At the present time, national unity is not our strong suit. We have disunity not only at the level of public rhetoric and congressional opposition, but in the country at large – it's not every century that the Capitol is invaded by a resentful insurrectionist mob. So now we need to think about what we used to take for granted – has our common agreement on basic American values disappeared?
It reminds me of another crucial junction in our history when basic values had to be examined. In 1941, the war in Europe already begun, President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the United States would have to join in, and he would need the nation united behind him. To gain that support, he planned to use his January 6th State of the Union address to stress the urgency of the threat, to explain what steps had already been taken, and what more would be needed. But he also needed to explain why the fascist threat made our fighting them necessary.
FDR found the key to that question while developing the fourth of seven drafts for the speech. It must have been dramatic: he asked his three speechwriters for quiet, and then read aloud from a yellow pad of paper what he thought would be a powerful “peroration.” He had distilled from his life of service what he saw as the essence of American values. FDR came up with the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. These freedoms stood in stark contrast to the fascists abroad, and encapsulated much of what Americans held most dear. The nation did unite, and his formulation has lived on, because he got it just right.
If we are to be united, these Four Freedoms need to be at the core of our common values. These are ends to which we aspire, as the vision of the Emerald City was to Dorothy and her friends in the movie just a year before FDR's speech. If people agree on the goal, they can disagree on the route to get there – which Yellow Brick Road to take – as worthy opponents who can compromise. But if you can’t agree on the goals, then you are fighting an enemy, as Churchill and FDR were doing together, and only surrender will do.
Those Four Freedoms are still essential, but the 80 years of intervening history have made it necessary to add two more. The Fifth Freedom, Freedom from Discrimination, comes from the Civil Rights movement for racial justice, the women's movement, and other movements of liberation that have arisen since Roosevelt's time. The Sixth Freedom, Freedom of Free and Fair Elections, was simply assumed by FDR, but has newly come into question, as we are all too well aware. We are like fish who only realize they are swimming in essential water when the pond is being drained.
Examining how contending factions look at these Six Freedoms should give us a good sense of how deep our differences are at present, and whether we can compromise, or if we need to fight to win.
The Six Freedoms in 2021
Freedom #1: Freedom of Speech
Free speech is at least as American as apple pie. We see it as both a basic moral individual human right, and as an instrumental asset of society, letting ideas compete on a free marketplace. Roosevelt was right to put it in first place.
Now as then, the contrast with authoritarianism (and today, theocracy) abroad is stark, but our current challenges are new. Modern technologies have made abuse of free speech a more prominent threat than suppression of free speech. 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.
Our current dilemma is how to maintain broad free speech, while ensuring domestic tranquility. We already make rules to ensure safety, as by forbidding falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and making false claims about medications. Now we need some new rules to apply to new conditions. 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.
Whatever we come up with, our Emerald City vision will need free but responsible speech, and a norm of truth rather than lies. That's our history, those are our values as we debate which Yellow Brick Road to take. The flying monkeys that violate those values would be the free-speech abusers, those putting profits over preservation of our values, and those perpetrating lies (or “alternative facts”) for power. The lines are still murky here; it's not clear how this bedrock of democracy will turn out, but many of the abusers are clear enough to know we have our work cut out for us.
Freedom #2: Freedom of Worship
Freedom of Religion is as American as cherry pie. Remembering a Europe where states were ruled by royalty, aristocracy, and the state church, the founders established the firm principle of church and state separation, where individuals were free to choose how and whether to worship, and the state was to keep out of it. Roosevelt's second freedom recognized their wisdom, and the importance Americans attached to it. Our stance certainly differed from the fascist states abroad, and today it also contrasts with the theocracies.
Today, however, we have new challenges of increasingly strong domestic religious beliefs. Strong beliefs can lead to mixing the state and religion as we have not done in the past. State support for private and religious schools, refusing to provide services for gay weddings, 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. Even on the Supreme Court, allowing religion to trump civic law is on the rise.
Does the Emerald City vision of separation of church and state hold? Free practice of religion certainly does, but preeminence of civic law may not. Instead of opponents negotiating with one another, we could find ourselves more frequently as enemies fighting tenaciously. It is quite possible that the old European problem that the founders thought they had solved once and for all might not be as resolved as we had thought it to be.
Freedom #3: Freedom from Want
Unlike the clear pedigree of the first two freedoms, which are enshrined in the First Amendment, Freedom from Want staked out new ground gained by Roosevelt's own New Deal. Nonetheless, the state's role in alleviating want of basic material requirements of life has 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. He stressed equality, including access to jobs, civil liberties, pensions, unemployment insurance, and medical care.
The 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. It is impossible to say that this freedom is not now basic to America's conception of our Emerald City. It's as American as baseball.
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? 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. Thankfully, the consensus position is widely held at present.
As an aside, let me mention that personally, instead of saying as some do now that “no one should be rich,” I would propose our modern Freedom from Want agenda as this:
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, as American as pumpkin pie, was directly aimed at the fascist thugocracies threatening neighbors and the world with takeover and virtual enslavement. It's interesting (and very Rooseveltian) that he cast this freedom in terms of a state of mind. It's reminiscent of the state of mind evoked by Declaration of Independence's call for freedom in “the pursuit of happiness.” Even if we are not currently threatened by external invasion, the specter of authoritarianism abroad and at home makes this freedom still quite relevant.
