What Would Eleanor Roosevelt Do? The Radical Ponders The State Of The Union

August 29, 2008, 12:57 pm

Last night, after a week of watching the Democratic Party proudly raise its liberal banner years after George H.W. Bush operatives tagged the Dukakis campaign with “the L word,” I am happy to say that, whatever happens in this election, the spirits of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey once again walk the land. And in a black man’s body, no less. The Democratic party is reclaiming its commitment to working people, to the frail among us, and to the rule of law.

I had many thoughts, but prominent among them was: “That I should live to see this day.”

While some may not have felt Obama brought anything more specific to his acceptance speech than he has to any speech, I disagree. What use has it ever been to hear that a president will spend eight billion dollars on this problem, and three trillion on that? When has money been more critical to an historical outcome than a sense of mission? Obama committed to guaranteed health insurance; ending the war in Iraq; saving social security; quality public education; reforming the tax code to stop the flow of money to the wealthy. He committed to addressing the great national shame of foreclosure and poverty; to the future of military veterans who currently return from combat and are cut loose as quickly as possible to fend for themselves in confusion and pain.

I think the consequences of the war we never wanted will be particularly important for liberals to embrace in this election. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to know that it is better for many wounded veterans’ families if they die, rather than live: death at least brings several hundred thousand dollars in insurance and federal compensation payments. Life brings decades of medical bills that bankrupt the family. In fact, most people who have been plunged into poverty have done nothing to cause it. They have been robbed by deregulated markets, by refusal to enact national health care, by an illegal war and a prison system that has stolen our young and our money and poured it into contractors who line the pockets of politicians, by disastrous education policies that bleed money out of the public coffers to privatized schools and unfunded mandates that replace real learning with tests.

Can Obama turn things around, given the ruined state of our country? Is anything we do, as citizens of good will, going to be enough for him to succeed? I don’t know. But let me remind you, dear reader, that when the United States began to commit to the fight against fascism in 1939, and then went to war two years later, this country was ruined in similar ways. But we did it anyway because we had ideas and the will to succeed.

Si, se puede.

You can argue with me on the fine points. You can remind me of the Democrats who have been collaborators in this disaster: the Clintons, for example, and everyone who voted for NAFTA, NCLB and the war. You can remind me of the Democratic policies that turned resentful (yes, resentful — historians know he spoke the truth here) white voters enraged about desegregation and antipoverty programs over to the Republicans. But I still maintain this central truth: this disaster was planned and executed by a ruthless conservative establishment dedicated to the transfer of wealth from the many to the few – not just the Reagans, Bushes and Cheneys, but the William Kristols, the Pat Buchanans, the Milton Friedmans, the John Yoos, the Phyllis Schlafleys, the David Horowitzs, the Rupert Murdochs, the Rush Limbaughs, the Ann Coulters, the John Silbers. This is what they have done to us, and to our country: they stole our money, and spouting constitutional pieties all the way, they stole our constitution. Talking about freedom all the way, they stole our freedom and replaced it with fear, suspicion, intolerance and poverty.

And this is what made the most difference to me last night: Obama, and others, have finally said, straight out, what Congress and the press has been unwilling to say for years: “the Emperor has no clothes. None. The Emperor is stark, staring naked, and those of us who could afford to have turned away because the power of corruption in this country has been so awesome and overwhelming.” But many people, for example every member of the military, their families, people wallowing in debt because financial fraud is now legal, and hundreds of thousands of people on the Gulf Coast still suffering from the impact of Hurricane Katrina three years later to the day couldn’t turn away. They have had no place to go. And as southerners wait for another hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast, wait to see if their hard earned property will still be there next week, the same mean, broken government is in charge. The Bush administration let them drown once, and they will do it again, because three years later that city is no safer, the levees no taller, the working people no more able to help themselves than they ever were.

There’s the Republican party in a nutshell, friends. You live and die, succeed or fail, alone. Forget it that the rich, or even the modestly well off like your Radical here, are never alone. They have financial advisors, tax accountants, trust funds, 401k managers, secretaries, domestic servants, a whole army out there fighting to keep gasoline under $5.00 a gallon. They have inheritances, private schools, several (seven? eight?) homes. And even those who don’t expect to be independently wealthy have parents who write a check every year for the maximum annual gift that can be passed on from an estate without taxation. And yet all we hear from the Republicans is that if every American doesn’t go it alone, the Union will fall.

Well, they have lied. And they will go on lying. But — regardless of the details (or lack thereof) Obama and the Democratic party are telling the truth this time. Things are bad in America, and it doesn’t require a return to Great Society policies (which, I might remind you, were enacted during one of the most dishonest periods in American foreign policy ever, and did not end poverty either) for us to be Democrats again and admit that no one — no one — goes it alone. To say loudly and clearly that the federal government has a special obligation to citizens who are alone. That is part of what a commitment to human rights and to freedom, at home and abroad, means.

I want to close by citing the ideological architecture of modern American liberalism, as it was articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his state of the union address on January 6, 1941. This has come to be known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, in which FDR spoke of the responsibilities of government at a dark time when the United States had not recovered from the Depression, and was about to plunge into a terrible war. As he reached the conclusion of this speech, Roosevelt said:

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.

This wasn’t very specific, was it? And yet a whole democratic world order, not to mention the ongoing achievement of civil rights for minorities, women, children, the poor and the queer in the United States, was built on it — however imperfectly.

It’s time. We need to act. And for those of you who are still ripped about Hillary Clinton not winning the nomination, ask yourself: what would Eleanor Roosevelt do? Then go do it.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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