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Four Freedoms for 2020!


The Kavanaugh confirmation fight and the continued ascendance of McConnell bare-knuckle politics recently left me without a voice. I gained a darker sense that a number of our nation’s leaders take democracy for granted and privilege partisan victory over the long-term good. In the couple of weeks since that debacle, I could find nothing to write.

However, I have not been completely disengaged. I teach a bi-monthly class for senior citizens on “The Presidency”. In my latest class, I introduced President Franklin Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms.

FDR announced the Four Freedoms in August 1941, several months before the US entered World War II. At that time, he was already envisioning a peaceful and prosperous post-war future centered around these concepts:

  • Freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

  • Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

  • Freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

  • Freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

In announcing these freedoms, FDR stated:

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

How ambitious FDR’s vision was, when you think that he expressed these ideals not just for the US, but for the world. But even if you admire FDR, I can see you rolling your eyes. After all, in 2018, the world--and our country--seem as distant from the goals he outlined as we have been in long memory.

Indeed, the seniors in my class looked back blankly when I talked about the Four Freedoms.

Freedom of speech? Read the last, posthumous Washington Post column from journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was evidently murdered and dismembered by agents of Saudi Arabia. In words that seem ever more poignant given recent events, Khashoggi lamented the absence of free press in the Arab world, leaving citizens of these countries to be “either uninformed or misinformed.” As Khashoggi put it, “A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”

In our own country, the reluctance of the current president to condemn his Saudi friends for this brutal killing (as well as their ghastly war in Yemen and other major transgressions) is telling. But it is, of course, consistent with his disdain for journalism in general.

Freedom of religion? Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been rounded up and put in Chinese concentration camps. Rohingya Muslims in Burma have been tortured and murdered. Marginalized religious groups are in peril in countries such as Egypt, where Coptic Christians often fear for their lives. Poor Muslims in French suburbs and Palestinian territories grow up to hate Jews, and the fear on the other sides makes the feeling mutual. Living in the US is better, but it is preferable not to be an immigrant from a Muslim country.

Freedom from want? While overall world poverty has been reduced since 1945, there is still a large gap between rich and poor. Poverty is far from being eradicated. A number of American citizens, including many who work for a living, live in income insecurity. And now that the 2017 Republican tax cut has (surprisingly!?) increased the federal deficit, Senate Majority Leader McConnell is blaming federal spending programs for that deficit. Can anyone doubt that the next step is to reduce spending on programs such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps? God help the poor if the Democrats don’t take at least one house of Congress.

Freedom from fear? There are violent internal conflicts in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other places. A worldwide reduction of weapons? Although President Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex, one of the main reasons the current president fails to condemn Saudi Arabia over its atrocities are so that American companies can continue to sell them military hardware.

Now I don’t want to compare the world of 2018 with that of 1941; things are vastly different, and the horror of fascist regimes makes that historical period uniquely terrifying. Still, despite whatever short-term political gains we sometimes make and whatever technological advances arise to keep us content, the world is still far from FDR’s vision.

I began this post with a note of resignation and despair, but here is a plea and a hope: Some have been wondering where is the Democratic Party vision for the future. Well, it’s only 2018. This year’s election is run district-by-district, so it’s not yet time to articulate a unifying platform. But after November--when, hopefully, the Democrats have made enough gains to establish some checks and balances on a rogue, mendacious and destructive president--it is high time to build one.

The party should revisit the Four Freedoms as an organizing concept. It is big and broad and profoundly optimistic. It is progressive in its way, but neither specifically liberal nor conservative. Although the right-wing has co-opted the concept of freedom for its own means--freedom from government, freedom not to be taxed, and freedom for corporations to spend limitless money influencing elections--articulating a new Four Freedoms for our time would allow Democrats to claim the high ground and re-emphasize freedom for people at all ends of the economic spectrum, and from all different backgrounds and communities.

The Four Freedoms for 2018 can encompass national platforms such as guaranteed health care, respect for women’s bodies, a reduction in income inequality, and a reduction in mass incarceration.

So here you go, Democrats. I’ve given you something to run on. You don’t have to take it, but if not you’d better pick something even stronger. In the meantime, everyone--go out and vote in November!

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