The Only Fitting Tribute

The Only Fitting Tribute

For Roosevelt, the New Deal was a way of advancing freedom, which depended on economic as much as political rights.


I feel a bit silly. For decades I called myself a child of the ’60s, only to realize on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New Deal that I’m really its child. Coming to maturity as its beneficiary, I had a debt-free college education and, thanks to New Deal advances that doubled the real family income of the poor and middle class, my husband and I were able to live for a time on his salary alone.

It was thus, very practically, the New Deal that freed me to explore the “big questions.” Food, the basis of life, seemed like a smart place to start, so I asked, Why hunger in a world of plenty?

Soon it began to dawn on me: as long as food is merely a commodity in societies that don’t protect people’s right to participate in the market, and as long as farming is left vulnerable to consolidated power off the farm, many will go hungry, farmers among them–no matter how big the harvests.

I might have gotten there quicker if I’d studied Roosevelt’s insight that, to serve life, markets need help from accountable, democratic government. Against those who saw “economic laws” as “sacred,” he argued that “economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” So in 1944 (my birth year), Roosevelt called on Americans to implement what was already “accepted”–“a second Bill of Rights” centered on economic opportunity and security. It would, in effect, put values boundaries around the market. His goal wasn’t a legal document, observes University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, but the generation of a “set of public commitments by and for the citizenry, very much like the Declaration of Independence.”

The first two economic rights assured a “useful” job that paid enough to provide “adequate food and clothing.” The third guaranteed farmers a high enough return for their crops to provide their families with a “decent living.” To begin, he asked Congress to pass a “cost of food law,” putting a price floor under farmers and a price ceiling on the cost of food necessities for all.

In emphasizing rights, Roosevelt clearly did not view the New Deal as a giant safety net; rather, he saw it as a way to advance freedom. Freedom rests as much on economic as political rights, he argued, because both are necessary to security and peace, which in turn are the basis of citizens’ freedom from fear and to the liberation of our talents. “Necessitous men are not free men,” he said.

What if Americans were now to demand that presidential contenders further Roosevelt’s definition of freedom? Imagine calling on our next President to focus, laserlike, on FDR’s core insight that concentrated economic power is anathema to democracy and freedom. By April 1938, even after basic economic protections for citizens were law, Roosevelt still warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” (Roosevelt could hardly have imagined such “growth in private power” that more than sixty lobbyists now ply their trade in Washington for every person elected to represent us.)

Given the New Deal’s powerful grounding in freedom and the striking advances it ushered in for most Americans, why was the right able to reverse the New Deal in just one generation? Perhaps the answer is that the New Deal failed to instill an understanding of democracy as more than a particular structure of government, more than a set of laws protecting our freedoms. Enduring, effective democracy isn’t something we have that’s finished; it’s what we do that’s always unfolding. Democracy is a particular culture, a system of values–fairness, inclusion and mutual accountability–that empowered citizens learn to infuse in all dimensions of our common life.

In other words, to save the democracy we thought we had, we must now take democracy to where it’s never been. Might we start by demanding that the 2008 presidential contenders commit to engaging us in living democracy–in community-based deliberation, policy shaping and action, on matters from climate change to ending hunger to reinventing farming so that it sustains both farmers and the land?

There could be no more fitting tribute to the New Deal in its seventy-fifth year, at least in the eyes of one of its children.

Other contributions to the forum:

Bill McKibben: A Green Corps

Michael J. Copps: Not Your Father’s FCC

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: A Chaos of Experimentation

Eric Schlosser: The Bare Minimum

Adolph Reed Jr.: Race and the New Deal Coalition

The Rev. Jesse Jackson: For the ‘FDR’

Andy Stern: Labor’s New Deal

Anna Deavere Smith: Potent Publics

Sherle R. Schwenninger: Democratizing Capita

Stephen Duncombe: FDR’s Democratic Propaganda

Howard Zinn: Beyond the New Deal

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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