Threads of Democracy
As this past week showed, pure populism erodes our democracy and endangers the common good in our society. We need to strengthen our liberal institutions.
On a cold January 6th Monday in 1941 in Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Address to Congress. Eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire and the deadly beginning of American involvement in the largest scale war in human history - against fascism and totalitarianism - the speech is FDR’s greatest oratorical moment, shy of “fear itself” and “a date which will live in infamy.” In the address, Roosevelt outlined four core anti-authoritarian principles, which became known as the Four Freedoms.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech, and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is 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.
The fourth is 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.
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.
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This was FDR at his idealistic best, but the Four Freedoms were not political promises; rather, they constituted an aspirational framework for public policy - and in January, 1941 they were aimed specifically at rallying the nation for what Roosevelt knew must surely be the massive fight ahead. They were metaphorical pillars, meant to be adopted broadly and then built upon. The Four Freedoms were global in their nature, and looked both east to the conflict in Europe against the Nazis and west to the rapidly expanding totalitarian Japanese empire, the link to a new global order so clear to the President. Yet the audience was definitely domestic, and went beyond the Senators and Representatives seated together in the old House chamber in the U.S. Capitol. This was the new age of radio and FDR was the radio President; there was an array of microphones on the rostrum. Roosevelt was appealing to the broad communitarian sentiment of Americans, pushing back in typically muscular rhetorical fashion against isolationism - and worse, pro-Nazi factions - here in the United States. FDR was tugging on the fabric that held the country together, perhaps too loosely in an era of fear and distrust. He needed a tighter and more cohesive weave in that national fabric, to take on what was clearly headed this way, his second big fight after the Great Depression. So he pulled on those lines knowing their broad appeal: speech and free expression, freedom, economic opportunity and nourishment, and the freedom from fear itself.
These were the threads of democracy.
Exactly 80 years after Roosevelt’s speech, in the same House of Representatives and throughout the Capitol grounds, an extremist right-wing mob of terrorists struck at those threads and sought to undermine - if not destroy - American democracy. Goaded by a would-be totalitarian thug named Trump, a dishonest and disloyal President in his final days, this coordinated army of militias and MAGA Republicans violently attacked the Capitol and everything represented by FDR’s Four Freedoms, and the U.S. Constitution.
The report from the bi-partisan January 6th House Select Committee is damning, complete, comprehensive and as clear a document of contemporary history as the U.S. government has ever released. The introduction by Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi doesn’t blink or knock off any corners:
When I think back to January 6th, after nearly a year and a half of investigation, I am frightened about the peril our democracy faced. Specifically, I think about what that mob was there to do: to block the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another based on a lie that the election was rigged and tainted with widespread fraud.
I also think about why the rioters were there, besieging the legislative branch of our government. The rioters were inside the halls of Congress because the head of the executive branch of our government, the then-President of the United States, told them to attack. Donald Trump summoned that mob to Washington, D.C. Afterward, he sent them to the Capitol to try to prevent my colleagues and me from doing our Constitutional duty to certify the election. They put our very democracy to the test.
Trump’s mob came dangerously close to succeeding. Courageous law enforcement officers put their lives on the line for hours while Trump sat in the White House, refusing to tell the rioters to go home, while watching the assault on our republic unfold live on television.
Which brings us to the events of the past few days. Exactly two years after the January 6th terror attack on the Capitol - and 82 years after FDR’s speech - the House chamber was again the scene of thuggery, dishonor and another round of the ongoing attack on our liberal democracy by forces committed to hatred and division. Held up by a gang of conspiracy theorists and open fascists, the GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (himself a far right conservative) acceded to the crushing demands necessary to make himself the Speaker of the House on the 15th ballot, after days of open intraparty warfare and a near fist fight in the House. “Squeaker” McCarthy bent the knee and then some, allowing the friends of the mob of January 6th to seize power in the House, creating a permanent hostage crisis inside the Republican leadership, which has but a precarious five-vote majority. This extremist faction’s goal is simple: grind the government of the United States to a halt by choking off funding (all spending bills originate in the House).
Will they succeed? In this case, I don’t think so. For one, Democrats have never been more united in defending liberal democracy; Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn held his caucus in unanimous opposition, rolling out 212-vote tallies through all the rounds of voting. He’ll gain another vote when Democratic voters send a new Representative to Washington in Virginia’s 4th District vacancy; and he may gain another if GOP con man George Santos is forced out (either by indictment or his nervous colleagues) from his Long Island seat. That would bring Squeaker McC’s margin down to three. In addition, a group of more moderate Republican lawmakers will certainly want to fund the U.S. defense budget and other programs. So we will see what emerges from the chaos.
Jeffries gave a brilliant speech, tying these threads of democracy to the greater fabric - with a nod to the “gorgeous mosaic” of Dave Dinkins - far more important words than anything from McCarthy or his fellow haters.
Yet we can also see just how vulnerable the threads of democracy really are. In my view, our goal should be rebuilding trust in liberal institutions - elected government, first and foremost, but also nonprofit organizations and a far more socially responsible private sector. I plan to write more about this in the coming months, perhaps towards a larger project. I welcome your ideas and resources.
ADDENDUM: Brazil had its January 6th attack today and it’s clear that extremist right wing authoritarianism is a global movement, just as it was in Roosevelt’s day.
Bits and Pieces
Your should all subscribe to my friend Al Giordano’s excellent political newsletter. Al is a great political handicapper, it’s true. But he’s also got perspective, real perspective. So valuable, so rare. Plus Al is a real Bronx scrapper, which if you know me, you realize is the highest compliment. Get the newsletter here (it’s worth a few bucks - trust me).
If you’re not watching Slow Horses on Apple TV, you’re missing out. Perfectly cast, perfect tempo. And among the most faithful depictions to the books (by Mick Herron) that I’ve ever seen. Binge it.
The Who’s Kenney Jones era is too often derided. It may well have been the best live portion of Townshend’s career. Jones was fabulous, as this 1979 concert in Chicago shows. (I saw them at Madison Square Garden that September and it was a mind-shifting and eardrum-blowing experience).