In her syndicated newspaper column on Jan. 6, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “America is not a pile of goods, more luxury, more comforts, a better telephone system, a greater number of cars. America is a dream of greater justice and opportunity for the average man and, if we can not obtain it, all our other achievements amount to nothing.”
That afternoon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address and elaborated on what America is and is not. He spoke powerfully about the fundamental values at the heart of American democracy, which he portrayed as a potent antidote to the tyranny overtaking Europe. He envisioned a world with “four essential human freedoms” at its core: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. And he proclaimed that such a world could be “attainable in our own time and generation.”
Seventy-five years later, Roosevelt’s vision is being threatened by a retrograde politics that treats freedom as the punch line of a cruel joke against the American people. On the eve of the 2012 election, I argued that Republican politicians - in their fealty to billionaire mega-donors, zealous opposition to a woman’s right to choose, callous disregard for the working poor and terrifying enthusiasm for assault weapons - had perverted the four freedoms beyond recognition. Now, as voters prepare to choose the next president, the idea of freedom is once again under stress and being tested in new ways.
Although Donald Trump is leading in the polls, the real winner of the GOP presidential primary contest has been the politics of fear. With his signature bombast and bellicosity toward immigrants and Muslims, Trump has seemingly mastered the demagogic art of fearmongering. But he is certainly not alone in cynically sowing fear and hysteria among voters. During last month’s debate on national security, for instance, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie promised to escalate an already dangerous confrontation with Russia, citing President Obama’s aversion to military aggression as evidence that he’s a “feckless weakling.” Christie then defended his bluster in a nationally televised interview the next morning, declaring, “We’re already in World War III.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., overheated political rhetoric and sensationalistic media coverage have contributed to an exaggerated sense of the dangers of terrorism. As Stephen Kinzer recently wrote in the Boston Globe, “Fear is becoming part of our daily lives. Yet it is not justified by reality. The true terror threat inside the United States is a fraction of what many Americans want to believe.” We are rapidly becoming, in Kinzer’s words, “the United States of Panic.”
This suspension of freedom from fear has jeopardized another of Roosevelt’s four freedoms: freedom of worship. Whereas “religious freedom” has been abused for years to justify everything from restricting access to contraception to discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we are now witnessing political threats against an entire religion. Trump has called for a database of American Muslims, while Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., has suggested closing down “any place where radicals are being inspired,” including mosques. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have argued for a ban on refugees fleeing the Middle East unless they can prove they are Christian. Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise. And yet, Rubio, the purported establishment Republican candidate, asks: “Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?”
Roosevelt believed that freedom from want is inseparable from freedom itself. That was the basis for his “Economic Bill of Rights,” which he introduced in 1944, saying, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Today’s Republican Party clearly does not share that understanding. Beyond their typically regressive tax proposals, the Republican candidates overwhelmingly support plans that would reduce Social Security benefits, such as raising the retirement age and means-testing recipients. Until recently, Ben Carson supported abolishing Medicare and Medicaid; Carly Fiorina opposes the federal minimum wage; and Bush claimed that Democrats appeal to black voters with “free stuff.” Indeed, as conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru observed, Republican candidates simply have not offered “ideas that would give any direct help to families trying to make ends meet.”
And while there is nothing new about their neglect of those who are struggling, Republican politicians are increasingly hyper-attentive to the demands of billionaire donors, who fund the super PACs propping up their campaigns. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that money equals speech, the cost of our elections has exploded, making it harder for ordinary Americans to have a say in the political process. At the same time, with the corporate media setting the parameters of legitimate debate and drowning out independent voices, dissenting opinions often do not get the public hearing they deserve. Taken together, the result is that freedom of speech applies to a privileged few more than everyone else.
In 1941, Roosevelt spoke with clarity about the serious threats to America “from without.” Today, we are facing a different kind of danger - one that also demands our attention - from within. On the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s four freedoms speech, may people fight to defend the core freedoms that have animated our nation at its best. In 2016, we are not just choosing a president. We are choosing what kind of country we want to be.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine.