EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column from the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Post columns here.
On Tuesday, the United States holds its first midterm elections since the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the grave threat to American democracy posed on that day was no aberration; it was a prelude to a broader right-wing movement to undermine our electoral process.
Across the country, an alarming number of Republican ideologues who deny the results of the 2020 election are expected to win on Tuesday—some in secretary of state races that will determine who runs elections and how. Republican-controlled states have introduced laws (and GOP-affiliated groups have filed lawsuits) to suppress the vote. And the party has reprehensibly stoked conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric at every turn.
But as uncertain and dangerous as America’s future seems, history offers some solace—and guidance about how to move forward. While January 6 is now forever associated with the far right’s failed attempt to subvert American democracy, it is also the date of a seminal pro-democracy speech delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 80 years earlier.
Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms address to a nation in crisis imagined a future in which all of humanity enjoys the “four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Though he insisted that it was “no vision of a distant millennium,” the United States is still striving to achieve those freedoms today. Roosevelt’s message remains as urgently relevant as ever.
By January 6, 1941, the country had endured a revolutionary war to achieve independence; a civil war in which those fighting against the horrors of slavery prevailed; and a devastating economic depression during which many desperate Americans questioned whether democracy could (or even should) survive. There is no doubt the United States suffered from harmfully limited conceptions of who possessed so-called unalienable rights—the civil rights movement was still decades away—but even in Roosevelt’s time, the trend was clear. In the face of existential threats to democracy, time and time again, those who fought for freedom persevered.
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This is not to deny the current crisis. A majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the democratic status quo. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low. And when a New York Times/Siena poll this year explicitly asked whether all Americans experience the four freedoms Roosevelt described, the results were bleak. Just 50 percent thought all Americans enjoyed freedom of religion; 34 percent believed so about freedom of speech; 17 percent about freedom from want; and 11 percent about freedom from fear.
But the fact that circumstances are dire does not mean they are hopeless; history has repeatedly proved that. And there is no shortage of contemporary leaders who are fighting for a freer, fairer future—as advocates have done since the country’s founding. Tory Gavito, who cofounded the progressive group Way to Win after the 2016 election, has worked tirelessly for years to develop and implement winning strategies to build progressive power. As she prepared for this year’s Election Day (and the possibly grueling days to follow), she quoted educator, activist, and writer Brittany Packnett Cunningham in a note to Way to Win supporters: “I choose the discipline of hope over the ease of cynicism. I choose fortitude over fatalism.”
We might not know the outcome of this election cycle Tuesday night, this week or—God forbid, if Georgia goes to a runoff—this month. But regardless of the results, our past helps foreshadow what comes next: People of good faith will come together to fight for democracy. Because the defining characteristic of this country is not American exceptionalism. It’s American resilience—and the ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union.
In Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he famously declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But what is often lost when people remember that earliest of sound bites is what came right after. That was his definition of fear: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It is not just that fear is unproductive; it actively undermines progress. To persist through tumultuous times, it will take discipline, strategic vision, hope, and history—and a mass movement of people who have achieved freedom from fear.