observations and opinion
The 32nd President was as imperfect as any mortal man, but to borrow JFK’s formula for a good life, President Roosevelt fully used his powers along the lines of excellence.
I think if more people examined the full circumstances of FDR: wealthy scion, humbled by crippling illness, wrenched from complacency by pain and loss, “traitor to his class” as the book calls him – a man willing to try any experiment to revive fruitful economy and restore dignity to people – they would find a model of active liberalism.
They would also find in FDR, the DNA of American liberal politics – inextricably bound up in the notion of personal independence, autonomy and an individual responsiblity, which includes collective responsibility. The modern right often conflates its concept of public (i.e. government) action with “collectivism” (the trapping of resources, which are then leaked out to individuals without regard to effort). But that is a nonsense theory of collective responsibility in any country.
In the USA today, collective responsibility is the decision, taken by a consensus of the polity, to address circumstances which are destructive of individual opportunity and liberty. Every successful American social program has become integrated into personal lives because it insures against catastrophic conditions, thereby freeing people to act and to take risk. The individual who has medicare in her old age knows that she can invest her talents and money in ways other than banking for geriatric medical care, because it is covered; she can, to some extent, rely on Social Security to supplement whatever savings she has amassed; she can lose a job with resort to unemployment insurance, and so forth. So too the federal or state funding of education, which liberates people from ignorance and enables them to find, refine and use their talents.
Obamacare is the logical extension of this same principle. Although imperfect too, it builds on the basic premise that catastrophic circumstances should be protected against, so that people can enjoy greater social mobility and thereby, not only live more free lives (a moral imperative) but more creative and productive lives (an economic imperative). Public health care, whether single payer or forced insurance as in the new U.S. model, is ultimately the greatest single equalizer of all citizens. It liberates the poor from the most cruel and despotic tyranny, that of illness with no resort. It is the equalizing power of public health care that provokes the real opposition to it, I would submit, and also the reverence for it once it takes root.
The most glaring, but weird example, of the importance of public health care came at the recent London Olympics. As part of its endless and inventive opening ceremonies, it held a massive on-field tribute to the National Health, featuring hundreds of civil servants doing an interpretive dance and having the ultimate nanny, Mary Poppins – scores of Mary Poppinses, actualy – descending from heaven to adminster the “nanny state.” This would give rightists an embolism, and certainly merited a smirk, but think about it: why would a country use the Olympics as a place to celebrate its public health service? Because they know just how powerful an elixir it was, in transforming their class-ridden society into a more just society. (For any doubters, check public opinion polls in Canada – what do Canadians consider their greatest achievement? Universal health care).
A failure of the modern right, I would submit is their apparent inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend how collective action enables individual freedom. There are legitimate gripes against excessive, expensive and unproductive uses of tax money (i.e. ethanol, among thousands of other examples), which persons red, blue and purple can point to accurately as mistakes. But these are mistakes not only against “the taxpayer” but also against society as a whole, if the programs do not legitimately enable liberty, creativity and productivity among the broader mass of citizens. The modern right treats all collective action as inherently evil – as a theft of private resources – which is of course grotesque and ignorant and would be just boring, if it weren’t so all-pervasive a sentiment. This lie has to be addressed, but in ways which connect and make sense to the broad swath of society which has been taught not to blindly trust government, but to blindly distrust it.
But, with one recent sterling exception, not many modern liberals have figured out how to show more people the FDR principle: that collective action enables individual freedom, creativity and productivity – and that this is the test of a social program in America. The weakness of the liberal argument may emanate from a weak grip on history. It may be instructive to remind every child in America, that a man in a wheelchair lifted up a whole country with his voice, and his will, and his wits. He used public authority, to harness the feeble and the disorganized and the disenfranchised, to tackle problems in a fashion which then freed men and women, young and old, to live their own lives with a little more security and dignity. And in so doing, unleashed the greatest force for growth and strength in the history of the world. And then he saved the world, from the Nazis.
It is the task of liberals and those who consider themselves progressive, to exult and savour their victory, and then to put that victory to the greatest possible use: persuading the opposition, to think again. Trying to start a conversation – which must include conservatives – of how collective action makes individual liberty possible. Such an idea may seem hopeless and pointless, or simply too hard, but I would submit to you this: President Roosevelt did it from a wheelchair, paralyzed with polio. FDR took no guff (see my earlier post “I welcome their hatred”) but he didn’t write off a large part of the citizenry. We cannot, because as it turns out, we are all (well, most of us anyway, left and right) allegedly interested in the same public good: freedom.
FDR cited four of them, but we don’t need to stop there. What liberals can adopt, and repeat every day to friend and foe alike, is that government is a useful instrument in enabling every man and woman to pursue happiness, on his or her own terms, just as President Kennedy said we should: by achieving “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”