This essay was one of four finalists in a student essay contest on the New Deal and today sponsored by the Roosevelt Institution and The Nation. Visit StudentNation to read the winning essays and the other finalists.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt inspired the nation to come together and institute a progressive agenda to meet the seemingly insurmountable challenges of his day. The power of FDR’s rhetoric and the policies that he helped to enact lifted the nation out of the rut it was in and made the American people believe that our nation could be great again. It is time for a new generation of Americans to pick up Roosevelt’s mantel of change and rediscover the power of progressive politics.
Like the days of the great depression, the challenges that America faces are grim. The world has been torn by conflict; our economy stands on the edge of a knife and the specter of global warming looms threateningly on the horizon. We as a nation must once again stand together against the rising of a bitter tide and place our faith in the knowledge that change is possible if only we are willing to meet the challenge. To do this requires a re-conceptualization of what it means to be an American.
Sadly, for many people in the United States, citizenship has become a passive term. All too often the idea of being an American is an allegiance without passion, a coincidence of birth that is bereft of any significance deeper than geographic location. If we as a nation are to have any hope of successfully confronting the challenges we face, it is essential that our definition of what it means to be an American be expanded and enriched.
It is critical that citizenship not be a static identity. Rather, it must be continually renewed by participation and active self-identification. As Gandhi put it, “we must be the change we wish to see”. We cannot afford apathy and inaction any longer. As the American people have receded from the political scene the void has been filled by special interest and bitter partisanship. How can we expect to change the world for the better if we leave the instruments of power to those same forces and individuals who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo? What is needed is a progressive construction of the idea of citizenship.
Americans need to take responsibility for the maintenance of our government and communities. Although important, voting is not enough. Politicians can affect legislative change, but without the active participation of the American people special interests and political compromise will always get in the way of pure considerations of the public good. The mere act of paying attention is a major step in the right direction. Politicians are far less likely to pursue self-interested legislation (or to fail to act on important issues) if they know that the American public is carefully watching their every move. Far too often ‘bad’ policy is passed under the radar of public attention, so, rather than decrying the undo influences of lobbyists, citizens must become a lobby unto themselves. However this alone is insufficient.
Real change cannot come from the top down alone; it must rise up from the bottom as well. If we are to make real change in our nation, the American people must be enlisted in that effort. A new progressive notion of citizenship must include a renewed emphasis on volunteerism and community service. Quite simply, FDR passed the New Deal, but it took the hard work of the American people for his vision to become reality. Accordingly only by becoming actively involved in the functioning of our government and communities it is possible to make the change that we wish to see become a reality.