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Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: A Political Compass in the Age of Trump

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Lately I’ve been reflecting on the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined freedom in his January 6, 1941 address to Congress. While Roosevelt’s purpose in that address was to move Congress from its foreign policy position of neutrality, he did so by enumerating what he understood as the four pillars of freedom to which, in his view, Americans were entitled and exhorting Congress to endorse entering World War II to spread these freedoms around the globe.

It is well worth remembering how Roosevelt so astutely identified the core essentials of freedom, those being freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The first two of these, freedom of speech and religion, are perhaps widely recognized among Americans, even if not always honored. Trump’s Muslim ban and his endorsement of anti-semitism implicit in his refusal to condemn the protestors in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” have become such controversies precisely because most Americans value and understand these basics of freedom.

Freedom from want and freedom from fear, which bear some relation to one another, strike me as much less understood, intuitive, and accepted, and maybe even less orthodox. I’m not sure most Americans, if polled on the street and asked to identify the fundamental characteristics of freedom, would think of freedom from fear and want as essential bases of their freedom. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the United States has a glorious history, as a ridiculously wealthy and powerful nation, of making a serious effort to eliminate poverty, ensuring people have access to healthcare, decent housing, employment, and so forth; that is, it would at best be a stretch to say Roosevelt’s definition of freedom as freedom from want is even on the radar of how Americans think about freedom.

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And I’m not sure the freedom fear is anywhere in the detection range of that radar either.

And yet, in this particular historical moment, they strike me as distinctly worth remembering and considering as we think about what it means to live in a free country and measuring whether or not our values, practices, and institutions are realizing and protecting the standards of freedom we set.

At this moment when national security issues have come to the fore because of debates over immigration policies and practices at our borders and also because of revelations of Russian interference in our elections, the issue of what it means to enjoy the freedom from fear, to live with a feeling of safety and security is of prominent and palpable importance. This sense of insecurity is redoubled when we think about the more than a million people losing health insurance since Trump took office and the many more feeling threatened.

The relevance and forgotten-ness of Roosevelt’s vision of freedom visited me recently with a renewed intensity when I was listening to an online forum with South Bend, Indiana Mayor and Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

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When asked why he didn’t support a secure southern border, his response made me think about the need to achieve a freedom from fear but also how this freedom isn’t really given priority or even recognized in our political discourse about freedom.

He responded first by asking, “Does anybody really think that a fellow American is not interested in us having a secure country?”

And then he re-figured the question to analyze a more poignant and urgent reality:

“But the very real walls that are being built by this President, and by this moment are around us, in between us and each other, and those walls are getting worse. And trying to caricature the motivations of fellow Americans who have policy agreements as though somebody like me, who put my life on the line to defend this country, is any less patriotic than the questioner . . . . that’s the sort of thing that frays at the security of our country, and in my view, is frankly much more dangerous than a terrified Central American family coming to plead for asylum, through a process that is by the way perfectly lawful, at the southern border.”

We live under the “leadership” of a President who does nothing but create divisions that foster fear, that internally “fray at the security of our country.” Keep in mind that the best-selling book legendary journalist Bob Woodward penned about the Trump administration is titled Fear, portraying an incompetent and erratic President riddled with and leading from his own fears and insecurities and constantly peddling these fears to the American people as well as cultivating the conditions that create fear.

For example, studies show that the among the top fears Americans experienced in 2018, in addition to the number one fear of political corruption, is fear of a medical disaster that will wipe them out financially. And yet the Trump administration has filed a legal brief in hopes of invalidating the Affordable Care Act that makes healthcare accessible for millions, and we have seen no proposal for a workable replacement.

Anecdotally—and I’m guessing I’m not alone—I have friends who live in terror of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, knowing it will mean most certainly either financial ruin or the death of a loved one for whom they cannot afford necessary medical care. These friends are free from neither fear nor want, and the two go hand in hand.

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It is this destruction of relationships of mutual care and responsibility and this cultivation of mutual hostility that Buttigieg is astutely and poignantly talking about when he talks about national security—about our feeling safe and secure, meaning free from fear.

For all the horrors that Trump has visited on us, I’m not sure we’ve recognized that he has taken our freedoms from us.

Recalling Roosevelt’s four freedoms helps us realize exactly the damage Trump is doing but also helps us keep our eyes on the prize of what we need to correct, restore, and achieve to enjoy Roosevelt’s ideals of freedom.

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