Keeping us safe from violence and authoritarianism must be a core American value. There can be no quibbling that “government can't do everything,” that it's too airy-fairy to define, that a posited “state of fear” is for academics and pulpits only, that living a life of liberty always involves risk, that oppressive militias are exercising a basic freedom, that violent insurrection is the price of freedom, and that owning and carrying guns of all types trumps the right to a fear-free life. It's hard to see how arguing over the Yellow Brick Road to a tranquil life includes those violent elements. The line will sometimes be fuzzy, but it's hard to avoid seeing lots of enemies in this field, not just opponents ready to compromise.
Freedom #5: Freedom from Discrimination
Since FDR's time, the Civil Rights and later liberation movements 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 have had to include non-discrimination as a basic value, as American as jazz.
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 correction of police practice? These are only a taste of the many decisions to be made. 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. Overt racism and misogyny still exist, but they are condemned with the confidence that their day is yesterday, not tomorrow. Realistically, this change is very hard, because giving up the advantages of being the favored ethnic group, no matter how unjustly acquired, is not easily done.
Opponents, then, will debate the Yellow Brick Road to non-discrimination; enemies will sabotage and obstruct progress. Even if the tide has turned, there will be rip tides, eddies, and whirls. But if significant opponents appear, such as white supremacist groups, and if they receive either overt or hidden support, that supportive group or unit must be labelled as enemy, not opponent. It is unfortunate to acknowledge that the forces of the enemy in this category of the American freedoms is 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. “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.” Voting is as American as turkey at Thanksgiving. 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, a core American value. With our experience of the last five years, especially in the 2020 election and the January 6 attempted insurrection, he wouldn't omit it today.
Not that voting has been anything like the naive presentation in civics classes of old. At first slaves, women and others couldn't vote; the Connecticut Compromise made lesser-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 out and out fraud, electoral financing that enabled corporations and the rich to have more “free speech” than common people, and the abuse of the filibuster. David Frum asserts that 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 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 we now arguably have the most error-free and fraud-free system in history. It is telling that opponents of free and fair voting are forced to defend their proposals publicly with deceptive euphemistic claims of protecting “voting integrity.” The principle of free and fair elections has to be accepted as an element of the ideal Emerald City in our unified vision of our American ideals.
The onslaught against free and fair voting in the past five years have been epochal upsets to our history and our expectations. The range of violations of norms and often laws, extending from Russian influence, to the Big Lie, and to too many to count smaller lies, to unprecedented fouling of the post-voting and tabulation electoral mechanisms, to a spectacular assault on the Capitol, are well known. They have extensive support within one of our major parties; the current Republican plan is said to be to win the presidency without getting a majority of either popular or electoral votes. Indeed it might have actually happened in 2020 save for heroic measures, as Molly Ball relates.
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, we may be on the verge of discovering the contemporary definition of treason.
If these Six Freedoms form a bedrock of American principles, it's pretty clear why the feeling of disunity is widespread. The Trumpian political faction dominating the Republican party and its national following clearly differs from the historical mainstream.
Free speech? They foster its abuse with the Big Lie. Freedom of religion? Some justices appointed by Republican presidents press for superiority of beliefs over the strictures of the constitution, and are probably ready to revise Roe vs. Wade on religious grounds. Freedom from want? They prefer further enrichment of the rich through tax cuts while huge swaths of the population can barely live day to day. Freedom from fear? They obstruct reform of discriminatory policing, support freedom to carry weapons of war, and more than tolerate armed militias who march with torches and assault the Capitol with gallows erected. Freedom from discrimination? They are the party which appeals to perceived grievances of whites. Freedom of free and fair elections? They are currently supporting voter suppression legislation across the country and plan to disrupt electoral mechanics.
It's true that the origin of some elements of our disunity will be difficult to dislodge. The loss of ethnic and gender favoritism in power historically gives rise to fierce resistance and even the death of democracy. We know that the wealthy will resist inroads to their advantages. We know that political parties will often leave truth and propriety behind as they search to retain power. Not only elites, but humble white people can be reluctant to forego what John C. Calhoun noted: “the tranquility of white people, rich and poor, were secured by the degradation of Black people.”
But still, no country has more of a heritage of idealism to draw upon than we do. Even if the Republican party is now Trumpian, these views are not the majority of voters, nor of influential elites in business, the professions, and the political establishment. To depart from all these traditional verities would be revolutionary, and those who would perpetrate revolution on the basis of dissimulation just don't have the resources to prevail – there is too much money, too many other centers of power, too much decentralization, too many lawyers, too much resistance, too much good sense against them.
Unity is not unanimity; agreement will never be complete. The goal of coexisting with perhaps 15% of an electorate being seditionists might be closer than it appears. Much change has already come, and it's hard not to think that what we are facing is simply the death rattle of the old order. Simply putting one foot in front of the other, making the world better and fairer by redeploying our resources more equally and pulling the bottom up, investing publicly as Biden is now proposing, taking such unifying steps as teaching civics intensely, instituting some elements of national service, intensifying calls for idealistic generosity of spirit on all sides, just being fair – all this should make traditional American values, including the Six Freedoms of 2021,prevail in the end.
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.
PS – I posted a longer version of this paper here. I also want to express my appreciation to my friend and sometime co-author, Professor David Levine, for his encouragement and editing of this article.