is viewed as foundational for all other freedoms. “Voting is the simplest, most electrifying way that ordinary people can make their voices heard. Anything that unduly inhibits it saps a people’s democratic faith.” Since our free and fair voting system is the clearest possible contrast with fascism, it is remarkable that FDR did not include it as one of his basic freedoms. Given current events, he would not omit it today.
Not that voting has been anything like the naive presentation in civics classes of old. At first slaves, women and others could not vote; the Connecticut Compromise made less-populated states over-represented in the Senate; indirect democracy had senators elected by state legislatures and presidents by the Electoral College. Democracy developed further imperfections such as political machines, candidate choices made in “smoke filled rooms,” Jim Crow voter suppression, gerrymandering, dirty tricks and blatant fraud, electoral financing that enabled corporations and the rich to have more “free speech” than common people, and the abuse of the filibuster. Senators representing 18% of the population can block legislation. Even in good times political scientists concede that there has been “long-standing participatory advantage of the well-educated and the well-off.”
Inclusive voting has its theoretical critics as well. The National Review has consistently argued that “Too many people are voting,” and that voting laws should make voting harder to produce a smaller, "better" electorate.
But despite voting's spotty history and some divergent theories, the arc of voting history has bent strongly toward inclusion, even with setbacks. Especially after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we now have arguably a freer, fairer, and more inclusive system of voting than ever before, and probably the most error-free and fraud-free system in history. That free, fair, and inclusive elections are part of the Emerald City ideal is evidenced by the fact that opponents feel forced to defend their actions with euphemistic claims of protecting “voting integrity.”
Given this history, the onslaught against free and fair voting in the past ten years is truly remarkable. From violations of norms and often laws, to Russian intervention, to the Big Lie, to unprecedented fouling of the post-voting and tabulation electoral mechanisms saved only by heroic unsung measures, to a spectacular assault on the Capitol, to absurd assaults on the integrity of the 2020 vote, to state by state legal assaults on future voting with the current Republican plan to win the presidency without getting a majority of either popular or electoral votes, to Republican justices of the Supreme Court eviscerating the Voting Rights Act and supporting state anti-free voting and anti-fair counting measures – “if you can keep it” speaks to us right now.
No one expects that elections will be pristine. Elections have always attracted chicanery. But we can ask for sincere adherence to an ideal of free and fair elections within the traditional norms, without significant overt voter suppression, not too many dirty tricks, not too much manipulation, lying, and demagoguery. If there is disagreement on the Yellow Brick Road, we can ask for it to be sincere. But right now, despite popular opinion's widespread support of fair elections, we are seeing more enemies facing off than opponents disagreeing. In fact, the rush to suppress free and fair voting is so severe, we may be on the verge of discovering the contemporary definition of treason. Nothing says “enemy” so strongly as treason.
For those of you keeping score at home, the six-fold test finds Trumpian Republicans pretty far outside the bounds of the Six Freedoms:
Free speech: Trumpist Republicans abuse free speech to foster the Big Lie as a conscious matter of policy.
Freedom of religion: Trumpist Republicans repeatedly press positions that place religious beliefs over civic laws, and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices increasingly support these positions, with possible reversal of Roe vs. Wade pending.
Freedom from want: Trumpist Republicans support the new enhanced levels of economic inequality, as particularly evidenced with tax cuts, and continually seek to pare back safety net programs.
Freedom from fear: Trumpist Republicans obstruct reform of discriminatory policing, support freedom to carry weapons of war, and defend and encourage armed militias who march with torches, assault the Capitol with gallows erected, and chant “they will not replace us.”
Freedom from discrimination: Trumpist Republicans have become strongly anti-civil rights, catering to perceived grievances of whites, often supporting white supremacy.
Freedom of free and fair elections: Trumpist Republicans have supported Russian interference with elections, support rejection of honest election results, and support voter suppression legislation across the country with plans even to disrupt electoral mechanics.
A fair reading of these positions reveals such serious dissent with traditionally held values that it is impossible to present them as positions of opponents rather than positions of enemies.
The point of this essay is to find a cogent perspective to make sense of our current perilous situation. Are we facing opponents or enemies in our disunity? Can we look to accommodate and compromise, or must we look to defeat? We look to our history to find our constant and evolving values to make that assessment, using the formulation of Franklin Roosevelt in identifying our constant and evolving values.
Looking at Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, and then adding two that were inherent in his formulation and newly illuminated by our last 80 years, it's pretty clear that the Trump Republican party stands well beyond the role of opponent, firmly in enemy territory. There are certainly adjustments to be made as indicated when we looked at the individual points, but they cannot involve giving way on the essential points. It is pretty clear that strength in opposition is needed, with a goal of victory, not negotiation.
For unity to be reasserted, the Trumpians don't need to disappear – unity is never unanimity, we could well coexist with perhaps 15% of an electorate seditionist in thought. Despite current appearances, we might actually be closer to that goal than it seems. Schlesinger's concept of the “vital center” and “liberal democracy” has always held in the United States pretty well, and it's hard to think that we are in a revolutionary situation now – revolution should not happen in a country with so much liberal democracy history, so much prosperity, so many centers of power, so much decentralization, such a righteous military, so many lawyers, so many influential elites, so much resistance, so much good sense.
Grievances and resentments are the lot of mankind. The question for civil society always is how to tame those emotions in a way that satisfies needs with respect for individuals and groups in a way perceived as “fair enough.” Our system has generally managed to be fair enough at the end to muddle through. Unity does not appear overnight; it appears cumulatively as success follows success. I doubt that we will need a crisis like WW II to be unified. Following a Yellow Brick Road does eventually lead to the Emerald City, no matter how many Flying Monkeys we need to fight off. In America we talk, we do not insurrect.
But it still remains true, in the historic off-hand remark of Philadelphia's patron saint Ben Franklin, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Thanks very much for the help and encouragement of David Levine and Leif Haase.
There are two earlier versions of this essay, a long one at: http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/2021/03/finding-unity-four-freedoms-plus-two.html
and a shorter one at:
The reader is also referred to an article and a summary on necessary post-Trump reforms, detailing six potential tools, and eight areas for reform: